One recent Saturday morning, 11 50-somethings boarded a van bound for a primary school in the Berkeley Hills for an unusual reunion. The passengers were all graduates of Tilden Primary, part of the first class of kindergartners to integrate Berkeley schools in 1968.
The conversation began over Masse’s cookies and continued over sandwiches at Saul’s, concluding at the grounds of their former elementary school, situated on a wooded campus on Spruce Street overlooking the San Francisco Bay.
Reminiscences spanned from what was served for lunch — half the school meals, including the hot dogs, were made of oatmeal, recalled Victoria Coverson-Baxter — to reflections on the racial climate at Tilden Primary and how the early experience with integration had shaped their lives.
The Aug. 27 reunion was orchestrated by Lisa Kingstone, herself a member of the 1968 kindergarten class and now a professor pursuing a research project on the impact of attending integrated schools that she has nicknamed Tilden 68.
While writing a memoir during the pandemic, she became curious about the experiences of her classmates: Did they, like her, consider attending integrated schools a touchstone of their identity? What was their memory of the racial climate at the school? How racially mixed has their adult life been?
Kingstone handpicked the alums who would attend the reunion. With the help of two film students at Montclair University, where she is an associate professor, Kingstone is making a documentary.
Though the decision to integrate would become a cornerstone for Berkeley’s progressive reputation for decades to come, it was far from universally popular in Berkeley, prompting the flight of white families to the suburbs and setting off a fierce debate over the success of integration in raising the achievement of minority students that continues still today.
Less often discussed is the other reaction to integration: Black House and Casa de la Raza, which opened in 1970 and 1971 seeking to meet the particular needs of Black high school children and K-12 Hispanic children. The U.S. Department of Civil Rights promptly shut both down for practicing segregation.
Beyond the buses
In 1968, Berkeley Unified integrated all its elementary schools. Half a century later, in 2018, Berkeleyside published a three-part history examining that history, its legacy and the equity issues that remain unsolved.
Those who attended the Tilden reunion had, for the most part, overwhelmingly positive experiences with integration and spoke warmly of its impact on their lives.
“I thought I may be idealizing Tilden,” Kingstone told Berkeleyside. But after talking with her classmates during the reunion, she confirmed her memories of the school: It was, for the most part, the kind of melting pot that integration advocates hoped it would be.
“That was the environment that we came up in. Everybody got along with each other, with Black, white, Hispanic, or any other color,” said Kevin Johnson, recalling that his childhood best friend was white.
Their parents did not talk to them about going to school with children of different races. “There was a belief at the time — ‘just don’t mention it, and we’ll all get along,'” Kingstone said.
That didn’t mean the students were unaware of race. Elaine Hunter and Tish Edwards-Kimmins were already two weeks into kindergarten at their “home school” when, after taking some kind of test — they don’t remember what was on it — they were told they would now be bused to Tilden.
“It was like, ‘Why do we have to go there?'” said Edwards-Kimmins, who didn’t want to leave her neighborhood school at first and remembers being one of only a handful of Black students at Tilden. Hunter said she remembers being one of “the bus kids.”
Though they befriended their classmates quickly, their kindergarten teacher was another story. The students remember Ms. Evans picking on some of the Black students, especially Hunter, who Evans refused to call “Elaine” for the first several weeks of school (Hunter has gone by her middle name, Elaine, all her life, but Evans insisted on calling her by her first name, Ruth). Other than that, Hunter remembers some adults “treating her differently,” though she wouldn’t say it rose to the level of racial discrimination.
As they started joining their classmates’ families on weekend trips and participating in groups like the Camp Fire Girls, they became aware that their lives in the flats were different from their classmates in the hills.
“I wanted to have a maid like my classmate had, and I told my mom one day,” Hunter said. “However, my mom was like, ‘OK, but we work, and we can’t afford one.'”
The result was an imbalanced exchange: “You knew a lot more about my life than I knew about yours,” Adrienne Klein told her classmates who were bused up from the flats.
Some white parents who vocally supported integration were criticized or socially ostracized by others who opposed it. Years later, Martha Price talked to her mom, a Camp Fire Girls leader, about it: “People told her, ‘You’re going to ruin your daughter. She’s going to marry one of them.’ She didn’t have as many friends as I think she would have had,” Price said.
Later, in fourth, fifth and sixth grade, students from the hills were bused down to Franklin Elementary, a much larger, more racially segregated school (many Black students weren’t enrolled in the school’s advanced offerings).
A number of those in the group remembered Franklin Elementary as chaotic, and some, especially white students who said they were bullied, called it traumatizing. Some of the Black students, though, saw Franklin differently, not remembering the violence their white peers did.
All agreed, though, that Franklin teachers seemed much less prepared for integrated education.
“We were ready as children to just be friends,” Hunter said. “And they weren’t ready to teach these mixed groups of children.”
Carrying idealism forward
On the Saturday of the reunion, cries of recognition rang out as former students stepped foot on their old stomping grounds. Since the students attended, Tilden Primary has changed, though the bones of the school remain intact.
In 1981, the school was converted into a private preschool called Step One. The preschool has an anti-bias curriculum, the tenets of which are plastered on the walls of each classroom. But the school, as co-founder Sue Briston has said, has found it challenging to attract Black families.
Throughout the day, the Tilden grads reflected on how their school experiences shaped them. The banter was friendly and the memories, by and large, were rosy.
“A lot of us have some part of the idealism that was spawned by the attempt to integrate us and carried it forward in our lives,” said Ron Lehmer.
Some went on to have interracial partnerships and devoted work or volunteer time to racial justice, which they attribute signifcantly to growing up in an integrated Berkeley.
“I feel that the best place my parents could have raised eight brown- and Black-white kids was in Berkeley,” said Coverson-Baxter, a biracial woman standing in for her brother, Frankie, at the reunion. Coverson-Baxter entered Tilden a year after the rest of the students.
Others, like Hunter, now a preschool supervisor, said they feel comfortable being in groups where they are in the vast minority, which they attribute to their early years at Tilden. Hunter said she has heard from Black people who say they don’t feel comfortable going to the Berkeley Hills, but she feels at home there.
By the time the reunion had ended, everyone was still chatting, swapping stories, humming the tunes of songs they remembered from primary school.
“They just didn’t want to part,” said Kingstone, who received a flood of kind notes from her classmates thanking her for reconnecting them.
Now, Kingstone’s real work begins. Over the next few years, she plans to design a study with a control group and conduct longer interviews with some of her classmates to unravel more answers about the way Berkeley’s integrated schools shaped their students.