Written by Kasha Merritt & Sana Sheikholeslami
When M-A opened in 1952, public schools in the United States were still legally segregated by race. Even after the pivotal Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education desegregated public schools, schools in the Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD) remained racially homogeneous.
Students from Menlo Park and Atherton, majority white neighborhoods, enrolled at M-A, while African American students from Ravenswood and East Palo Alto enrolled at Ravenswood High School. In the 1960’s, schools in the SUHSD began a slow process of racial integration to promote diversity.
Frances Earle was one of the first African American students to attend M-A, after transferring from Ravenswood High School in 1965. Earle had moved to Menlo Park
in 1962 at the age of twelve from San Francisco. Growing up, Earle was the third oldest of eight siblings. She and her family were of low middle class and at the time happy and content with their new home. Frances first attended Ravenswood High School with her sisters and friends.
Before high school, Earle had never gone to school with white students. When Earle began at Ravenswood High School, the students at Ravenswood High School were predominately African American— only two hundred of the one thousand students were white.
In 1965, the district transferred Earle to M-A. Upon entering M-A and its starkly different student body, Earle was uncomfortable. “I felt like a black dot in a sea of white. I knew no one and no one knew me. I missed my friends and having lunch with my sisters.”
Earle did not feel safe, and while most of the students and teachers were nice, Earle felt unwelcome and out of place at M-A. “When I went to M-A, many of the African American students were failing and no one gave them the support they needed to succeed.”
The heavily unbalanced student population at M-A yielded racial tensions, which at times grew ugly. Earle shares how “when a white student called me a terrible name, I just held the frustration and anger in because I knew justice wouldn’t be served.”
Although Earle learned to accept M-A, she still experienced injustices. Earle expressed that many resources and opportunities that would have been available to her at her old high school were not at M-A or they were difficult to obtain. Making friends, running for student council, and becoming a cheerleader were all challenging.
According to Earle, “only one African American was allowed on the cheerleading squad. My sister had made the team her first year at M-A, but when she tried out her second year, the coach said she couldn’t try out because other African American students needed a turn and only one African American was allowed on the squad. Even though no other African American tried out, she still didn’t get to stay on the team.”
During Earle’s time at M-A, race riots broke out throughout the nation. As pressure built up nationally, tensions between M-A students rose too. On September 18, 1967 a fight erupted on campus between students. The Almanac reported that 55 students were injured and M-A closed for four days.
The race riot at M-A pushed administration to attempt easing tensions on campus. The principal at the time hired African American teachers and coaches Ben Parks and Pam Wimberly to create a more open and diverse environment. Coach Ben Parks became the first African American head football coach in the Bay Area and took a lead role in creating a stronger relationship between white and black students. While Parks passed away in 2011, ‘Coach Park’s Field’ is a constant reminder to the M-A community of Park’s legacy of spreading peace and unity.
Even with the administration’s efforts to end racial tensions at M-A in the late 60’s, racial volatility remained. Ali Sheikholeslami, a M-A graduate of 1975, remembers a race riot that broke out at lunch in fall of 1974.
Sheikholeslami shares how he began to feel racial tensions at M-A “after [the] major fight between some white and black students” and the “presence of police with full riot gear on campus.”
The 1975 yearbook eerily recounts the fight on the ‘Senior Reflection’ page: “students ‘come together’ on October first — and catching on, the new fall fad— riot gear.”
Today, M-A’s population is racially different than what it was during the 60’s and 70’s. Tensions are not as high as they once were, but like any diverse campus, it takes work to maintain a tolerant and open community.
From what Earle has heard about the M-A campus today, she believes that “in some ways [M-A] has changed; we are more accepting of race and have more of an open mind, though there is still a barrier.”