Race Relations in America, Education is Key

Doris Topsy-Elvord, featured in the book, BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way, continues to light the way in education for succeeding generations of students in Long Beach, California, where she shares her own educational experience.
Doris Topsy-Elvord
Doris Topsy-Elvord
Dec. 29, 2010 - PRLog -- Micro-Enterprise Charter Academy in Long Beach, California, is now Doris Topsy-Elvord Academy, adding to her rich legacy and the reason she and eleven other African American Long Beach women--Wilma Powell, Vera Mulkey, Carrie Bryant, Alta Cooke, Bobbie Smith, Patricia Lofland, Evelyn Knight, Dale Clinton, Maycie Herrington, Autrilla Scott and the late Lillie Mae Wesley--are featured in BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way.

BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way, historical profiles on twelve black women who have made and continue to make noteworthy contributions to Long Beach, is a collaboration between Sunny Nash and Carolyn Smith Watts. “These women are remarkable,” said Watts. “They represent success and inspiration to us all."

Topsy-Elvord was the first black woman elected to the Long Beach City Council and first black female vice mayor of Long Beach. First African American and third female on the Long Beach Harbor Commission, Topsy-Elvord co-founded the African American Heritage Society, Long Beach, with Indira Hale Tucker.

Daughter of devout Catholics, Doris Topsy-Elvord was born in1931 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. In 1942, her family left Mississippi, moving to Long Beach for better opportunities, where Topsy-Elvord attended St. Anthony Catholic School. In 1949, she became the first African American to graduate from St. Anthony High School. As a nine-year-old child, when she first entered St. Anthony, she said she learned more about racism than she had ever known in Mississippi.

“I was the only African American student at St. Anthony,” said Topsy-Elvord. “And it was in Long Beach that I first heard the “N” word.”

As difficult as it is to believe--knowing the history of race relations in Mississippi—the Vicksburg Catholic elementary school that Topsy-Elvord attended until she was nine years old was integrated with the children of minority immigrants. Students in this private religious educational setting were not separated by race, so she had always been in school with students of other ethnicities. Ironically, Catholic schools in Mississippi were some of the first schools in the South to be integrated, a move encouraged by some Italian families that had attained prominence in the Vicksburg professional and religious community.

A tradition beginning in the 19tth Century explains integrated Catholic schools in Vicksburg,  Mississippi, where Topsy-Elvord atteded. When indentured Chinese workers finished building railroads and levees in California, they were burned out and driven from their homes, attracting Mississippi Delta plantation owners to California to import displaced Chinese workers to Delta farms to replace slaves after Emancipation. Through labor agents, the same tactic was used to import southern Italian, Lebanese and Syrian indentured servants to Delta plantations to pick cotton alongside black workers who had stayed on farms after being freed. On the other hand, Delta Jews, inexperienced at farming, peddled goods as they had done before leaving Europe.

During the Depression, immigrant families who were already entangled in tenant farm agreements were further victimized by the crashed economy and unable to pay their farm debts and leave the sharecropping system, although many ran away, leaving in the dead of night. Finding work in other locations, however, was impossible at that time with hungry people filing into cities looking for free food, public relief and charity handouts.

Jobs had become scarce for all workers and especially for immigrants, who were customarily subjected to increased discrimination and bigotry in times of economic distress. So, like former slaves, some unfortunate farm workers stayed on plantations where they could get a meal, even though, the meal cost them their freedom and held them in virtual slavery by the dishonest bookkeeping of farm owners who operated in the same fashion as before the Civil War. The difference was the workers were not exactly slaves; they were in debt to the farm store, a predicament also shared by a large number of poor white families who owned no land.

Topsy-Elvord’s parents were not associated with plantation work. Having attended college, they were professionals. Her mother was a nurse at a Vicksburg hospital and her father owned his own business. Because they wanted their daughter to have an education and a good life, they sent her to the integrated Catholic school, paying for tuition and books. What Topsy-Elvord’s parents had in common with their immigrant counterparts was the desire to educate their children, key to improved economic status and social standing.

Immigrants, who earned their way off of plantations, got jobs or opened businesses in Vicksburg, sending their children to Catholic school where they could learn English and get an education. Most of these immigrants, unwelcome to reside in white neighborhoods and send their children to public school, lived among African Americans. The Delta's dominant class considered some immigrants as undesirable for assimilation as African Americans because of immigrants' dark complexion, foreignness of their customes and former cotton-picker status, regardless of the white racial classification these immigrants may have claimed.

Racial classification was so blatant in the United States during the early 20th Century that southern Italians were classified as a different nationality from northern Italians, who thought themselves to be more “white” and more closely related to the French and Germans. This classification seems to have been based on shades of complexion—fair-skinned northern Italians as opposed to dark-skinned southern Italians.

“In Vicksburg, Mississippi,” Topsy-Elvord said. “I went to school with Italians, Chinese and other nationalities. The kids there treated me like I treated them. It was based on character, not color. We lived in the same neighborhoods, too.”

Often, people who are educated and have been exposed to other cultures look at society and life in a more sophisticated way. Topsy-Ellvord's childhood experience in race relations may account for her later success in an atmosphere that could have felt discouraging to others. This does not say Vicksburg, Mississippi, was a bastion for racial tolerance. It says Vicksburg, a southern city with racial problems, may have forced its minority communities into a fragile social order that developed out of an economic rather than racial climate, unlike West Coast and northern cities that did not have the same history and, in many ways, ignored racial issues.

Below is the video, “Thank God You Found Me,” produced by Sunny Nash with photographs by Patricia Lofland. This is a tribute luncheon to the “Pioneering Dozen” given by the "Young'uns" to show their gratitude for having been taken under the wings of experience. Nash and  Watts are in the process of producing a book on the "Young'uns."

BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way was filmed and edited by Sunny Nash. “Carolyn invited me to a luncheon with the women,” Nash said. “That's when we got the idea to document these women and show other groups how to do the same thing in their communities, families and churches.”

In these primary accounts of their lives and experiences as Americans and their struggles as black women, Doris Topsy-Elvord and the other women featured in BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way offer all Americans a better understanding of human, gender and race relations in America.

"To me a school has to be a reflection of the community," Marvin Smith, CEO and executive director of Doris Topsy-Elvord Academy told the Press Telegram. "It should be a name that carries a legacy."

For more information on this project and race relations in Southern California, read the related article by Sunny Nash at: http://sunnynash.blogspot.com/2010/11/race-relations-in-a...

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Sunny Nash won California writing fellowships in 2003 and 2010. Other honors include 2004 Charter Communications TV producer’s award and nomination for a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. Nash wrote for the "African American National Biography" by Harvard and Oxford and has photographs published in "Reflections in Black, a History of Black Photography 1840 - the Present" by the Smithsonian and W.W. Norton in New York.

Sunny Nash is author of "Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's," a memoir of the pre-civil rights movement, recognized by the Association of American University Presses as a resource for understanding race relations; listed in the Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg Center in New York; and recommended for Native American collections at Florida's Miami-Dade Public Library System. To read excerpts, view videos or purchase Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's by Sunny Nash, visit page: http://sunnynash.blogspot.com/p/bigmama-didnt-shop-at-woo...
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