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Rochester ed reporter: 'Let's stop lying about our schools' 

click to enlarge Democrat and Chronicle education reporter Justin Murphy, pictured in his home, says he hopes the history he unearthed in his new book, "Your Children Are Very Greatly In Danger," will illuminate a quest for "a new resolution to stop lying about the way things are."

PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE

Democrat and Chronicle education reporter Justin Murphy, pictured in his home, says he hopes the history he unearthed in his new book, "Your Children Are Very Greatly In Danger," will illuminate a quest for "a new resolution to stop lying about the way things are."

Few people today know that one of the most serene stretches of road in Rochester — a length of Lake Avenue lined by cemeteries — was once a staging ground for violence against schoolchildren.

But for several months during the 1971-72 school year, the gravestones of Holy Sepulchre and Riverside cemeteries acted as parapets for white parents battling efforts to integrate schools. From their positions behind the monuments, they hurled rocks and bricks at passing school buses carrying Black students.

The bombardments were so persistent that year that one school administrator recalled watching a school bus that appeared empty save for the driver pull into Charlotte Junior High School. When it came to a stop, Black children who were passengers inside got up from the floor where they had been hiding from view, dusted themselves off, and exited into the school.

The ugly scenes are recounted by Democrat and Chronicle education journalist Justin Murphy in his new book, “Your Children Are Very Greatly In Danger: School Segregation in Rochester, New York,” which is perhaps the most extensive and engaging history ever written of the troubled and much-maligned Rochester public school system.

The book, slated to be released March 15, is not only a recitation of the racism that has impeded Rochester public schools and, thus, the city and its suburbs, but a call to action to achieve what Murphy calls “the joy of learning that is possible when children from different backgrounds meet in the classroom on equal terms.”

His hope, he writes, is that the history he unearthed will illuminate a quest for “new ideas, new strength, and a new resolution to stop lying about the way things are.”

Among the first steps to getting there, Murphy proposes, is for the greater Rochester community to acknowledge what he has observed for years: local schools are segregated.

“The idea of desegregation, irrespective of political boundaries, needs to reenter the conversation,” Murphy, 36, said in an interview. “Because it really has been striking, and an ultimate victory for the people who opposed desegregation in the 1970s, that it’s not even in the realm of things we might do to improve the schools.”

A long and significant list of Black leaders have come to believe that desegregation is a waste of time. How many rocks need to be thrown through bus windows before Black families see that they are not welcome, and will never be?
click to enlarge In his book, Justin Murphy makes the case for desegregation by outlining the parade of ideas that were designed to save Rochester schools and failed because, he says, the acceptance of segregation made failure inevitable. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • In his book, Justin Murphy makes the case for desegregation by outlining the parade of ideas that were designed to save Rochester schools and failed because, he says, the acceptance of segregation made failure inevitable.
Yet, studies find that segregation is tied to wide academic achievement gaps. Research shows that Black students who attend desegregated schools are more likely to graduate and less likely to be incarcerated, or live in poverty. They make more money. They report better health.

In his book, Murphy makes a case for desegregation by outlining the parade of ideas that were designed to save Rochester schools. Charter schools. Vouchers. Takeovers. After-school programs. Separate diploma tracks. They all fail, he writes, because the acceptance of segregation makes that failure inevitable.

The book opens with a series of stories from the 1800s, chronicling the first debates about integrating schools in fledgling Rochester.

One story hinges on a recorded complaint in 1841 from an unnamed Black father who argued that if his children couldn’t attend school, then he shouldn’t have to pay taxes. His argument inspired school leaders to question how Black children should be educated. Their choice of “separate but equal” schools was hindered by the price tag of new facilities. Integration was a solution, but the school board caved to the steady stream of complaints from white parents.

Eight years later, with the problem still nagging, board member John Quinn noted that girls had recently been allowed to attend common schools. “No citizen,” he was quoted as saying, “would want a colored boy sitting in school beside his daughter.”
The book is an exhaustively-researched march through the ensuing decades, with one shocking episode after another. Not even Frederick Douglass could rally Rochester to integrate schools.

