BILOXI, Miss. (AP) — A lot has changed on the Mississippi Coast since Carlis Daniels-Hinton was a child.
Born in 1951, she’s seen African Americans go from not being allowed to walk on Biloxi beach to thousands hanging out in swimsuits along U.S. 90 during the Coast’s annual Black Spring Break event.
She’s seen black people go from being forced to sit in the back of the bus to finding a seat anywhere they’d like.
Daniels-Hilton was also a part of history in Mississippi — she was among the first students to integrate into white-only schools on the Coast.
The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declared that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, but the state of Mississippi didn’t make a change right away.
It wasn’t until 1965, one year after the Civil Rights Act was passed, when the state agreed to follow the Brown decision with its “freedom of choice” strategy, according to the Jackson Free Press.
It was then that Daniels-Hinton transferred from 33rd Ave. High School to Gulfport East High School, now Gulfport High, in one of the first waves of integration in South Mississippi. And the transition would prove no easy task.
‘WE’RE NOT DUMB, AND WE’RE NOT AFRAID.’
Daniels-Hinton was one of six students who integrated Gulfport East in 1966. It was their first time being up close and personal with white teenagers.
She said blacks had to stay in their own parts of town in the 1950s and 60s, so they were only used to interacting with people who looked like them.
“They realized things about us (at school), like we’re not dumb and we’re not afraid. Some of them thought we had low self-esteem or that we were less than, but we weren’t,” she said.
Daniels-Hinton said she didn’t have much of a social life at her new school.
“Many of my friends decided to stay at 33rd instead of coming to Gulfport East,” she said. “So high school was not my best years. It was really kind of horrible. We were isolated.”
She also couldn’t use sports as an outlet because the school suspended all sports programs after integration, she said.
“They were probably still meeting to have practice in private, but as far as we knew, there were no sports at the school after we showed up. They even canceled the prom.”
A bright spot at Gulfport East, Daniels-Hinton said, was the technology and resources available at Gulfport East.
“The books were updated. We mostly had old books at 33rd,” she said. “Gulfport East was advanced when it came to technology. They had multiple typewriters, compared to maybe one at 33rd.”
Most of the black students, she said, had stellar grades because they were able to use the new tools available to them and focus on academics without distraction.
“The reason why you go to school is to study and learn, right? That’s what we did,” she said.
‘AS IF.. THEY WERE GOING TO GET SOMETHING DIRTY.”
Although Daniels-Hinton and the other black students were among the top students in their class, she said they still felt tension whenever they walked into classroom.
“There was always this big deal about where I was going to sit,” she said. “So I was assigned a seat and of course the person in front of me would scoot up his chair so his chair wouldn’t touch my chair.”
“Whenever we were sitting together in the auditorium for an assembly, they would act like the contact (with us) was going to transfer something dirty to them,”she said.
She also remembers the school playing the song “Dixie”, a confederate marching song, in many assemblies.
“They would all get up and wave their confederate flags during assembly and in the gym, and that was not the best situation. It was stupid.. It still is stupid to have it on our flag today.”
‘THEY DIDN’T REALLY WANT TO HELP US.’
Daniels-Hilton said teachers at Gulfport East were also a challenge.
“They didn’t really want to help us and, of course, nobody talked to me about going to college,” she said. “My grades were stellar, I was in the National Honor Society and I scored high on my ACT.”
But she was determined to make it to college.
“One day, I came across a book my older brother had from Howard University. ... I wrote a letter telling them that I was interested and letting them know that I did not have any money, not even for the application,” she said.
It wasn’t long before Howard officials wrote her back and admitted her based on her need and academics and loaded her with scholarships.
After graduating from high school in 1969, she went on to Howard to pursue a nursing degree.
“I graduated Cum Laude from nursing school with no debt. I didn’t owe anyone a penny.”
Despite opposition, Daniels-Hinton said she does not regret her choice to integrate in the 1960s.
She said her decision helped initiate Coast schools to value diversity and inclusion, and she loves seeing more men and women of color leading classrooms in South Mississippi.
“It’s important that we don’t forget the history so that we don’t repeat it, but we have to continue to work together to make our communities stronger and our schools better for our children,” she said.
The road to diversity and inclusion is a top priority and is constantly ongoing today, said Gulfport School District Superintendent Glen East.
“Diversity is our strength. We have students from just about every walk of life now, every socio-economic level, different races and ethnicities, and we really believe that diversity makes us stronger,” East said.
“Building relationships with our students is important from the time they enter the school district until the time they graduate.. Every decision we make is based around what is best for our children every time.”