Get with it and move on: A desegregation story

Before Bonita Watson agreed to be interviewed about her memories of leaving the all-black Banneker School for Cynthiana High School in 1957, she issued a blanket disclaimer.
<div class="source">Josh Shepherd</div><div class="image-desc">Bonita Watson</div><div class="buy-pic"><a href=";orig=bonita_watson_2703.jpg" target="_new">Buy this photo</a></div>

“It’s been over 50 years since I was in high school. I’m getting on toward 70 now. If I get anything wrong, you just keep that in mind,” she said, smiling and settling into a low seat at the Charles Feix Annex, the temporary home of the Cynthiana-Harrison County Public Library in Kentucky.

She came bearing a program for the only Banneker School reunion ever held. It was in 1988 and she was one of its organizers.

She also brought along her keepsake history of the Cynthiana High School. She leafed through the pages to her graduation year in 1959. In her lifetime, Watson has been witness to the closure of two high schools, both of which are clearly very dear to her heart.

In the spring of 1957, Watson was a freshman at the Banneker School. In the fall, she enrolled as a sophomore at Cynthiana High School just off of Bridge Street overlooking downtown.

She was among the first generation of black students in Harrison County to be integrated with the city school. At the same time, of course, the black county students began attending Harrison County High School.

Over 50 years removed from the event, a discussion of school desegregation naturally conjures up images of the civil rights movement, of protests and resistance and racial violence.

Watson admits to feeling apprehensive in those first few weeks at Cynthiana High School, but there weren’t marches and police lines in Harrison County. It was just kids walking to school.

“I was leaving what I knew. Of course I was nervous. It was a new school with a lot of people I didn’t know very well,” Watson said.

But she also pointed out that she was a teenager in a small Kentucky town. Watson’s concerns were teenager concerns. She was only vaguely aware of the “big picture” politics that surrounded the issue of school desegregation.

The most significant thing she knew was that she would no longer be going to Banneker School. If she was going to go to school — and her parents didn’t give her much choice in that matter, Watson joked — she would be walking across town and up Bridge Street hill to Cynthiana High School.

But this is where the narrative departs from the typical images one has of desegregation. As many point out who also experienced the closure of the Banneker School and the subsequent integration of the Harrison County and Cynthiana schools, there wasn’t much in the way of resistance or protest at the local level.

“One thing that helped is that Cynthiana is a small town. We all knew each other,” Watson said.

However, Watson wasn’t naive either.

“Sports had a lot to do with speeding up integration around here. Banneker School had a lot of good athletes,” Watson said. “Football and basketball was a big key.”

She points to pictures of Sammy Custard, Kenny Page, Baldwin David and Donald Holland in the two classes ahead of her. “They were some of the athletes,” she said, then added in a softer tone. “Most of them are gone now.”

But when thinking about the significant difference between Banneker School and Cynthiana High, Watson touches on something a bit unexpected.

The Banneker School catered to all grades – elementary, middle and high school. The school was not composed just of students from the west side of Cynthiana and in sections of Harrison County. Kids from Pendleton County attended the Banneker School as well.

“You have to remember that there weren’t that many schools for the black population,” she said. “When my father [Jesse Watson] went to school, he couldn’t even graduate in Harrison County. He had to get up early every morning and drive to Western High School in Bourbon County.”

But for her, the Banneker School was just a natural extension of her immediate neighborhood.

Most of her teachers were also her neighbors and fellow church members. And in those days, she said, their authority did not end when the Banneker school bell rang at the end of the day. Nor did it end just because you were no longer a student in their class, she said.

Watson hesitates about naming just one teacher, because they were all good and had an influence on her life. But the first teacher to come to mind was Miss J.T. Gaddie.

Miss J.T. taught grades 1 – 3 and in addition to lessons in reading and math, she had expectations that kids learned manners and what they could say and what they couldn’t say.

If kids smarted off or misbehaved, the parents were called to talk about the problem.

“Anyone who knew her will tell you, it didn’t matter if it was in class or in public Miss J. T. would correct you if you were doing wrong,” Watson laughed. “That was true of a lot of teachers, but especially her. But you know, we could use a few more Miss J.T.s in the world today.”

Watson also mentioned Mary Bryant, the home economics teacher who taught everyday life skills to their kids. And Mary Ann Adams, who may be one of the last living members of the Banneker School faculty.

Having kids from every class in the same school was a bit different from going to Cynthiana High where it was just the older kids.

But even though there was a change in school, the sense of community and of belonging continued.

Even now, she identifies herself closely with the Cynthiana High class of 1959.

“We have always been a tight class. We have reunion events every year,” she said.

When studying the history of school integration in Kentucky and the rest of the country, it is easy to appreciate just how big a change it was and the upheaval that came in areas of the country as a result.

But it was something a bit different for Watson, at least, who was right in the middle of it.

“I’m sure that there was some planning behind the scenes and there were people who were scared about what might happen,” Watson said. “But speaking for me, it was just something I had to go right on and just do.  No one asked us. We just had to get with it and move on.”

Nobody calls Kentucky Christians wimps … least of all New Jersey.

I was confused last week when the Letter to the Editor below arrived at the Cynthiana Democrat. It was critical of our Kentucky legislators and admonished Kentucky Christians for not reacting at the state’s refusal to grant tax incentives to a development group that wanted to only hire professed Christians at their tourist site.

