Gwen Fraction, Alberta Johnson, Jill Vecoli, Jane Galbraiith and Clare Jewell, veterans of the Hal-eField pairing effort, are among those planning its 40th commemoration.
They were mostly housewives then, back in an era when options for women in the workforce were limited and many women stayed home even after the kids started school. But they and their husbands made Minneapolis history with the first meaningful desegregation of city schools.
Now some of those same women have organized a 40-year commemoration of the pairing of Hale and Field schools on the city’s South Side. The pairing of a majority black and an almost totally white school preceded a federal judge’s order to desegregate all the district’s schools by half a year.
The event organized by about a dozen veterans of the pairing is happening Sunday, May 6 from 1-3:30 p.m. at Pearl Recreation Center, 414 E. Diamond Lake Road.
“If we waited until the 50th, nobody’s going to be around,” said Gerry Sell, now 78.
The pairing originated as a defensive effort by a racially mixed group of Field elementary parents. They knew as black enrollment at the school climbed over 50 percent that the district had closed several other such schools and dispersed their students, Sell said. Eventually, they hit on the idea of pairing with Hale school, which had but one black family. Hale would get younger grades and Field the older grades.
The group got support from Superintendent John Davis
, but had to work hard to sell the idea to Hale parents at multiple coffee parties where school board members could explain what pairing meant. Still, more than 50 speakers showed up at a board hearing at Ramsey school to debate the proposal. Some proponents got death threats; police cars parked outside their homes.
In the end, Minneapolis accomplished desegregation without burning buses, a boycott of classes or losing students to new private academies, according to contemporary press reports. Nevertheless, before pairing started, an unusually large number of students in the Hale-Field attendance area switched to existing private schools or moved out of the city, according to reporting by the Minneapolis Tribune’s Gregor Pinney, who will be attending the pairing reunion. That’s despite one area Catholic school rejecting enrollment by those fleeing racial mixing.
Pairing was assisted by an exemption from seniority bidding rules for teachers, so that openings could be filled by teachers judged best-suited for the schools. Federal aid provided a lead teacher for each department, and allowed the schools to hire classroom aides.
The aide opportunity and the emerging women’s movement were all the encouragement needed by some of the women who planned the pairing, and now the reunion, to go to work.. Toodie Ranum, Celeste Franson and Karen Johnson worked as Field classroom aides; Jane Galbraith was a social work aide there. Alberta Johnson was an aide at both schools.
Some alums of the pairing say their chief memory of it was pizza. Because some kids could no longer go home for lunch, the schools offered hot lunch and that sometimes meant pizza.
Lisa Vecoli has a more profound takeaway from being a desegregation pioneer. She’s one of two pairing alums, who with two current students, will speak at the reunion. She said one of the lessons she learned “from a very young age from my parents that there are things in the community that are important and when you believe in them you fight for them. So I learned community involvement and social justice at the kitchen table.”
By 10 years after pairing and court-ordered desegregation, no school had more than 46 percent minority enrollment and then-Superintendent Richard Green declared the district desegregated. Today, 40 of 53 city schools exceed that 46 percent threshold and eight are more than 95 percent minority.
That reflects two factors. Minority enrollment in city schools was 13 percent when pairing began. In the next 10 years, white enrollment dropped by half and minority up enrollment jumped 50 percent. Today
minority students comprise two-thirds of enrollment.
Compounding that is the 2009 school board decision to cut back on busing and open more schools to students living nearby, which critics said would have be resegregative.
Hale and Field began pairing with enrollments that were 31 percent minority. Now Field is 35 percent minority but farther-south Hale is only 24 percent minority.
Sell can see resegregation even on her own block by Minnehaha Creek. Once nine of the 22 houses had black homeowners. They also comprised three of the four residents with doctorates. Now there are just two black homeowners. The upside, she said, is that whites who bought homes from those aging black homeowners did so because they want their children to attend Hale and Field.