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.”