Saved by grace
It was 50 years ago when Evangeline Parish, along with 36 other parishes, was told by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals the district had 30 days to submit a new desegregation plan for the 1969-1970 school year. The parishes had been operating under the controversial Freedom of Choice plan of desegregating its public schools. This plan allowed a student to transfer to the school of their choice. The Fifth Circuit reversed a ruling by federal district judges in the 37 parish cases which held that Freedom of Choice was accomplishing desegregation with sufficient speed. Following the Fifth Circuit ruling, the Evangeline Parish School Board met for a special session to draft a new plan, thus agreeing to total integration.
Grace Sibley, Title I and Teacher Quality supervisor for Evangeline Parish, was the first African American to go to Ville Platte High in 1965, under the Freedom of Choice plan and after the Civil Rights Act was passed across the country.
In her book, “God’s Unstoppable Favor: Embraced by God’s Grace,” Sibley shared her experiences as the first black student to attend the all-white Ville Platte High. She said Martin Luther King, Jr. was the most influential person to inspire her decision to attend the school. “Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Frank were my relatives and mentors, whose home was my second home. They had a TV, we didn’t. They were educators. He was assistant principal at James Stephens, and she was my first grade teacher. We watched television, read literature and dialogued day and night about politics. I saw people fighting--black and white--for racial justice, and I always wanted to be there amoung the bombs and snarling dogs, the shots in the night and people being hosed down along slippery avenues. Convicted by Dr. King’s words, ‘Wherever you are, do your little part.’ I readily responded, ‘God, I can’t even go to Plaisance or Opelousas. My mother, a single parent, doesn’t even have a car to go anywhere. Please create a way for me to do my part.’ My vision of going there was very pronounced. I passionately wanted to be in the struggle for racial and social justice, even if it meant death.
“When the announcement and opportunity arose to go to Ville Platte High School, I knew that there was a possibility that I would get killed. When I walked back home and got attacked, I would always repeat my mother’s saying, ‘This is a small price to pay to do my little part.’ That was the reason I kept going, although there were times I was challenged and wanted to stop, but my mother wouldn’t let me stop, because she, too, had heard Martin Luther King say ‘Do your little part.’”
Sibley also mentioned Malcolm X Nelson Mandela, Brown vs. the Board of Education as being influential in her desire for peace and working together to accomplish change.
Speaking about her experiences at Ville Platte High, Sibley said “The majority of the people did not treat me badly. Most simply ignored me. I found tremendous comfort and encouragement from the few students who gave me a smile, a look, or a nod. But there was a small minority of people that did a lot of damage to me emotionally and physically. That small minority robbed me of my self esteem and left invisible scars. For example, I started out riding bus ten, but encountered devastating reactions. Once I experienced the humiliating act of being thrown on the floor and being trampled upon. Mr. Duffy Soileau, principal at Ville Platte High, was very kind to me. He and I decided I should ride the black bus. I did that, but students started throwing rocks and stones at the children. I kept thinking that I cannot be responsible for someone being hurt. He and I talked again, and I decided that I was going to walk home.”
She went on to say the small minority of people who gave her trouble comprised about 20 people, but said they left “scars of racism and dislike, and just robbed me of the confidence that my parents had fought hard to instill in me. My self esteem was gone. I was scared to walk home on the railroad track and have rocks thrown at me. I kept trying to find a different direction to go home so that I could escape that small minority.”
In her book, Sibley writes about some of her traumatizing experiences, which include being urinated on, having her glasses smashed, spat upon, and even having 2X4” boards swung at her. She emphasized that it was just a handful of people. “There were some who would smile at me. I’d smile back, but I was scared to react because I did not want to get them in trouble with their peers.” One student, Carolyn Smith, would smile at her every day, but Sibley said she was afraid to interact with her for fear of Smith getting in trouble. Sibley prayed for God to put Smith back into her life to thank her. Years later, they found themselves coworkers at Plaisance Elementary School. Sibley thanked Smith for smiling at her every day. “That one smile made a difference. There were many who did do acts of kindness, but that small minority absorbed my thoughts all day long. I knew that they could hurt or kill me.”
Sibley said her grades suffered while attending Ville Platte High. “I left James Stephens with a 3.95 average, and when I got to Ville Platte High, I got mostly Cs, Ds and Fs. I had a 98.6 average in one subject, but I had gotten a D from the teacher. I went to her and said, ‘I’m sure there’s a mistake.’ She said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I have a D right here.’ She said, ‘Well, what did you think you were going to get?’ I said, ‘An A.’ She said, ‘No, you got what you represent--D as in dog.’ And she told me, ‘You will never amount up to anything, and you will never move to where I am. You’ll never live on my street.’ I live on her street now.”
