I was discussing the felony conviction of Kelley Williams-Bolar with an old family friend back in Akron. She discussed the case in old, familiar, comforting terms -- what is expected of "our people", how many of "us" were caught in the Copley-Fairlawn school system sweep of out-of-district attendees. What people would think of us if this didn't end well. By us, this elder meant, African-Americans, Black people, colored folk, all the disparate terms for those who I knew as, until I started elementary school, "our people."
My parents, like Ms. Williams-Bolar, struggled to give us the best education. We started out in Akron's segregated public schools with teachers who looked like us, who expected us to excel. But by first and third grade my siblings and I attended St. Bernard School, in downtown Akron. We colored children were few and almost instantly made to know we were different. But we received an excellent education in classrooms with less than 20 children. It was unclear at times what the good sisters of St. Dominic expected of us but we excelled anyway.
It would have been great if we could have gone to schools in Fairlawn, an upper middle class suburb as near to us to the west as St. Bernard was to the east. No one really wanted to go to the Copley schools. And the Fairlawn school system only experienced significant integration when it merged with Copley, where you can still find some of the African-American families who moved there in the Great Migration and used to farm the extremely fertile soil of the area, dirt we called muck land.
In 7th grade we moved to the north side of the building that looked out on the relatively new Summit County jail. The same building, I presume, where Ms. Williams-Bolar served her ten day sentence. It never occurred to me to be surprised or appalled that our school was next door to the jail. And it was never lost on me how many of our people were incarcerated there, probably in inverse proportion to those of us in St. Bernard.
In this country, parents make great sacrifices to gain a good education for their children. That's because educational opportunities are still, over 40 years after I left St. Bernard, unequally distributed in this country. Sometimes parents sacrifice money, comfort, a preferred geographic location so their child can attend a public school that meets their child's needs. In the case of Ms. Williams-Bolar, she sacrificed reputation, freedom and possibly a career in a set of activities that broke the law as she attempted to keep her kids in the Copley-Fairlawn system. Perhaps their was prosecutorial overreach. Perhaps the Copley-Fairlawn school system was unclear and unfair. Perhaps Ms. Williams-Bolar simply forgot that, even with others committing far more heinous crimes, our people frequently seem to be held to a different standard.
As this same elder pointed out, "Wrong is wrong." I am fascinated by the general silence within the African-American community in Akron about this case. I am appalled by the online comments at the Akron Beacon Journal site ohio.com. My hope is their will be productive discussions about access to quality education, the detrimental effects of yoking educational resources to No Child Left Behind (Bush administration parlance for "Be sure underachievers drop out before the 10th grade") and the pervasive undertow of racism in so many systems that govern the lives of women and their children.