Physical education teacher Pamela Wimberly began her teaching career here 52 years ago. “I was outside with my first class, on my first day at Menlo-Atherton, and all of a sudden I saw a garbage can go through the window of what is now the E-wing, the very last classroom. I didn’t know what was going on. It was frightening. I can’t remember how many windows were busted in on campus, but there were a lot of them, rows and rows. The next thing we knew, people were spilling out of the classrooms. Some kids were getting hit and hurt. Then, the National Guard had been called in. There were helicopters above us. And boy, that was like fire and fury; it was crazy. But that first day of school was, I think, very tragic and very surprising to me.”
The racial tensions that led to the series of riots at M-A in the late sixties were a long time brewing. In the decades prior, district lines were redrawn multiple times, pushing black students in and out of Ravenswood, the East Palo Alto (EPA) public high school established in 1958. In the lead up to the 1966-67 school year, redistricting again divied up Ravenswood students and sent them to various Sequoia Union High School District schools.
The goal of redistricting was to amend funding at Ravenswood. The initial hope was that by bussing minority students out of Ravenswood, schools would, in turn, bus students from their respective, predominantly white, public schools. The problem was that white students never ended up at Ravenswood in any significant number. Parents of white children fought to keep their kids in the wealthier public schools, and won. As a result, many of the students at Ravenswood were dispersed to other District schools but not the other way around.
Many EPA parents had initially advocated for this policy, arguing that the problem with keeping kids at Ravenswood was that its funding was inadequate and had an education quality to match.
Russel Rickford documents this in his book, We are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. He invokes the account of Gertrude Wilks, who moved to EPA in 1952 and sent her eldest son, Otis, to Ravenswood. “It soon grew evident that her eldest son was falling by the wayside. Otis was not bringing home homework or showing academic progress. When Wilks shared her concerns with the largely white staff of local schools, she was complimented on her son’s pleasant disposition and cautioned against tutoring him at home; doing so, she was told, would only undermine the efforts of professionals. Conscious of her own rudimentary schooling and ‘crude’ speech and loath to be seen as a meddling, overbearing mother, especially given contemporary concerns about domineering African-American ‘matriarchs’, Wilks relented. ‘You didn’t feel you was qualified,’ she later said, explaining her reluctance to challenge white teachers. Then one day during his junior or senior year, Otis made an alarming confession: though he was on track to graduate, he was woefully unprepared for college. Semiliterate at best, he struggled even to complete applications from entry-level jobs. ‘I am lost,’ he told his mother. ‘I don’t know nothing.’”
Rickford goes on to lament the Ravenswood district as a whole. “East Palo Alto schools had deteriorated significantly during the 1950s and ‘60s. As white residents fled, unimpeded by racial discrimination in housing and labor markets, they eased the pressure on educators—most of whom lived outside the community—to uphold academic standards. East Palo Alto’s Ravenswood High, a predominantly black school by the late 1960s, shifted to a vocational emphasis as its course offerings and overall rigor declined. The Ravenswood district itself became a symbol of failure.”
Wilks, outraged by her son’s education, went on to form the Mothers for Equal Education with a small number of community leaders. In 1965, they petitioned for the closure of Ravenswood, on the premise that EPA students would be sent to majority-white schools and attain a better education. While Ravenswood High School wouldn’t officially close until 1976, the mothers’ demonstrations led partially to the redistricting of black students that resulted in, as put by Louis Knowles of the Stanford Daily, their being “sent against their will” and “suffering for over a year in the oppressive atmosphere of white-dominated halls and classrooms.”
According to some teachers, this is when the trouble started. The rising black population at M-A was increasingly ostracized from their white peers. “Forced to suddenly confront the alien world of rich whites,” Knowles wrote, “they had not become an integral part of the student body, but had remained outsiders to the vast majority of white classmates.”
By the summer of 1967, M-A’s black population had risen to around 350 of 2,050, almost 20% of the student body. In spite of these dimensions, 1966-67 school year didn’t have a single black educator.
