Memory  /  First Person

A Historian Makes History in Texas

In the 1960s, Annette Gordon-Reed was the first Black child to enroll in a white school in her hometown. Now she reflects on having a new school there named for her.

When I was headed to first grade, the Conroe Independent School District was still resisting Brown v. Board of Education, a decade after the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling. The method they employed was a so-called “freedom of choice” plan. The expectation was that parents of both races would continue to do what they had done for decades: White parents would choose traditionally white schools for their kids, and Black parents would choose the Black school in the town, of which there was only one: Booker T. Washington.

In this way segregation would continue. But the often brutal racial history of the town—there had been lynchings of Black people over the years, and a Black man had been burned at the stake on the courthouse square in the 1920s—cast doubt on the idea that the decision, particularly for Black people, would be wholly voluntary.

My parents, Alfred and Bettye Jean Gordon, no doubt influenced by the heady days of the Civil Rights Movement, decided to make a different choice, though my mother taught English at Booker T, as it was known, and my two older brothers went there. Indeed, it was where I had gone to kindergarten. They picked a white school, Hulon N. Anderson Elementary, for me.

So, as a first-grader, I integrated the schools of our town. That is the reason some people thought a school should be named for me. It wasn’t my idea to change the system. I would have been happy to return to Booker T, where I had made friends I was looking forward to rejoining as a first-grader. But off I went to an intense year at Anderson.

By agreement among my parents, the school district and the local newspaper, no attention was supposed to be paid to my arrival. I would start school as if it were an ordinary occasion—which, of course, it was not. As the year went on, administrators and other visitors often appeared in the doorway of my classroom to observe the unusual scene of a Black child in a room full of white children. My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Daughtry, handled things beautifully, making me feel totally welcome and secure.

The children were a different matter. Some were nice and accepting. Some, carrying the prejudices of their families, were openly hostile. Others were nice to me at school, but if I saw them in town with their family they would be cold and noncommunicative. They knew their relatives would disapprove if they were friendly to me. This was all a valuable lesson, at a young age, about the way race works.