Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part column.
During those terrible years of segregation, specifically the early ‘50s for my own experience, there were two very distinct public school systems in Savannah for white kids in middle and high school.
There was Commercial High with Richard Arnold Jr. High attached. There was Savannah High with Washington Avenue Jr. High attached.
Savannah High was located in a very impressive building on Washington Avenue along with Washington Avenue Jr. High. Brick and stone, three stories high with marble steps leading up to the front and back door.
The fire escape was a giant metal tube built into the wall of the building with openings on each floor for access to a three-story slide down. Sort of like a completely enclosed water slide with no water. Never saw it work.
Never had a fire and I am sure the faculty was determined not to try doing a fire drill with the giant slide involved. Little things like claustrophobic students and totally freaked out students piling up at the closed exit door.
On the other hand, the existence of the winding smooth aluminum tunnel down through three floors was a definite part of hazing. The seventh-grade boys were pretty much guaranteed a trip down the tube. Head first or feet first, their choice!
Commercial High was located, along with Richard Arnold Jr. High, at the corner of 35th and Bull. Arthur Funk was the principle. Big burly guy as I recall, but then I was looking at him from the viewpoint of a 4-foot high string bean.
In those days, being sent to his office was the thing that struck fear into us misbehavers. Now with the girls it was all sugar and spice and surely there must have been a misunderstanding, but Arthur Funk particularly loved to see the boys come in who had been fighting or giving the teacher or another student a hard time. Especially the bullies.
Anybody remember Bubba Donan? Bubba would rather fight than eat. He got his arm broke in one fight and came into a confectionary looking for another guy he wanted to fight. Still had the cast on. Told the guy that he was going to whip him but he had to wait for his cast to come off and he would be back.
I could only imagine the terror that kid suffered waiting for Bubba to get his cast off. They fought. The kid beat Bubba good. The entire student body quietly cheered.
I digress! So if you were sent to Principle Funk’s office, you would be required to sit in the space outside in the hall until he was ready for you. He would have all the facts beforehand so no point in copping a plea of innocence. The looks of pity the passing teachers would give you did not help.
Your first introduction to Mr. Funk would be his booming voice demanding that you “Get in here, right now!” This would be followed by, “You think you’re tough? Maybe you think you can whip me? Don’t make me come around this desk!”
At this point in time, you had to realize that any show of false bravado, attempts to play down your misbehavior or make excuses would be a bad choice.
You would be instructed to leave your books on his desk and get out. When you were ready to apologize to the teacher and any other offended person, you could recover your books and continue with your education or, according to Mr. Funk, be a dummy the rest of your life. As stated, he “could care less.”
Recovering your books, maybe the next day, was the moment when Mr. Funk would offer you his hand in friendship, a pat on the back and a few parting words of encouragement. We loved him.
Pre-junior high I was living on Habersham Street about a block from the 37th Street grammar school. I had a gang. Our archrival gang was commanded by a guy, well, let’s just call him “Jimmy.”
I don’t remember the circumstances, but Jimmy and his gang and me and my gang got into a tussle. Next thing I know, my gang had evaporated and Jimmy has one of my men tied to a tree in his back yard.
This was serious stuff! I tried to negotiate his freedom. No deal. I actually had to escape the same fate of being tied to a tree in Jimmy’s back yard with a quick sprint through the neighborhood.
I went wandering along the railroad tracks that ran through the area trying to come up with a solution to the problem. There were two Black kids wandering up the tracks. I approached them and we talked.
I had a Hershey bar to negotiate with. I explained my dilemma. I offered them the opportunity to be in my gang. It came with the reward of the chance for them to beat up on Jimmy, split a Hershey bar and earn the 50 cents I had in my pocket. It was probably the first and only mercenary army ever in Chatham County post-colonial era.
We foraged some weapons from a bamboo hedge. Long heavy switches that whistled in the wind when you swung them. We marched on Jimmy’s headquarters in his back yard. We went in shouting and swinging those bamboo switches.
The opposing army disappeared through the back gate and Jimmy into his house. I untied my man and he immediately resigned from my army and departed the area. Now there’s gratitude for you!
The battle was over and we had vanquished the enemy. I took my new gang to my clubhouse, which was located under my house. The house was off-ground construction and there was a convenient hole in the brick skirt that hid the space underneath the house. We sat around and crowed about how we had dispersed Jimmy’s army.
My dad came home from work about the same time we were exiting my clubhouse. He stopped for a moment and stared at us, me and my two Black friends.
You must remember that this was about 1949 or ‘50, 70 long years ago, and things were different in a terrible way. You just didn’t see Black kids and white kids hanging out. My dad, without a word spoken, went directly into the house, probably to ask my mom what the devil was going on.
I saw her face in the window. She obviously did not have the answer. Eventually my dad came out and asked the boys how were they and what were their names. Small talk. Tension.
I told him the story. He laughed. Asked if everybody was OK. Said that it would be best to disband the mercenary army and that he had mustering out pay for everyone. He was grinning like a Cheshire cat as he gave each of us a buck apiece. You’re kidding me! A whole dollar in 1950!
We parted company, clumsily and reluctantly. I think of them. I wish I had the opportunity to have gotten to know them better.
I am not sure when I began to question segregation. For me it was the natural order of things. I was born into it and knew nothing else.
One day a teacher took three or four of us over to the Black school, Johnson High I think. I don’t remember why. We were picking up something or leaving something.
The only thing I remember was the gymnasium. The floor. It was so terribly uneven. Warped and worn, it would be impossible to play basketball on it. But they did. The Black students played basketball on that impossible surface.
I knew something was not right. I just didn’t have a name for it. I asked the teacher. Didn’t they split the money for schools evenly? Why was the gymnasium in such bad shape? Not open for discussion, to many other things to worry about. Just move on.
Roy Hubbard is a retired Green Beret and environmentalist who lives in South Bryan. Email him your thoughts at Roy-39hubbard@ gmail.com.