In 1955, Ann Todd Jealous was met by jeers and slurs from White picketers as she and nine other African-American students integrated Western High School in East Baltimore. On Oct. 31, six decades later, she was greeted by cheers and applause by the 1,000-plus girls whom she was invited to address.
That wasn’t the only change 60 years had wrought, Jealous said. “The school is very different—different location, different buildings, different racial population—so it did not feel as if I was at my alma mater.”
The Western the 75-year-old remembers was a crucible where she—then a coddled, much-loved and protected teenager—would be tried.
“I had never been tested before,” she told the AFRO.
Yet, when the NAACP approached her to be one of the handful of Black students to desegregate Western—whicheven then had the reputation of being one of the best schools in the country—Jealous accepted the challenge.
“Maryland was very resistant to desegregating its schools,” Jealous recalled, saying detractors picketed and otherwise protested to stop Black students from joining, and one school official even said Western would be desegregated over her dead body.
“What pushed me was: One, I really believed everyone should have the right to do whatever was right for them; two, somebody has to be the first so why not me; [and] three, Western had a very good reputation as the best academic school in the city and I wanted that,” said Jealous.
“I also didn’t know all that I would be dealing with,” said the now-psychotherapist, who at 14 did not know any White people and was ignorant of the prejudice many demonstrated at that time. “There were things that happened to me that I never could have imagined…. It was scary; there’s no question.”
Still, she thrived, even participating in the orchestra and contributing to the school news publication. “My ability to survive in an environment where I was clearly unwanted was empowering,” she said. “I knew I could survive whatever came my way if I was able to survive that.”
Jealous recalled some of her harrowing experiences at Western in the preface of her book, Combined Destinies: Whites Sharing Grief About Racism, from which she read during her recent remarks at her alma mater.
“I have many negative memories connected to the three years I spent at Western High School,” she wrote in the preface. “During the first year, being intentionally tripped on the stairwell and pushed against walls was a common occurrence, and I still have a vivid memory of being surrounded by a group of White girls in the lunchroom, an organized attempt to keep me from sitting down to eat my lunch.”
For many years, Jealous said, she buried the trauma of that experience in a mental box and declined to visit Western. “I really didn’t want to go back for many years,” she said.
But, all that changed a few years ago, when she decided to return for her 50th class anniversary.
“I felt like I needed some healing and that going back with the same people would provide that and help me put it to rest,” she said. “It helped; I’m glad I went.”
Similarly, her most recent visit to the school, during which she shared insights from her time at Western and answered questions about her civil rights advocacy, was restorative.
“I enjoyed talking with the students,” she said. “They seemed very intelligent, very responsive and their questions were thoughtful. There was a lot of appreciation for my presence.”
Jealous’ son, Benjamin Jealous, who also attended the event, admitted to shedding tears at the poignancy of his mother’s return to a place where she was once unwanted and the reception she now received.
“It was overwhelming to see how well she was received by the girls,” he said. “[And] to see her realize how many girls had benefitted from the door she and her classmates had to open was wonderful.”
Many of the lessons Mrs. Jealous shared with Western’s students—not letting fear stand in the way of doing what’s right, not getting accustomed to something that hurts you and being compassionate to the “other”—were insights he also gleaned at his mother’s knee, said Ben Jealous. And those guidelines influenced his calling, said the journalist and civil rights leader, who at 36 became the youngest president of the NAACP.
“My mom has always been one of my greatest heroes,” said Jealous, who said he grew up with her story of desegregating Western High School, integrating White churches in Petersburg, Va., and other civil rights exploits. “My mom encouraged us to live beyond our fears. When you grow up with such a quiet lioness as a mother you have no choice but to be courageous.”