After graduating from Ville Platte High, Sibley went on to a white college, which brought feelings of loneliness as she was ignored by the students. She said she didn’t know what hurt most, being physically harmed or being totally ignored. She added, “God always put a good white person in my life to remind me that it wasn’t everybody.” Clesbie Daniels, a black psychotherapist at Bishop College, who became her surrogate dad, helped her with her self esteem and damaged psyche from years of racial strife and isolation. He told her she was broken and battered and needed to help put her back together. He did so by putting three white teachers and three black teachers in her life her first year at Bishop College in Dallas, Texas.
Sibley later got married and moved to Boston. “I lived away [from Ville Platte] for 31 years and I never, never imagined that I would come back to live here because the scars were so deep,” she said. Throughout the years, Sibley said she had an urge to give back to the community, to help bring about integration and unity. As teacher of the year coordinator, she said she strives to have mixed races and sexes and different economic levels for the panel of judges. She said she does this with children as well. “Everywhere I go, I still want to see everybody getting along as a family. When I see blacks acting in a degrading form, it bothers me, and I will go to them and say, ‘I did not risk my life for this.’ We need to get along. We need to stop the slabbing and stop breaking the laws in Ville Platte. I risked my life to see us getting along as a unified family, not a divisive group.”
When asked what changes she has seen in race relations on the public school level, Sibley said, “I desegregated in 1965. I got to be teacher of the year less than a decade later. I got to work at the university level, and I worked with Dr. Martin Haberman, who is the grandfather of alternative certification. I was involved with MICAH (Milwaukee Inner-city Churches Allied for Hope). There were 36 churches that came together, an ecumenical group of churches. It was a mixture of races, and denominations. We worked together to turn Milwaukee around. I became the education spokesperson. We were challenging the universities to do more for integration and unity. I spoke before a group of about 6,000 one night. Dr. Haberman heard me speak, called me and said, ‘I want you to go and represent me at a national alternative conference in San Diego.’” Sibley said the responses of the people at the conference were so good. Dr. Haberman called her back and hired her to coordinate his teacher education program, one of the first in the nation. Eventually Sibley moved back to Louisiana and became a second grade teacher, moved up in ranks and now is a supervisor.
Sibley dedicated her book to all “Blacks and Whites, who boldly contributed to the Civil Rights Movement during periods of turbulence.” She also dedicated her book to her daughter, Ingrid, and her granddaughter, Ilana, saying, “It is my prayer that Ingrid and Ilana will continue to transcend the injustices that still exist today.”
When asked what injustices she sees today, Sibley said, “There are many forms of injustices: racism, poverty, inadequate education, discrimination, hiring, immigration, and foster care are a few of them. I’m concerned about all injustices. Meager job opportunities, stunted economic community development ... I think, as a whole, any injustices. We must form an alliance and work together, whites and blacks. If we don’t work together, we’ll never get things resolved.”
When asked if she sees an uprise in racism due to President Donald Trump’s words and actions, and those of some of his supporters, Sibley said, “Unfortunately, I think he’s giving people permission to act ugly.” She added, “It makes me cry when I see anyone of any race acting up. And I’m thinking, ‘We’ve fought so hard to get where we’ve gotten, we don’t need to start dividing.’”
Sibley was asked what it means to her to see African Americans as mayor of Ville Platte and superintendent of the parish public schools. She said, “I’m proud to see a black mayor and a black superintendent because they work hard to help us achieve our highest potential. I fought for the right people to be placed in positions, regardless of their race, economic accomplishments, and social status. When I see Betsy [Jackson] being the assistant district attorney, I am honored because she fights for the rights of every one. I love it when I see people who represent us well. I don’t want to just see anyone filling in a slot. I want to see the right person get in the right place. So, yes, I am proud when I see that happen.”
In final comments, Sibley quoted from her book: “Life can be better understood sometimes by looking backwards. However, the trouble is that it has to be lived forward. Justice and equality can be positively affected and ultimately driven only by the thoughts and actions of every person, no matter how young or old. Blacks and White must join hands in making positive differences.” She added, “We’ve got to work together.”
Sibley’s inspirational book, “God’s Unstoppable Favor: Embraced by God’s Grace,” is available at Susan’s on Court in Ville Platte, and available on Amazon.com.