This week, 40-years ago, marked the start of phase one of the Boston school desegregation plan. It required busing white children to mainly black schools and black kids to mainly white schools. Recently a pile of essays written by sixth graders at a Dorchester school — yellowed over time — were discovered by a Brandeis University research team combing through the papers of former mayor Kevin White, who was charged with carrying out court-ordered desegregation. WGBH News and the Schuster Institute tracked down some of the now 50-year-old authors of those essays. 


With all the shouting, rock throwing and loud protests dominating our historic memory of court ordered busing, it was easy to overlook a stack of 31 student essays. They were assigned in the 1974-75 school year to black and white sixth graders at the Oliver Wendell Holmes School by their teacher, Richard Mulhern.

"He pulled out of us … inspiration," said Cynthia Martin, one of the students. Sitting in the courtyard of the Holmes, now an elementary school, Martin’s fingers trace the words she wrote 40 years ago.

"I never thought about being bused because I had heard that I was going to the O.W. Holmes or to the Trotter School," she said, reading her essay.

Cynthia Martin lived and still lives in the vicinity of the Oliver Wendell Holmes middle school. So she walked to get there.

"If I were to be bused, I might not know what to do. I would be scared," she wrote in 1974.

Martin also wrote these words:

"Integration is a good and a bad thing. It is good because the blacks and the whites can get to know each other and their ways. It is bad because they think they can’t get along."

But Martin’s essay then goes on to describe what she called, at that time, "the best year of my life."

Because even as the world was focused on the historic moment, Cynthia Martin was focused on studying, school outings and making friends. And she made a lot of them — blacks and whites. She takes a close look at the faded photo of her sixth grade class of 1974, pointing out Joseph Kirnon.

"I clearly remember that point in time," Kirnon said.

40 years later, Kirnon reads from his sixth grade essay:

"At first I thought I was going to be bused because busing was just getting started. I also felt secure, since I had some friends who would be coming with me. I also felt relieved but I was worried about what might happen. I heard some kids say there were riots everyday. I was unafraid about getting beat up because I could fight."

Kirnon also wrote these words:

"I felt worried about integration because last year the white kids threw rocks at the buses that the black kids were riding. I said to myself, if they could do it once, they could do it again. I thought the Holmes would be all black but when I came I was surprised because it was mixed."

Mixed for the first time because the desegregation order required moving black and white students from one neighborhood to another:

"I grew up in Boston and I was bused to a school out of my neighborhood in the school year 1974/75 when busing was first enforced. And I was bused to the Oliver Wendell Holmes School in Roxbury."

A 45 minute ride door-to-door, but another student, Julie Hannigan wrote of her excitement of going to a more racially balanced school — one that was 60 percent black and 40 percent white.

"I was happy I was going, and couldn’t wait," she said.

Hannigan also admitted to some trepidation. Forty years later she reads from her school essay:

"All the big kids started saying how bad it was. I was just a little scared. In some ways busing is good and in some ways bad. It is nice to know that some of the two races can get along. I’m sorry for those who can’t."

Reflecting on the violent reaction to desegregation at that time, Hannigan wrote:

"I think that when they brought up integration, they picked the wrong place. Perhaps South Boston ruined the whole idea. But here at the Holmes, both races get along fine. I’ve hardly seen a fight between a white and a black, and for that matter, hardly a fight at all. Where my little brother goes to school, there is one fight after another. Integration is a good idea except for those who can’t face up to it."

"When I heard that I might be bused to another school with a lot of blacks in it, I didn’t want to go," said student Mark Jaworski.

In 1974, Jaworski a white student, made clear in in his essay that he would not have gone to a mainly black school if it was up to him.

"I never spent a whole year with blacks before. Once I went to school with blacks for about three months. I knew that some blacks were mean and I didn’t want to get hit or anything like that. I thought that there wouldn’t be anyone that I knew there. When my mother said that the Holmes School was old, I said that I didn’t want to go to another old, broken down school."

But in that broken down school, as Jaworski described it in his sixth grade essay, he was surprised at what he found.

"My first friendship came when I was seated in the back row of the class. Horace was my first friend, until I started talking to another boy named Alfred. Surprisingly enough, both of them were blacks."

At the Holmes School in 2014,  a group of fifth graders were assigned to read the essays of the students who came before them in 1974 to learn about desegregation. Four of them –Mason, Jamier, Dallas and Cornelia read compositions of Mark, Cynthia, Joseph and Julie.

Mason reads Mark Jaworski’s paper:

Jamier reads Cynthia Martin’s:

Dallas studies Joseph Kirnon's:

And Cornelia reads Julie Hannigan’s essay:

The 31 essay writers received letters of thanks and praise from the likes of Senators Ted Kennedy and Edward Brooke, Rep. Tip O’Neil and Judge Arthur Garrity himself. Some of the essays were reproduced by Boston Magazine in 1975, including Cynthia Martin’s.

"I do want to be in an integrated school again," Martin wrote. "I had the best time of my life this year. But the way things are going now, nobody really knows where they’re going to be next year."

Without a document, a record, a relic of the time, history and memory often conflict. So the rediscovered essays of the Holmes sixth grade class — unencumbered by politics and revisionism — provides a candid and personal glimpse into Boston’s desegregation battles — and into the minds of those who were on the front lines: children.

This is is Part One of an ongoing year-long series on the impact of court ordered desegregation in Boston.  Part Two can be accessed here.  This series is produced and reported in partnership with the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.