Mweupe Mfalme Nguni remembers his first day at an integrated elementary school in 1965.
MN: We were getting ready for school and I remember my mother was butttoning my top button on my shirt and she must’ve noticed something was wrong with me and she asked me what was wrong. And I told her that I was – I was scared. I was afraid. And she said, ’Of what?’ And I said, ’Well, uh suppose one of them called me nigger.’ And she said, ’Look, if a kid calls you nigger I want you to go and tell the teacher.’
We went to school – this was third grade – and first recess came and the boys had a football and they were throwing it back to each other. And they would call like, ”Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!” and he’d throw him the ball in. ’Johnny! Johnny! Johnny!’ and he’d throw him the ball in. And I would call them and they wouldn’t throw me the ball. So at – after one point, you know, I stopped callin’, you know, I’m just standin’ watchin’. And one of them missed the ball and it came close to me and I picked up the ball and I’m waiting for someone to call me so that I can be a part of the game, you know. And one of the kids ran over and he said, ’Give me the ball!’ He snatched the ball from me and he said, ’nigger’ like that.
So I went and told the teacher and she went over to the little boy and she said uh – I can see it just like it was yesterday – she said, ’Did you say that?’, wagging her finger right at him. He didn’t lie. He said, ’Yes.’ He said it. And she told him as I stood there, she said, ’Listen! I don’t ever wanna hear you say that again!’ At this point I’m feelin’ pretty good, you know, uh I’ve been vindicated. And she said, ’He can’t help it that he was born a little nigger! And it’s just by the grace of God that you wasn’t born a little nigger!’ Now, at the age of nine-years-old it was like, ’Thank you, I think.’
In her mind she did what she thought was right. In the little boy’s mind he had been chastised. He didn’t go away, you know, happy. He went away quite contrite. She had balled him out. But I knew even there at that young age there was something wrong with that. You know, if it was just by the grace of God that he wasn’t born a little nigger, God had no grace upon me. And the effects that that have on a youngster can still be felt today at 50.