To the editor:

Where are the Christians? How come they are sitting by watching the Kentucky legislators renege on their rebate incentive program offered by the state’s tourism office with Answers in Genesis’ theme park, the Ark Encounter.
If AIG doesn’t get thrown out of this agreement with Kentucky, then they are required to hire atheists and all sorts of non-Christians to work at their theme park. That’s like hiring an atheist as your head pastor.
What’s wrong with you Christians in Kentucky? That wouldn’t even fly in New Jersey. There would be a flood of people in the streets before we would let that happen. AIG wouldn’t be able to give the Gospel at the Ark theme park  either.
What’s wrong with your Kentucky legislators? Don’t you know that AIG is a Christian organization? What do they expect?
You Kentucky Christians are looking like wimps. Stand up for yourselves. Get out there and demand that your legislators do what’s right instead of bowing to pressure by atheist groups outside your state.
We here at the Creation Science Hall of Fame are hoping that we could construct our building somewhere between the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum. Just think of the revenue these projects will bring to the state of Kentucky. Your gas stations, lodging, stores and restaurants would be booming  with tourists.
Get with it, Kentucky. Do what is right and don’t be afraid  to give an answer for your beliefs in our Lord.

Nick Lally, Chairman,
Board of Directors
Creation Science Hall of Fame
Tranquility, NJ

Thank God for you, Nick Lally, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Creation Science Hall of Fame in Tranquility, New Jersey, for showing me the tough, no-nonsense side of my brother New Jersey Christians.

For those readers who are not aware, the Answers in Genesis (AIG) group, which is responsible for the Creation Museum in Erlanger, Kentucky, is breaking ground on a new tourist attraction, the ARK project, which will be a representation of Noah’s Ark. The ARK project will be a little closer in design to a Disney-influenced amusement park. However, the installation, located about 10 miles south of the museum in neighboring Grant County, will also be an extension of the world view represented by the Creation Museum. The organization also has developed a hiring practice of asking potential employees to not only be Christian, but also to accept their cosmological view of the beginnings of our Universe to the rejection of rival theories of evolution and other heresies.

Now, I was aware of the decision by the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet to turn down a tax rebate application from the Answers in Genesis (AIG) group for their multi-million dollar ARK project in Grant County because the organization was using discriminatory hiring practices and it was espousing ideas that ran counter to the separation of state and church.

I was also aware of the highly coordinated outcry and protests from AIG when their application was denied.
One wonders how much AIG spent on the billboard advertising alone. I find it quite an odd reaction from a group so concerned about losing money when the cabinet’s decision just cost them an estimated $18 million in tax incentive money, according to the news coverage from the Courier Journal.

But this letter wasn’t from the AIG.
It was from the Creation Science Hall of Fame?
Who are these guys?

Well, I haven’t had much time to do any deep digging on the group. But it wasn’t hard to come up with one fact that sheds light on the keen interest the Hall of Fame had in AIG qualifying for a tourism cabinet tax incentive.
The following is from their website:
“We will build the Hall of Fame as a brick-and-mortar structure in northern Kentucky, between Answers in Genesis’ Creation Museum and the new Ark Encounter park.
We also expect all creationists to support this project collectively and with neither bias nor regard to politics or past disagreements.”
Such erudition on the website is quite a contrast from the tone of the letter from the Hall of Fame’s board of directors’ chair.
In response to the reasonable expectation that qualifying for state tax incentives require non-discriminatory hiring practices, Lally writes, “…They [AIG] are required to hire atheists and all sorts of non-Christians to work at their theme park….What’s wrong with you Christians in Kentucky? That wouldn’t even fly in New Jersey … You Kentucky Christians are looking like wimps…”
Lally’s tone sounds, to my ear at least, like some ridiculously cheesy New Jersey goombah stereotype — which is not helped by the fact that New Jersey’s governor is none other than good old fence-riding Chris Christie.
Of course, Lally is attempting to raise the hackles of a particular brand of Kentucky Christian: those that subscribe to the organization’s purported philosophy and world view.
Since this is also a non-profit company that’s looking to piggy-back their planned tourist attraction onto AIG’s Northern Kentucky Creation Science wonderland, I am naturally skeptical of the purity of their faith.
But that’s the journalist in me.
As the letter is addressed to Kentucky Christians in general, and since I consider myself an ardent member of that group, I am moved to respond to Mr. Lally’s challenge.
It should be noted, however, that I do not entirely subscribe to the world view that the Creation Science Museum champions.
Nor am I much bothered by it either.
My faith is based on being raised from infancy in the United Methodist Church, on a critical study of the Bible’s Old and New Testament teaching (NIV and King James versions, mostly) and a personal relationship that I have developed with Jesus Christ and God.
It has nothing to do with anyone else’s relationship with the Almighty and it certainly doesn’t extend toward helping a private developer earn millions in tax incentives while engaging in practices that run counter to state and federal laws regarding discrimination.
Why worry about hiring atheists anyway?
If the Christian mandate is to win new souls to Christ, would not the act of exposing doubters to the tenets of our faith not increase the likelihood of a conversion?
It’s been known to happen in my neck of the woods, Mr. Lally.
Personally, I think the greater act of a wimp is one who prefers preaching to the choir than to the unconverted. I won’t even mention profiting from it and claiming income tax exemptions based on religious grounds.

Or maybe I just did.
This Kentucky Christian does not fear atheists and I have serious doubts that they’re likely to take over the world any time soon. Although, with the major Abraham-based religions at each other’s throats almost constantly, they could probably win the globe by attrition alone.
But with regard to the point of view expressed in the letter last week, I have but one concern. It has been my experience that the act of demonizing a group of people in order to get a tax break is, in itself, the act of a demon.