You probably don’t know Mary Lee Pinkney. For the first 10 years of my life she was the most beautiful girl in the world which, for me, was mostly the 900 block of Howard Street in old South Baton Rouge.
She was nearly five years older and the oldest child on our block. Mary Lee, as we called her, pretty much ran things, including the mud, no really mud, cake making operation out of the tiny playhouse in her backyard at 916 Howard Street.
One morning I saw Mary Lee get into a cab alone. The same thing happened the next morning. Initially, I thought she was going to work at a white person’s house because a woman in the neighborhood was regularly picked up by a female driver every morning headed to that woman’s house to work.
Mary Lee, as I discovered, was actually riding into history and, to a certain degree, part of the conversation today about renaming (Robert E.) Lee High School in Baton Rouge.
That cab was taking Mary Lee to Robert E. Lee High School. She was among the first dozen black students to enroll as part of scary baby steps into desegregation in mid 1960s.
Mary Lee Ellerson, my “Miss Howard Street,” is now approaching 70 years old. She can tell her own story.
She and about eight or nine other students from all-black McKinley Junior High School were selected by the administrator to attend Lee High as a test to see what desegregation would look like. “I think there were a few students from predominantly black Capitol High School, too,” she said.
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Her mom was good with it, but “my dad didn’t want me to go,” she said in our conversation earlier this week.
“I really wanted to go,” she said. “I wanted them (white students and parents) to see that I was just as good in my school work as they were.”
Concerning the school’s name, Mary Lee, said she was aware of where it came from. Still she said, “I was going to go.”
The cab rides were paid for by her parents because the school system hadn’t set up a bus to transport the black students. It would be provided days later, but to only ferry black students.
As she expected, on the first day of school, she and the other black students were greeted with n-word calls and disapproving faces. But they were stunned, she said, when the principal assured students in an assembly “that I’m going to get the n-words out of here.”
Welcome to Robert E. Lee High.
Her 9th grade year was horrible. The n-word was plentiful. She got into fights. She got suspended for fighting back, but was returned to class with the help of the NAACP. But she had built a reputation that she was not to be messed with. Comments like “There goes that n-word” soon melted away. Well, some of it.
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The next three years Mary Lee said she buried herself in the books and even got tutored at LSU to help her keep up. “I enjoyed the challenge. They were going to know that I was as good as they were,” she said.
Eventually, she even got a white friend, Christina. “We ate lunch together sometimes, talked on campus and I went to her house. And, she came to mine…The white students would call her an n-word lover. Some of the black students didn’t like it either.”
Mary Lee said she often pushed back to teachers whom she didn’t think graded her fairly, especially on essays. “I would tell them that I thought I should have had a better grade. I would complain.”
At one point, though, she was told “If you don’t like it, leave.” Nah, they were not going to make her quit.
In the end, the little girl from Howard Street overcame the racist taunts, the fights and scraps with the teachers to be among the first blacks to graduate from a school whose namesake fought to keep her ancestors enslaved.
Now fast forward about 50 years. Mary Lee says she has no problems with the name being changed. “I know where that name came from. I’m just glad they are changing it.”
But, for her, it isn’t the school’s name. It was overcoming the names she was called, the racism and everything else she endured to graduate.
“I proved that I was as good as any of them…That’s what I wanted to do,” she said.
Email Edward Pratt a former newspaperman, at firstname.lastname@example.org.