By Anthony B. Mottley
Unwinding the secrets of the Jim Crow American South unleashes nightmares and trauma on those that relived the darkness of America’s racist past. As several members of Birmingham, Alabama’s Westfield High School, class of 1964, shared their memories, we soon found out why Birmingham earned the moniker “Bombingham.”
The classmates recalled significant historical incidents of their senior year with personal accounts of dread, hope, and fear. Everything from the 1963 March on Washington, which occurred on August 28, 1963, to the November 22 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy was discussed. The classmates, now in their mid-seventies, gathered to share their remembrances for a potential Birmingham Civil Rights Institute project.
The experiences of these members of the class of 1964 deserve preservation as they are a valuable historical record of first-person accounts of life in a segregated American high school. As these septuagenarians approach eighty years of age, the urgency to record their memories of this dark period is increasingly urgent. When they pass away, their memories go with them.
Examining America’s original sin and tracing it to the Jim Crow era reveals facts and details, defying logic and common sense. Realities such as “Whites only” water fountains and restaurants that required Blacks to pick up food at the backdoor are nonsensical and humiliating. These vestiges of America’s racist culture tell the truth many today demean by referring to it as woke.
Unwittingly, these acts of racism drove Westfield graduate Raymond Crenshaw to become an entrepreneur.
“Any White man or White boy that my father confronted, he had to call them yes sir and no sir,” Crenshaw recalls. “That still stays in my mind now. My daddy was 50, 60 years of age, and to a young boy in high school, my daddy had to call him, yes, sir.”
The disgust and embarrassment dripped from Crenshaw’s words. Other members of the class of 1964 recalled several interactions with the Ku Klux Klan.
Former Alabama state trooper Ben Carter recalled an incident.
“I was about 12 or something like that. A car came straight through the neighborhood. They were wearing all-White. I said, hey man, look at them, holy folks. They had on hats, and I thought they were holy folks or something. We didn’t know that was the Ku Klux Klan,” Carter explained.
Linda Turner remembers a harrowing incident.
“One night, me and two of my cousins were staying at my grandmother’s house, and suddenly, she said, I want you all to go in the bedroom and just lay down. She said, go in there and be really quiet. Don’t say a word,” Turner said.
Turner described how her grandmother sat in her rocking chair with a blanket on her lap.
“She told us that the Ku Klux Klan was supposed to come out that night and burn a cross, and she said she didn’t know what else they were going to do, but I’m ready. She had that blanket over her lap and the gun up under there,” Turner recalled.
Klan rallies, cross burnings, and lynching, and the fear these former students experienced were palpable, but this was more than fear; this was terrorism. In fact, 1964 Westfield High School graduate Samuel Morrow says plainly, “We knew our place.”
In explaining the conditions at segregated Westfield, Morrow makes an unwitting admission about the role blatant racism played in his life as a teenager.
Life at Westfield was great, according to Morrow.
“Even though our school was an all-Black school, we knew our teachers and our families loved us and wanted the best for us,” he says.
Conversely, Morrow’s recollections of being loved by Westfield teachers are covered by a cloud of terror and racism.
Morrow cut lawns to earn extra money while in high school, and he sometimes mowed the yard of a White high school where he peeked through the window at the amenities the all-White school offered to White students. Morrow explained it this way, “I saw what they had in their school, but we had a language lab that taught Russian, Latin, and Italian. We weren’t second to anybody.”
However, Morrow explained the “rules” of working while Black in the Jim Crow south.
“We worked for white folk, but only outside work for men and never at night,” he said.
Many southern communities were so-called sundown towns, meaning that Black people had better get out of town before dark or risk being lynched.
Birmingham’s reputation as a sundown town was so notorious that segregated high schools like Westfield were in such fear that they held their proms in the safety of the broad afternoon daylight.
Linda Turner said, “The White race dictated our lives. We couldn’t even go to prom at night because they were so mean. They were fighting us in the street; people were getting hurt, that kind of thing.”
Birmingham was a stronghold of racial animosity and violence. It was one of the main reasons why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. chose it as a target for demonstration and protest. If King could succeed in Birmingham, he could break the back of southern racists like former Alabama Governor George Wallace and the notorious segregationist cop Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor. Connor made his reputation by turning fire department water cannons and attack dogs on Civil Rights demonstrators.
Westfield High School was founded in 1933 on the campus of historically Black Miles College in Birmingham, AL. In 1934, the school moved to a permanent location in an industrial area of Birmingham on Tin Mill Road. Today, the former segregated high school is a mostly vacant lot. The school has been torn down, and there’s nothing left but the memories of the past.
91-year-old Levi Satisfield, Sr. taught physics at Westfield from 1953 until the school was torn down in 1971. Whites refused to integrate Westfield.
Satisfield remembers the sturdy wooden school building as a place where “students and the faculty were tight together. We all worked together. The parents had our backs. Whatever we did, they were there to support us in the effort.”
Satisfield attributes the school’s success to a higher power.
“We went through that time together in the sixties and built their minds and hearts. You can be whatever you choose, with God leading me where I will go,” Satisfield said. “No one was put down. Nothing was stepped over. We recognized who they were, what they wanted to do, and what they wanted to be.”
Satisfield pledged to his students.
“We’re going to prepare you for wherever you need to be and become. We will help you to get there. That was the pattern of thinking. That was the pattern of doing things. I went through tough times with the school administration, but I told them I stand firmly with these children and these lives.”
Anthony B. Mottley, a longtime Detroit media veteran is an Emmy award-winning producer and media maker. His Open Source podcast is available on multiple platforms.