Ms. Wimberly, who came to M-A shortly after, remembered the environment. “At that time, you were told what kind of curriculum you were going to take. A lot of minority kids felt like they weren’t being directed towards academics, and they wanted to be able to choose. People overlooked giving everyone a fair chance to do what they wanted to do in the classroom, what courses they needed and wanted to take. M-A didn’t have the offerings they [students] wanted. Students felt that they were not being fairly treated, and so they wanted change.”
The Palo Alto Times documented the following racial tensions through unnamed students.
“I have walked up to white students and smiled and said hello. And they turned around and walked away.”
“They don’t like us or the way we talk or our music or anything about us.”
“White students act as if they own the place and are just letting us use it as a favor.”
“They [African American students] move in and take over something-like a rest room- and it is not safe for a white person to go in there.”
“Some of the teachers don’t like Negro students, but it is not their fault. It is because of the way they were raised.”
“Some of the white students don’t treat us as if we are people. They look at us as if we were animals.”
The tipping point was a new bussing policy, effectively excluding the vast majority of black students living on the other side of Bayshore Highway. After the failure of bond proposals, the District Board of Trustees voted to provide bus transportation only to those students living more than two miles from campus. The Board claimed the new policy would save the district a sum of $65,000 annually. Many white students had their own transport, with multiple pages of the yearbook devoted to an annual car show. Lou Ann Bradford, head of the Menlo Park chapter of the African-American Committee for Education, expressed a shared concern.
“We need buses for our children. With the rainy season coming on, they’ll get sick. The people up on the hill don’t need them. They have cars. The poor blacks and poor whites are all suffering.”
The Friday before the first day of school, September 15th, 1967, the M-A Black Student Union organized around the bus lot, documented by the Stanford Daily. That afternoon, they successfully stopped one bus loaded with white students leaving from orientation on the grounds by linking arms and surrounding it. The faculty arranged car transportation for the stranded students, and the black students returned to EPA, but not before a police blockade had treated them all as criminal suspects by stopping and searching them “without cause.” Two students, 14 and 16, were arrested. Principal Douglas Murray, on his first year on the job, asked police to leave, and requested the assistance of parents, a minister, and EPA’s volunteer “Cool-It Squads” to help maintain order.
On Monday morning, September 18th, at 8 a.m., school administrators met with EPA citizens at the school to discuss the lack of transportation. Several black students were invited to attend the conference but then were not allowed to speak. The administration at the meeting denied that the students were ever invited and the students, not allowed to participate, stormed out of the meeting at 9 a.m. to hold what Atherton Police Chief Leroy Hubbard called a black power rally in the football field bleachers.
Directly after the rally, officials reported the first set of altercations in the halls during 10:15 a.m. brunch, reportedly sparked by both black and white groups. About 20 black students ran through the hallways, attacking and fighting with white students, according to Chief Hubbard. The police were hastily called in by the administration. Their presence added to the tension, but when the police left before lunch at 1 p.m., fighting broke out again.
The Redwood City Tribune reported that as classes were to resume following the lunch hour, there was a confrontation in the parking lot in which a white student harassed a group of black students. It was broken up by a teacher, but many black students did not return to class. Around 150 walked through the halls in groups, and began to damage the campus.
“They came over the loudspeaker and told us to lock ourselves in. We’d never had a lockdown drill. We didn’t even know what that was. But we did have a speaker in the locker rooms, and so they told us we were to hold in silence,” said Wimberly.
The National Guard was called in in full riot gear, and martial law was declared on campus. Classes were dissolved and the Guard evacuated students, escorting them to their
respective homes. Two students, a 15-year-old boy and 17-year-old girl, were arrested. Six students would ultimately be expelled.
Four were for head injuries. There were 23 more students who were cut on the head and 20 cut or bruised in other places. One boy was taken to the nursing office after several of his teeth were kicked in by a crowd of black students. However, Chief Hubbard said that only 15 were reported as injured. There were no weapons used, he said, “nothing but fists.”
Wimberly said, “At the time, there were the afros that were going on, so they had what were called ‘cape cones.’ So the combs at that time, they were spiked at the end, and so some people were hit in the head with those and hurt.”
