40 years later, Minneapolis parents recall busing’s start

/ 4 May 2012 / jennifer

Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio, May 4, 2012 –

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From left, Gwen Fraction, Alberta Johnson and Jill Vecoli joke together during a planning meeting for a 40th anniversary celebration of the Hale-Field school pairing in Minneapolis, Minn. April 20, 2012. The women had children attend the schools, which were integrated when the Minneapolis School Board began busing white and African-American students between each school in 1971. (MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson)

MINNEAPOLIS — Four decades ago, cities across the country were being forced by the courts to desegregate their schools through busing. At the same time, a group of parents in south Minneapolis, some black, some white, persuaded the city’s school board to voluntarily bus students between two schools to make both schools more diverse.

This weekend, they are gathering to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their effort. Last month, about a dozen of them, who had children in Hale or Field elementary schools in the 1970s, met for heartfelt recollections and jovial chatter at Marge Goldberg’s living room on the south side of Minnehaha Creek in Minneapolis.

Goldberg’s now late husband was the president of the Field Parent Teacher Association during that turbulent time. Field is located in a racially diverse neighborhood in south central Minneapolis, and Goldberg says at the time, the school’s student population was more than 50 percent African American while the Hale School, located nearly two miles south of Field, was nearly all white.

**Busing in Minneapolis

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• Video: Vintage television news report**

“There was a voluntary desegregation plan that nobody used,” she said. “Very few people left their school and went elsewhere. And so I think we were thinking, as a PTA, what is going on here?”

Goldberg, who is white, says the effort started in 1969, when members of the Field PTA made a request to the school board to pair Hale and Field schools. The pairing meant students who lived near the more diverse Field and were in grades K through 3 would be bused to the mostly white Hale. And 4th-, 5th- and 6th-grade students living near Hale would ride the bus to Field School.

Jill Vecoli, who is white, says the plan was not popular with many other white parents of Hale School students.

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“We used to have some really knock-down, drag-out fights at PTA — my husband was the president of the PTA at Hale,” she said.

Vecoli’s now late husband Rudy was a bearded University of Minnesota professor who frequently traveled overseas. And she says some of the Hale parents suspected that her husband’s support for the busing plan was part of a larger, more sinister scheme.

“There was one point that I walked right past a lady and she said, ‘Oh, there’s that Rudy Vecoli guy. He just got back from Russia and he got his orders.’ So they thought this was a Communist plot,” she said.

Vecoli says the opposition voiced by white parents from Hale was not expressed in overtly racist terms. She says some white parents complained that if their kids were bused all the way to Field, they wouldn’t be able to come home for a hot lunch.

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Black parents were more open to the idea. Alberta Johnson has five children, and two of them took part in the Hale/Field pairing. Johnson and several other black parents in the room say their kids were already used to being around large numbers of white children. So integration was not a new or scary thing.

“My biggest thing was that I wanted the children to have an equal shot – to have books and all those things that you need to be successful people,” she said.

But Johnson says she and some other parents did have concerns about putting young, kindergarten-aged children on a school bus, especially on the first day of the pairing, which was Sept. 2, 1971. That’s the same year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that forced busing of students could be ordered to achieve racial integration.

“Jay’s wife, Madge, and all of us put our little ones on the school bus. As soon as the bus took off, Madge came with the station wagon. We all jumped in. We thought, we’re going to have to fight our way through,” she said, but it was the “quietest first day of school you have ever seen in your life.”

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On the same day Johnson put her son on a bus to Hale, Daniel Goldberg, Marge Goldberg’s son, took the bus to Field school. At the time, the Goldbergs lived in a predominantly white neighborhood near Minnehaha Creek.

He says his first day at Field was also non-eventful. He says he was more apprehensive about getting lost in his new school than he was about how he would get along in a school with more black classmates than others he’d attended. White parents who opposed the pairing often raised fears of interracial violence. However, Daniel says the only fight he remembers getting into was with another white kid who hit him in the mouth and cut his lip.

“Two of the guys that were watching this, or around, were the ones who ended up taking me to the nurses room to get some attention. And those two kids were black kids. And none of that seemed out of the ordinary to me,” he said.

Gregor Pinney covered the busing story extensively for the Minneapolis Tribune 40 years ago. In an interview, he recalled covering a school board meeting in November 1970 attended by around 800 people. He wrote that opponents of the pairing booed and jeered people who spoke in favor of it. One man at the meeting shouted, “Are Negroes as intelligent as whites?” And the man later added, “They are inferior.”

Then-Minneapolis Mayor Charles Stenvig was among those who opposed the pairing. But Pinney says the most vocal opposition died down after the school board approved the pairing by a 6 to 1 vote.

“The people who didn’t like the idea felt that it was an infringement on their rights. It was really a shattering of the kind of life that they wanted to lead,” he said.

One of those people, Olaf Ulvag, became the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit in Hennepin County District Court after the school board approved the plan. The complaint stated that among other things, the pairing deprived Ulvag of an inherent property right — namely the right to decide where his kids went to school based on his choice of where to buy his home. MPR News contacted Ulvag, but he declined to comment about the lawsuit, which was dismissed.

Pinney interviewed Ulvag for a story shortly after the suit was filed. Pinney reported that Ulvag wasn’t necessarily against integration. Ulvag said he opposed forced integration, and threatened to move his wife and two kids out of Minneapolis. But the Ulvags still live in the same house they did more than 40 years ago.

Pinney says others quietly pulled their kids out of Hale, the formerly nearly-all white school.

“Some 30 kids were transferred, enrolled in Mt. Calvary Lutheran School which is out on 66th Street,” even though none of them were parishioners there.

Pinney says some students also left Field, the school that was more diverse to begin with. In an article for the Tribune published a few weeks after the busing began, Pinney wrote that about 220 students moved from the Hale/Field area or transferred to private schools. However, school officials quoted in the article said the number of students who left the schools was only slightly higher than the previous year.

Immediately after the pairing, the black populations at each school either fell or rose to nearly a third of the student body. However, over the decades, Hale and Field have both become less racially balanced. According to the latest numbers from the District, Hale is more than three-quarters white. The African American population at Field has dropped to 20 percent, and white students now make up 64 percent of the student body – and it’s now a middle school.

Principal Steve Norlin-Weaver says while the pairing between Hale and Field was considered cutting edge 40 years ago, it’s pretty well accepted now.

“And although times have changed and the neighborhood has ebbed and flowed, it’s still known as Hale/Field. That concept and that paired idea has still continued to exist and it grew to include 8th grade over time. It’s still a strong program and in the end highly regarded,” he said.

The Hale/Field pairing was the first of several unions designed to bring about racial balance. However, like Hale and Field, schools across the city have become increasingly racially unbalanced or segregated. That may be a sign there are still some societal divides too wide for yellow school buses to cross.