James Bryant headshot

James Bryant

Jefferson Elementary School, McGuffey Elementary School, Walker Elementary School, Lane High School

We had a Black History program, but that was the culminating program, the end of the week assembly.  We would have guest speakers come in from the university.  It was a weeklong celebration, and at the end of the week, we had a play, poetry, I was in the choir singing, and we had drama.  And Ms. Esther Vassar was the English teacher, she was one of the newly hired Black teachers, and she wrote the play for the assembly.  Well, we had gotten through the program, and at the end of the program, we had asked the students to please stand for the singing of the Negro National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing.  So at that point, there were two rows of white students who decided to walk out of the assembly.  And mind you, it wasn’t over, that was because we hadn’t started singing the song.  At the end of the program, Ms. Esther Vassar was on stage crying, and we said, “What’s wrong, Ms. Vassar?”  We thought we had messed up.  She said, “They walked out on my play.”  And the next thing I knew, one thing led to another, and the word spread like wildfire.  There was no texting back then, it was just by word of mouth.  And it was just chaotic, I mean there were fights and arguments.  It was just awful.

Phyllis Leffler: Physical fights?

James Bryant:  Yes.  We even had administrators fighting students in the hallway at that time at Lane, literally.

Phyllis Leffler: Over this play and walk out?

James Bryant: Not over the play, but just as part...  There was just so much every day, it was just drama every day.  But this play, as a result of those students walking out, to this day 50 years later, it still has divided our class.  We have not quite mended that fence.  I have been serving on the class reunion committees for the last 30 years, and just to get students of color to come back to our reunions is like pulling teeth.  And I said, “Why?”  “Because of the way we were treated,” that’s their response.  It still has not mended.  And it got to the point that they had to shut schools down for a day, the superintendent shut Lane High School down because of the racial tension.