One of the students arrested at M-A Monday, 17-year-old Karen Owens, was charged with “helping four other Negro girls beat a 15-year-old Caucasion boy. They are said to have stomped his prone body with high heels.” She was held at Hillcrest Juvenile Hall for two weeks before San Mateo County Juvenile Court Judge Melvin Cohn announced “some consideration” of her release. He publicly stated that she was being held until things “cooled off.” James Haugabook, vice president of the South San Mateo County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said Cohn was using the girl as a “political hostage” in refusing to release her until conditions were quiet at M-A.
According to the Tribune, he had cuts on his head, but none of the bitterness you’d expect. “I just happened to be in the way. I can understand why it happened. The Negro students have been on the recieving end so long it had to happen. I’m just surprised it didn’t come sooner.”
Weber’s attitude towards the riots wasn’t reflected across the campus. The word on campus was that some football players wanted to “get” black students after Monday’s violence. According to the M-A Black Student Union, “50 white boys came over the Willow Road overpass Wednesday morning, armed with baseball bats and bottles and looking for trouble.”
District Superintendent, George P. Chaffey, called a public meeting with the Board of Trustees that Wednesday night. The intended purpose was to rule on the district bussing policy in light of the riots. A proposal to provide bus transportation to students more than 1.5 miles from campus was introduced, which would effectively
permit busing for the East-of-Bayshore area. The meeting was scheduled in the Sequoia High School Auditorium, which had a capacity of 900 people. The eventual audience amassed 1,200, and was largely diverse.
Doug Allen, Black Student Union leader, was recorded by the Tribune as announcing, “The trouble at M-A started when the Black people of East Menlo Park were singled out to not get buses. The Black Student Union has called for all black students to boycott Menlo-Atherton High until: school administrators have guts enough to handle their problems without the police; the girl arrested for assault during the riot, who is held as a hostage, is released, invasions of our community by whites are stopped [in reference to white students cruising East Menlo Park with baseball bats earlier that day]; and the bus service is restored.” The M-A BSU announced a total of ten demands for ending the boycott, including the abolishment of martial law at M-A, more African American teachers, and hot lunches, which were also cut that year for economic reasons.
The student senate and grievance board of M-A endorsed three of the demands of the BSU and said they would favor a boycott if the Sequoia trustees refused to change the bus boundaries.
Josh Cooney, a white, San Mateo County resident, who was out of jail on bail after being arrested for trespassing at M-A on Monday, denounced Allen, saying that “that speaker is un-American.”
Gertrude Wilks of EPA Mothers for Equal Education stood with the BSU. “We wholeheartedly support all the demands of the Black Student Union. I want to make it very clear we are afraid no longer. I want to be free from the top of my head to the tip of my toes. You’ve de-educated our kids for nine years and now you take away their buses. We will stand together in East Menlo Park and East Palo Alto.” Mothers for Equal Education went on to announce plans for a rally in sympathy with black students at M-A and a demonstration at the San Mateo County Courthouse Monday morning.
Sammy Sawyer, an EPA resident, echoed Wilks’ concerns. “We came here to speak for the mothers whose children have to walk to school in the rain and snow.”
Another EPA resident, Josephine Becks, said that “We so-called responsible people have no choice but to support the demands of the BSU. You white people have the police and the power to exterminate us, just remember these young people will take a few of you with them.”
Student Frank Merril was against the policy. “Maybe the Negroes need buses, but I don’t see how they can expect to get them when they run down the hall beating whites. There was a wild mob of Negroes beating whites. I don’t see how the superintendent and principal could watch people getting beaten up and not have called police earlier.”
Several Atherton parents expressed similar sentiments:
“Our children are taught not to fight. Our girls in particular cannot fight. As a consequence you can have 300 Negroes running over 1700 whites.”
“My daughter hasn’t been able to use the bathrooms at M-A for two years because kids get beaten up there.”
“I’m not from the South. I’m a native Californian. I don’t owe them anything. I’ve never done anything to them. Why should we have to subject our children to this kind of thing? We shouldn’t have to teach them to defend themselves in this manner.”
“This terror has got to be stopped. It didn’t start with the buses, and it won’t end with them.”
Board of Trustees Chairman Dean Watkins announced support of a common concern about reinstating the bussing policy following Monday’s violence. “I have a feeling that even if there had been no change in the bussing policy, the problem at M-A would have arisen. My recommendation is that since I’m not sure the transportation policy is at the heart of the problem, the two-mile limit should remain in effect.”