“Your Children Are Very Greatly In Danger” does not conclude with a single call for reform. Murphy argues that countywide schools need to be on the table, but that they present only one path to desegregation. He also calls for a more inclusive version of the Urban-Suburban program, which places students from the city in suburban districts.

But his most compelling idea is embracing a willingness to educate all children in the county about its racist history.

Murphy grew up attending Penfield schools and learned essentially nothing about the events he researched for his book.

Now married and raising two young children, he and his wife live in the city of Rochester. Their kids will attend the very Rochester schools on which he has reported — some might say infiltrated because of the thoroughness of his coverage — over nearly eight years. Murphy joined the Democrat and Chronicle in 2012 and has been a journalist for 14 years.

Very few Americans would have been familiar with critical race theory, which denotes that systemic racism is ingrained in American society, when Murphy set out to write his book about four years ago. Today, the culture wars over its application in public schools have turned school boards into battlegrounds. Dozens of United States senators have branded it “activist indoctrination.” White parents have complained that they don’t want schools to teach their kids to feel guilty for being white.
click to enlarge "I think we underestimate not just what kids can handle, but on what they pick up on and already know," says Justin Murphy, pictured reading to his children. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • "I think we underestimate not just what kids can handle, but on what they pick up on and already know," says Justin Murphy, pictured reading to his children.
“I would agree with that, when you put it that way,” Murphy said. “I don’t want my kids to hate themselves for being white. But in my experience, it’s not that hard to talk through this stuff with your kids. Kids are smart. I think we underestimate not just what kids can handle, but on what they pick up on and already know.”

In his book, Murphy chronicles the systemic forces that stripped Black families of opportunities to build wealth in Rochester. He spares no one, and readers will encounter the racism wielded by some of Rochester’s most famous names.

Just a few years after George Eastman’s death in the 1932, his Eastman Kodak Co. employed 16,351 people. Only one was Black, a porter. Murphy quotes Eastman’s longtime butler, Solomon Young, who was also Black, as once saying, “George Eastman was a lot of good things, but it was never his intent that African-Americans would be working in a factory in Rochester.”

Starker still were the words of John Nothnagle, the principle behind the eponymous local real estate firm. While running for a seat on the Rochester school board in 1961, Murphy writes, Nothnagle was accused by the NAACP of being “a silent and active participant in the Rochester brand of apartheid.” Nothnagle is said to have replied “that whites were fearful of their neighborhoods being invaded by wife-beating, knife-wielding, illiterate Negroes.”

Every chapter in Murphy’s book delivers devastating vignettes like those. That’s why, despite the supercharged political atmosphere around the notion of systemic racism, Murphy believes his accounting of what happened in Rochester is not inherently political.

click to enlarge PROVIDED BY CORNELL UNIVERSITY PRESS
  • PROVIDED BY CORNELL UNIVERSITY PRESS
“There will be people who perceive my book as a threat to their worldview, or their expectation for their children’s education,” he said. “But it’s also the case that what I wrote in the book actually happened. When you get a true accounting of history out into people’s hands, my hope is that will transcend political forces.”

His book takes its name from a 1964 essay by James Baldwin, who warned white people of the effects of racial separation on children. 

“I know you didn’t do it, and I didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, too, for the very same reason: as long as my children face the future they face, and come to the ruin that they come to, your children are very greatly in danger, too,” Baldwin wrote. “They are endangered above all by the moral apathy which pretends it isn’t happening.”

Rochester, Murphy writes, like a lot of places in the United States, has a deep familiarity with that sort of apathy.

YOUR CHILDREN ARE VERY GREATLY IN DANGER:
School Segregation in Rochester, New York

By Justin Murphy
Illustrated. 286 pp. Cornell University Press. $32.95

Evan Dawson is the host of Connections on WXXI News. He can be reached at edawson@wxxi.org.
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