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Decades later, desegregation of Carbondale schools still resonates

  • Shown is the 1958 CCHS baseball team. Albert Blythe is in the front row, third from right.

    Shown is the 1958 CCHS baseball team. Albert Blythe is in the front row, third from right.

  • Virginia and Albert Blythe in 1975.

    Virginia and Albert Blythe in 1975.

  • Albert Blythe in 1960

    Albert Blythe in 1960

By Walter Green
Contributing Writer
updated: 5/9/2020 10:03 AM

On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court reversed its 58-year-old "separate but equal" ruling and declared racial discrimination in public facilities unconstitutional. Segregation in public schools was the primary issue debated as the father of Linda Brown challenged the Topeka, Kan., Board of Education, which required his daughter to travel to a "colored" school instead of attending a nearby school designated for white children. The NAACP attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall, argued that public schools were separate and unequal, and the court agreed.

The new ruling affected every segregated public school system in the United States, and Carbondale was among the first cities where the new ruling was tested. Less than four months after the Supreme Court decision, Edna and Albert Blythe II enrolled two of their children, Albert III and Lavetta, in Lincoln Junior High, their neighborhood school.

Albert III remembers that the transition did not go smoothly. After one semester his mother transferred Lavetta back to Crispus Attucks Junior High, believing the prejudiced atmosphere was weighing heavily on her self-esteem and psyche. Albert stayed.

Blythe suffered from the racial taunts hurled by some students. His grandfather had taught him to ignore verbal attacks but to meet force with force. "I fought everyday," he recalled. He believes that his pugilistic and cerebral determination eventually won the respect of his adversaries. "We became friends."

Blythe helped to dismantle another racial barrier when he entered Carbondale Community Senior High in 1956. Also enrolled was an African American female, Delores Lilly. He fondly described the irony in his junior high and senior high experiences. "When I got to high school there were those who were unaccustomed to my presence. In that situation, my old combatant buddies and the many friends I made at Lincoln Junior High became my protectors."

At CCHS Blythe played football, basketball and baseball and ran track. He is thankful for the encouragement he received from some of his teachers and coaches. In particular, he recalls, "Frank Bleyer was great! He helped me to adjust and made me feel like I belonged."

He also cherishes the support he received from people in his community. Willard "Tomcat" Brown, Julius Armstrong and Jewell Gibbs were regulars at his sporting events. "Willard Brown came to everything, home and away and he knew everybody. I could always locate him in the crowd and he always had his cigar."

One day he encountered prejudice on his way to school. An elderly man working in his yard called for him to come over and said, "Why do you want to come to our school? You people want everything handed to you. We had to fight and die for what we have."

Blythe's father, Albert II, had served with combat troops in Okinawa and had often shared his experiences and the horrors of war with his son. "We were taught that defying adults is disrespectful. I was only 14 and completely surprised by the man's comments and I did not respond." The incident remains vivid. "That was over 60 years ago and I'm still haunted by the fact that I did not say anything."

As Blythe began his sophomore year in 1957, Greg and Deborah Woods enrolled in Lincoln Elementary School, thereby completing the formal integration of the three-tiered Carbondale public school system. At the conclusion of the 1957-58 school year, the Blythe family relocated to St. Louis.

Approximately 10 years after the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) Supreme Court decision, the doors to Crispus Attucks were closed. Its closing was a somber event but an accepted casualty in the struggle for equality. The K-12 complex, a cultural pillar, had provided the educational needs for Carbondale's African American community during the infamous era of segregation.

Albert Blythe III presently resides in Maywood, Ill., with his wife, Virginia. They are enjoying retirement and their grandchildren. The number 54 had a special meaning for him last year. "I entered Lincoln in 1954 and we just celebrated our 54th wedding anniversary."

• Walter Green, a member of the CCHS Class of 1968, is retired from Miami-Dade County Public Schools. He lives in Miami, Fla.

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