Municipal Judge Roy W. Seagraves of Redwood City said that “the tone and timing of these [BSU] demands, and the conditions immediately preceding their presentation render it inappropriate that they be acceded to at this time.”
In direct opposition to his statement was Paul Clarkson, an M-A teacher, who said, “When the board receives pressure from the white community, you call it the American politics at work. When it comes from the Black community, you call it coercion. If the demands had been submitted to you peacefully, the board would not have granted them.”
Ultimately, the Board of Trustees voted in favor of the new bussing policy. Students would get their buses.
Additional legislation resulted from faculty meetings all day Tuesday and Wednesday, in which teachers and the administration voted against the proposal that police not carry guns on campus. Faculty also ruled the elimination of hall passes and of brunch altogether. The Redwood City Tribune reported that faculty members released the contents of a resolution Wednesday “in which they went on record as recognizing that ‘many student concerns are legitimate’” and “a substantial portion of the faculty was in favor of a stronger resolution, endorsing the majority of the BSU’s demands.”
“We had very exuberant teachers, teachers who were very interested in making sure the students got what they needed, and who listened to students. The community [of the administration and teachers] worked and worked with both communities to try and make things better, to try and improve things within the school,” said Wimberly.
M-A reopened Thursday with sixty uniformed San Mateo County sheriff’s deputies, riot helmeted with guns on their hips and marching onto campus 15 minutes before the start of class. Students who arrived late were escorted to class, and not allowed to speak to any reporters. About half of the 2,038 students were present, but only 150 of the school’s 350 black students showed. 50 black students met at a local park for a boycott meeting, where speeches were held. The Tribune reported that “white students are also staying away, some through fear of violence and some in sympathy of Negro demands. One white student did not attend school Thursday because he thought ‘it was important that white students support the Negro boycott.’”
James Haugabook, vice president of the South San Mateo County branch of the NAACP, said that “conditions at the school would remain incendiary as long as martial law is in effect.”
District Superintendent George P. Chaffey said the police guard will remain “as long as it is considered necessary for the safety of the students.” One M-A teacher remarked on the police presence, “It is time somebody did something to protect the innocent kids here who get hurt. Some of the things that happened on Monday should not have been tolerated. There was nothing that teachers could do.” An attending student said, “Hell, it was quiet today, wait until the cops leave and the Negroes come back.”
Wimberly said, “We had an uprising again, maybe a year or so later. But I feel very strongly that the community at Menlo-Atherton was trying to, not make peace, but make things better. That year, we had nine African American teachers teaching at M-A. To me, that was the most African American teachers that have been here, ever. I think that we have to believe that the majority of people in this country can change, nonviolently. I think that we have to persevere, and get people to believe in themselves, to believe in others.
The model that Martin Luther King had, he was not a violent man, he was not a violent leader. The opposition, though, turned the hoses and the dogs on people. But I don’t think that violence solves things. And he said he had a dream that we would all be free, and that is true, because I lived through the time where I couldn’t go into a restaurant and eat, when I got on a bus and was bullied and called all kinds of names. But we persevered, we overcame, and freedom came about.
We’ve come a long ways. I see more people mingling with others. The diversity is really sticking out now at M-A, and people beginning to interact with others who are from different race groups or ethnicities. People are reaching out to others, and understanding cultural differences. I think that’s important.
We have a long ways to go, a long ways. The problem a lot of times is that when students come in, especially students from the Ravenswood or Redwood City school district, they might not be totally prepared to go into those classes. I do think that our students of color come in handicapped, a lot of students.
I know my parents, though, when they grew up, they couldn’t go anywhere. My dad was nearly killed in Georgia, because they thought he had brought a white lady with him. So, I see change has come about, but it’s taken time. Lots of time. And, as each generation leaves this earth, the next generation doesn’t remember those things that are behind us, that got us to the point where we were free or where we made change, and all the hardships aren’t known and aren’t remembered. But what I remember is the locker room. It was scary. We quieted down the girls, everybody was quiet, and we could hear nothing except the helicopters that were flying over, that was it. But everything else was quiet.”