My Days at Courville Elementary School
My mom was always on a fanatical crusade to see that I got the very best education, long before she enrolled me into Cass Tech High School. My first memory of my elementary school days was when she enrolled me into Courville Elementary while we still lived on Minnesota Street.
Now Courville was at the limit of Detroit’s education expansion program and was situated in what was then a predominantly upper middle class White neighborhood built for White auto factory workers. The neighborhood itself was segregated and was White only. However, there were Black families living nearby and there were a few Black kids at Courville, and I mean just a few and those were from upper middle class Colored families. Yes, “Colored”, that’s what we called ourselves back in the 1950s.
Getting me enrolled in Courville was quite a stretch since we really didn’t live in their district. There were other schools closer to us, but they weren’t the best. Going to Courville meant that my mom would have to get up earlier, get me dressed and take me to school. It also meant that standing out in the cold during the winter waiting for the first bus and in the cold again waiting for the second bus. This ritual would be repeated when she picked me up after school. All this while she was working as a housekeeper for the Fishers. The Fishers loved my mom so much that they often gave her some flexibility. Old man Fisher actually risked his life personally bringing my mom home during the riots in 1967.
I can remember those cold winter mornings after one of those vintage Detroit snowfalls, anxiously waiting to see the bus headlights piercing the bleak darkness. Detroit bus stops in the 50s were not protected. There was only a sign that identified it as a bus stop. Riding the bus meant that you not only had to stand, but you were subjected to inclement weather and occasional splashes of ice cold water and slush if a car came too close. My mom endured all these hardships while holding my mittened hand.
When I say “vintage” Detroit snowfalls, I mean it doesn’t seem to snow in Detroit like it did in the 50s. Sometimes we had snow so deep that I could tunnel to the house next door and not even surface. Every house on the block would have a snowman or a snow fort in it’s front yard. We wore galoshes over our dress shoes, which really offered very little protection from wet feet. As much as I hated them, the old galoshes molded in one piece glossy rubber with flannel linings and four or five metal snap closures were the best. They were also heavy and hard to get off.
Even though there were few “Colored” kids at Courville, no one seemed overly fixated on race. At the start of school, we gathered in a circle, said a short prayer, then the Pledge of Allegiance, with our hands over our hearts. Many of the auto workers were European immigrants, still scarred by the previous war, proud to have become American citizens, and were instilling those values into their children. We kids never even wondered why we were all different, hell, we were just children. I seriously believe that the prayers and saying the pledge kind of brought us all together under one big umbrella as one people despite any outward differences.
I don’t know what happened while I was at Courville. Either it was discovered that we didn’t live in their district or the daily trips became too much for even my mom, but I was pulled out and enrolled in Atkinson Elementary which was closer to our home.
Atkinson wasn’t a bad school and being closer and me being older, I could now walk to school on my own.
It was at Atkinson that I saw my first male teacher and my first Black male teacher, Mr. Phillips.
Mr. Phillips wasn’t “Colored”, he was Black. In Detroit in the 50s, dark skin African Americans were subjects of racial bias from lighter skin African Americans. The perception was that Blacks with dark complexions were considered to be lower class field hands while a light complexion meant education, a better life, and a greater chance of acceptance from the White community. There were magazines like “Colored”, “Hue”, and Ebony. But Ebony never used photos of dark skin people and their ads were all about hair straighteners and skin lighteners.
So, poor Mr. Phillips. Sorry to say that we gave him a hard time. A really hard time. There was a saying on the street that we kids used whenever we had an altercation with a darker playmate. “Black boy, Black boy, you can shine, I’ll get a White boy to kick yo behind”.
Mr. Phillips spent as much time disciplining us little urchins as he did actually teaching. This went on for most of the school year until I gradually started feeling sorry for him. On a hunch one day, I skipped lunch and got into a conversation with him and found out that he was really a likeable guy and also very smart. After that, my mission was to encourage my classmates to give him more consideration and by the end of the school year, Mr. Phllips had become one of the go to guys if you had a problem at school or even at home.
Another thing I remember about my time at Atkinson was the school lunches and I was grateful that we were poor enough for my mom to make my lunch. The fried balogna and tomato sandwiches, sometimes Spam, were a heck of a lot better than government cafeteria food. And they always served tapioca for dessert. Sometimes my mom would pack an apple or an orange into the brown paper bag that served as my lunch box and give me a dime for the little half pint of milk.
There’s a scene in the movie “Christmas Story” where one of the kids gets his tongue stuck on the school flag pole. Well, this didn’t happen at Atkinson, but we did have a similar incident one extremely cold winter when a kid got his tongue stuck to the big brass doorknob of the school’s front door. This brought a rapid response from the local fire station and that kid became an instant celebrity. It must have been a very painful way to prove how brave or how stupid you were.
It was at Atkinson when I had my first seizure. I was running down the hall and about to descend a flight of stairs when everything went black. In losing consciousness from the seizure, I had also run into the wall and tumbled down the stairs.
That resulted in my transfer to yet another elementary school, White elementary. White elementary was one of the schools were the staff were trained to take care of special needs kids. They had cots in some class rooms and we were encouraged to take naps after our playground breaks. White was where I learned square dancing of all things. Good school, but my neighborhood buddies weren’t there. Besides, being a young Black kid, living in the ghetto, and going to a school with “White” in it’s name and learning square dancing didn’t give me any prestige back in the hood.
Fredric Durrette served one tour in Vietnam, retired as E8 in the navy submarine service after 23 years. Major hobbies are collecting old stuff from the 20s and restoring old racing bicycles. Worked as a commercial photographer at JL Hudsons in Detroit and continue photography as a hobby. Love Sade, sixties soul, seventies rock, and all jazz. Attended Woodstock in 69!