By: Corinne Zaczek Bermon
In 1974, a young boy named Kevin Tyler stepped off his bus on the first day of school.1)Name changed as request of former METCO student. As the Kevin looked out at the area surrounding his new school, he could only think that everything was foreign and weird. Although he was only ten miles from home, the Roxbury native thought that suburbia was another world. Gone were the noises from the street and common spaces and in their place were fences, private backyards, and white faces. Although it smelled cleaner, it wasn’t exactly pleasant to Kevin as the fresher air “felt weird to [his] nose.” The white students around him sounded strange and bland when they spoke, not in the expressive style he were used to in Roxbury. But even on his first day of school, Kevin could see that life in the suburbs was easier, charmed even.2)Susan Eaton, The Other Boston Busing Story: What’s Won and Lost Across the Boundary Line (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 218-219.
Many METCO students experienced a disconnect after they disembarked the buses that brought them to their suburban schools. Perhaps more profoundly than anyone, these young students saw the consequences of the deep racial and class divide that characterized Boston. The suburbs may be close geographically to the metropolitan area, but as Robert observed, they were worlds apart.
So how did students of color end up at schools in the suburbs? As we have passed the fortieth anniversary of busing for school desegregation, it is important to note, that voluntary busing existed before Morgan v. Hennigan mandated it, and still exists today as the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity or, as it is commonly know, METCO.
Even after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which determined that segregated education was inherently unequal and in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, de facto segregation remained prevalent in both the northern and southern US schools. In 1967 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a pamphlet titled “Schools Can Be Desegregated,” which made several statements regarding segregated schools in the US:
Racial isolation in the public schools is intense and is growing worse.
Negro children suffer serious harm when they are educated in racially segregated schools, whatever the origin of that segregation. They do not achieve as well as other children; their aspirations are more restricted than those of other children; and they do not have as much confidence that they can influence their own futures.
White children in all-white schools are also harmed and frequently are ill prepared to live in a world of people from diverse social, economic, and cultural background.3)U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Schools Can be Desegregated” (Washington, D.C.: Clearinghouse Publication No. 8, June 1967) 1.
Faced with the unresponsive and all-white Boston School Committee’s stance towards de facto segregation in Boston schools, concerned parents and activists founded “Operation Exodus” through Roxbury’s Freedom House in 1965 as a voluntary way to desegregate Boston Public Schools. In its first year, 400 African American students from Roxbury and Dorchester were bused to the predominantly white, but under enrolled, Faneuil School in Back Bay. In 1966, Operation Exodus was renamed the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO). Immediately, Black students faced the problem of how to address race while part of an expressly integration-based program. As Susan Eaton, Ed.D., expert in racial and economic inequality in public education, discovered, “neither [black nor white students] talked to the other about race – the very thing that appeared to be separating them. As a result, race frequently felt to the black students like a family secret. To keep life going smoothly, everyone compliantly locked the race subject away. It was too potent to open, to delicate to touch.”4)Eaton, 81. The attitude towards race as a subject to be avoided in some ways reflected the outcry against METCO in the city.
The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, Inc. program created controversy in nearly every town to which it bused black urban students.
While some suburbanites welcomed the program as a way to expose their children to a more diverse group of classmates while also assisting underprivileged urban students, others did not focus on the ideological mission of METCO. Instead, they considered the financial costs of the program, the potential negative impact on schools, and the needs of their own children to be more important than minimally integrating their school systems. Others accused METCO of reverse racism for primarily busing African American students rather than poor white students. During the 1970s busing crisis within Boston, the program exposed divisions and resentments between suburbs and the city and within the suburbs themselves. Many began to question the value of integration as well as its effectiveness. With the potential costs to each town and to each taxpayer, residents of both the city and suburbs wondered, was the ideological goal of integration a worthwhile endeavor?
The online exhibit, “Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO): Solving Racial Imbalance in Boston Public Schools,” created by graduate students Kristin Harris (MA American Studies, 2015) and Corinne Zaczek Bermon (MA American Studies, 2015; MA History Archives Track, 2017) explores the founding of the organization and the effects it had as a voluntary busing program rather than the controversial “forced busing.”
Using the METCO collection at Northeastern University, Harris and Bermon combed through nearly 144 boxes to find the story of METCO. They hand selected documents that highlighted the difficulties METCO had in funding despite support from the Board of Education and how parents stayed involved in the program through parent councils to keep their children safe and in the program.
This exhibit tells the story of the other side of the busing crisis in 1974-1975. Despite the ongoing violence and intimidation happening in city schools such as South Boston High School and Charlestown High School, METCO students had been quietly and determinedly attended suburban schools through their own busing program. Their stories counteract the narrative that all student busing for desegregation was fraught with protests and violence. The METCO program today still serves as a model for the country as to how to racially balance schools.
Visit the full exhibit to read more about METCO’s beginning and see how parent councils were involved closely with the host schools.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Name changed as request of former METCO student.|
|2.||↑||Susan Eaton, The Other Boston Busing Story: What’s Won and Lost Across the Boundary Line (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 218-219.|
|3.||↑||U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Schools Can be Desegregated” (Washington, D.C.: Clearinghouse Publication No. 8, June 1967) 1.|