The Day Steinbeck Went to School

Saturday, 06 November 2010 10:22 PM Written by 

NEW ORLEANS -- Upper Ninth Ward

It's 8:57 in the morning.

The sun is out and the birds are chirping. The William Frantz Elementary school is as quiet and dead as it was Friday night when I first visited it. DSC_0992

Its windows are still broken and boarded up. Its sidewalks are still closed.DSC_0998

Its barbed-wire fence is still protecting the brick school building and its entire block from vandals and thieves who'll break into any structure that doesn't have someone living in it or isn't protected by strong barbed-wire fences.

The neighborhood of small houses around North Galvez and Pauline streets doesn't look so dangerous in bright sunlight. There is a freshly broken beer bottle on the sidewalk -- next to the BMW at the curb. And in daylight it doesn't look at all like a waterlogged slum.  

If you don't count the moldy houses that are  boarded up with plywood, or are gutted and doorless and windowless, or are still landscaped with the debris of the flood that Katrina brought five years ago, the ward was perfectly tidy and full of nice, small, well-kept homes. DSC_1014

The Upper Ninth Ward, like its much more Katrina-battered sister, the Lower Ninth Ward, is inordinately poor and 98 percent black today. It is still barely above sea level and vulnerable to the next Katrina. But probably 90 percent of the homes in the Upper Ninth that were once up to their roof gutters in polluted seawater have been fixed, rebuilt or replaced.

Fifty years ago, John Steinbeck stood somewhere along these same sidewalks at 8:57 in the morning. But on that day -- probably Dec. 1, 1960 -- the sidewalks were crowded with an angry mob, police and news people.

The whole country had its eye on William Frantz Elementary. The New Orleans public schools were being integrated and Frantz was the guinea pig that was going to make history.

When little Ruby Bridges showed up to attend kindergarten there on Nov. 14, 1960, it caused such an uproar you'd have thought the whole crummy institution of Jim Crow was about to be destroyed by a six-year-old girl.rubybridges_rockwell_copy

Frantz then was an all-white school in an all-white working-class neighborhood. Local mothers didn't take kindly to a black kid learning her alphabet while sitting next to their kids and so most of them pulled their children out of school.

Along with the boycott by white parents came the daily circus of ugliness -- what Time magazine on Dec. 12, 1960, called "an ecstasy of hatred."

19601212_107White parents screamed crude things at anyone going in the school and carried homemade signs that said "Integration is communism" and "Communists & Jews Behind Race Mixing." 

Local and national media were encamped there each morning as Ruby arrived to take classes in a nearly empty school. State and federal authorities kept people from killing each other.

Steinbeck went to Frantz elementary at the tail-end of his "Travels With Charley" trip because he wanted to see "The Cheerleaders," a chorus of haters who specialized in shouting vulgarities that were so crude no news media would dare to repeat them then or now.

He was appalled and disgusted by the nasty freak show he saw and heard.

In the original draft of "Charley," Steinbeck wrote that he felt that the ugliness of the scene could not be truly conveyed unless the actual words the women screamed were put down. He wrote that he knew that the publisher would never print those words, but he wrote them in the manuscript anyway.

Steinbeck noted that no paper in America ever printed the actual words the women used; they just hinted that they were "indelicate" or obscene.

In its Dec. 12, 1960, article, Time magazine used only the "n"-word and "Jew" and "bastard" in a lame effort to depict the level of crudity and hate. But Steinbeck didn't pull any punches in his manuscript.

In a blistering, graphic paragraph, which was cut from his book, he quoted exactly what he said the Cheerleaders yelled at a white man who defied the boycott and brought his kid to school.

I can't repeat the dirty words and phrases Steinbeck wrote. Let's just say they included a lot of four-letter words sailors and athletes use, plus a lot of -ings.

If you want specifics, you'll have to go to the Morgan Library in New York and read the original manuscript.

Steinbeck didn't stay long in New Orleans. He jumped back in Rocinante and did what I did 50 years later -- he headed for home.

When I left the Upper Ninth Ward, my odometer read 12,415 -- exactly 10,003 more miles than when I left home for Sag Harbor on Sept. 21 six or seven years ago.

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