- Associated Press - Saturday, January 25, 2020

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Earlier this month, Harry Williams signed his name on a 20-foot-tall portrait of himself in the cafeteria of Bruce Elementary School, in the building where he learned to read and write and in the room where the first grader was not allowed to eat his lunch.

Being black and receiving an education in 1961 from Bruce Elementary, then an otherwise all-white school, was an act of courage, many said at the art unveiling. Memphian Jamond Bullock’s artwork enshrines the day Williams and two others integrated the school on the cafeteria’s walls for the current elementary schoolers to see.

“It put tears in my eyes” to see the portrait, Williams said. “I looked back and said, ‘Man, that’s me.’”

One of the Memphis 13, Williams and twelve other first graders integrated the Memphis City School system almost 60 years ago. Dwania Kyles and Menelik Fombi were the two others who integrated the school. All three returned to their elementary school to speak about their experiences and sign their portraits.

Williams kept his speech close to a minute, thanking his late mom, among others.

“Without her, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

The first year was hard, Williams said. No one extended help, acknowledging the difficulty of the situation for he, Kyles and Fombi, who, in elementary school, was known by Michael Willis. The three didn’t know one another, were from different backgrounds and communities, and were not in the same class. They saw each other before and after school, he said.

By the second year, Williams said he knew what his mom was trying to do by sending her son to integrate the school.

“I guess they accepted us because we weren’t going no where,” Williams said later of his second grade year.

Williams later graduated from Westwood High School in 1973, which was also integrated while he was attending school, he said.

“All over again,” he said. “We ran home, were called names.”

He didn’t say much to his Westwood classmates about his historic experience at Bruce Elementary. It was somewhat easier this second time, Williams said, because he was older and knew what to expect.

Integrating Bruce Elementary didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, Williams said, but it does now that he can see people benefiting from the doors opened.

“I can wake up in the morning and say, ‘I did something in life,’” Williams said.

Bullock, the artist, recognized the courage of his three subjects during the unveiling.

A former art teacher himself, Bullock spent about two and a half months on the project, working over school holidays and off hours to finish the art works.

“For someone who doesn’t go to an art gallery on a regular art gallery, you’re bringing art to the people” with public wall art like these murals, Bullock said.

The three portraits of the Bruce 3 are near the cafeteria’s kitchen. Another mural incorporates the school’s culture, clubs and history. It takes an entire wall in the cafeteria, near a stage where the school’s choir, step teams and dance teams performed for the unveiling.

“I was sitting there watching the step team, thinking ‘I bet back in 1961 they probably didn’t know it was going to be an all-black step team’” at Bruce Elementary, Bullock said.

Bruce Elementary, an all-white school before the district integrated, is 97% non-white today, according to a ProPublica database that draws from state and federal data.

In another speech at the unveiling, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray referenced research that shows schools in some districts around the country are as racially segregated now as during Brown v. Board of Education.

“Which tells us we must to commit to changing the trend,” Ray said, “by providing every child a high quality education and access to resources no matter what zip code which they reside.”

Williams said he would hope people understand that all parents want the best education possible for their children.

“I’m glad things have changed,” Williams said, “but I hope it never goes back to the way it used to be.”

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