The opening day of school west of Washington – 1974

A class photo from one of the sixth-grade rooms at the Oliver Wendell Holmes School in the 1974-75 school term. The school, and the class, were among the first to be integrated during Phase 1 of the school desegregation plan. According to iconic letters written by kids at the time, as well as by neighbors who still live near the school, the plan worked pretty well at the Holmes – unlike at so many others. Photo courtesy of Joe Kirnon

The happy sounds of students and teachers coming to the schools in the West of Washington (WOW) neighborhood are back this week as they head to the Holmes School, the Greenwood School, the Lee School, and the former Lucy Stone (now Boston Prep).

It was about this time in 1974 that neighbor and life-long West of Washington (WOW) resident Joe Kirnon reported to sixth grade at the Holmes School with hundreds of other classmates – a first day that was also the first day of the Phase 1 busing school integration plan in Boston. The Holmes School in WOW was a middle school, and it was one of the first schools in the plan to be balanced at about 50 percent Black and 50 percent white – with it previously having had mostly Black residents attending it. Students from the other side of Washington Street were bused to the Holmes, leaving on buses from places like Wainwright Park and Hemenway Park on “that” side of Dorchester.

None of the students had previously attended the Holmes, as it was a 6-8 middle school at the time (now it is a K-5 elementary). So, Black and White came together on the west side of the neighborhood – and it wasn’t with the animosity, violence, or turmoil that was exhibited in other parts of Dorchester and the city at large. In fact, it seems to have been an unheralded success if one were to talk to the kids, who are now adults.

According to reports from 1974, police were at the school the first few days, but soon there was no reason as there wasn’t much happening. In first-hand accounts, some students reported fighting, or being teased, but by and large it was successful. That’s how Kirnon remembered it, as did some of his classmates in iconic letters that were written to former Mayor Kevin White from 18 members of Kirnon’s sixth-grade class, under the direction of retired teacher Barrie Mulkern.

Those letters are now in the City Archives, first found in Mayor White’s personal papers by Brandeis University researchers in 2014 and first reported on by Boston Magazine in 1975, and then by WGBH in 2014.

I caught up with Joe Kirnon last weekend and had a good discussion about that school year and all things WOW from beginning to end.

“I didn’t know the impact of what was going on,” he said of the 1974 opening. “I didn’t know the extent of it. I had seen some things on TV, and it didn’t look good. I thought at the time that if they wanted to fight, I could protect myself. I enjoyed the school the year I was there. There was no tension in our school. We were 6th graders and didn’t understand a lot of that. I don’t remember anything like that.”

In the letters, many of the students coming on the bus from other parts of Dorchester expressed fear, having heard bad things from their parents and friends about what the school would be like. Some reported not coming for the first several days, but most reported that after the first several weeks, things simply became normal. Many quickly made friends by the time the class had what they described as an “epic” Christmas Party at the Holmes, followed by many field trips to roller rinks and the Franklin Park Zoo. Busing was all but forgotten.

One Black student wrote, “Integration was nothing new to me because I had a lot of white friends before. So, I was happy to have more friends because they are very good friends, and I like to have a lot of fun. I don’t like fighting all the time. Surely, the only reason the kids come to school and start fighting is that their parents tell them to. Some don’t want to fight, but their parents tell them to, and when one of the black or white get hurt, the white or black parent starts running saying, ‘oh my, oh my,’ when it really was all their fault…Next year I would like to be in the 7th grade in an integrated school because I got along with the kids that came on the bus.”

Said one white student, “When I heard that Judge Garrity might have people bused out of their neighborhood, I was full of anxiety. I thought that if I was bused, I wouldn’t meet any friends…When I first came into the classroom, I saw different black and white people. The room was very quiet so I didn’t think there were many friends…I made friends with a lot of black people which I didn’t think I would do. I’m glad I’m in an integrated classroom. … One of the most memorable times in school was when I was elected to the Bi-Racial Council, which is a regular council of black and white students. There are four kids from each race who talk over problems faced by the two races.”

Said one Black female student, who still lives near the Holmes School, “Integration is a good and a bad thing. It is good because the blacks and the whites can get to know each other and their ways. It is bad because they think they can’t get along. This was the best year of my life. I met lots of new friends both black and white.”

While many of the letters focused initially on busing, the bulk of them focused their writing on how much fun they had with each other at field trips and the Christmas party. Kirnon said he had come from the former Lucy Stone School – located on Park Street – and it had been a totally mixed school, so the experience wasn’t new to him.

“I remember writing the letters (for Mr. Mulkern); many students did that,” he said. “I remember it clearly. I had gone to the Lucy Stone for grades 1-5 and it was totally mixed. My whole academic life I didn’t experience a lot of the racism that was around. That was the case at the Lucy Stone, which was a largely white school, and the Holmes that was probably 50/50…I never experienced things like other people did, fortunately…Thank goodness the experience was positive for me because I know for many it wasn’t.”

In fact, Kirnon said, when his family bought their home in WOW in 1963, most all of the block was made up of white families. They were one of the only Black families at the time, and there were never any problems at school or in the neighborhood that he remembers. Things changed, though, and soon the neighborhood had completely turned over.
“What I saw around here is there was a fire every week,” he said. “The houses would completely burn up, the white families would leave and not come back, then there would be another fire. At the time, I never thought about why the white folks’ homes would burn and none of the people of color’s homes would burn. I didn’t think about it then. No one ever got hurt, but there were fires all the time.”

Those fires created lots of vacant lots in WOW, many of which still persist; you can drive through and still see the “greenies” today from street to street. The fires also completely changed the make-up of the neighborhood, Kirnon noted.

Nowadays, he said, the neighborhood is re-building and things are changing – most notably the prices of homes and affordability of living in Dorchester. He said he feels that in the next five to 10 years, the WOW area will be completely different once again.

Kirnon and many of his sixth-grade classmates went on to Latin Academy in Codman Square after the 1974-75 school year, and many stayed at the Holmes in the new, successfully integrated school. But the school’s unique story eroded in much the same way as the fires removed many of the houses around it.

This past week, the Holmes School, the Lee School, and the Greenwood School began their new school terms not integrated at all. In fact, the Holmes is 92.5 percent Black or Hispanic, and the Lee 89 percent Black or Hispanic, according to the 2020 School Report Card. The white population of each school was between 4 and 6 percent.

•SUN TEA, THAT’S WHAT IT IS

On a much, much lighter note, there have been a lot of questions by passersby of my house about the glass jar of brown liquid sitting in my garden on the rocks during sunny days.

The answer is quite simple – sun tea. Many might know about sun tea, but apparently many walking around the west side of Dorchester don’t. Sun tea is the cheapest and easiest summer drink aside from tap water. It’s quite easy to make. Choose a hot and sunny day, fill a glass jar with water, pop in a couple of cheap tea bags (I like Red Rose as they sometimes give you the little collectable figurines), put it in the direct sunlight, and wait. After an afternoon in the sun, and a night in the fridge, you’ve got a low-cost, healthy drink made organically…or so I say.

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