There wasn't as much pomp and circumstance as I thought there would be at the last Bartlett High School Reunion this past weekend. The festivities seemed low-key.
After the Saturday dinner was a short but poignant reminder that this would be the last reunion for the classmates of the city’s only black high school.
A subtle passing of the torch. The next reunion, three years from now, will be called the combined Bartlett/Horace Mann Reunion. It will be a mix of those students who came before and after Bartlett High School school integrated in 1954 and became known as Horace Mann Elementary.
According to the book “The History of the St. Joseph School District,” Bartlett began in 1885 as the Colored High School. It was located in a rented room at 20th Street and Frederick Avenue. In 1888, the school was moved to 18th and Angelique and, in 1904, was renamed Bartlett High School.
I’ve had a chance to look at a Bartlett High school yearbook from the 1940s a few times. The classrooms were neat and orderly and the students were well-dressed and looked serious about their work.
It amazed me when some of them listed their ambitions. Some wanted to be architects, some engineers, teachers, lawyers and other professionals. It showed that even though opportunities were limited for these students, their ambition knew no bounds. They were taught that you could succeed despite the hurdles of segregation and racial discrimination.
The many years I’ve attended the Bartlett Reunions, I’ve seen how many of the students learned that lesson well. There were architects, college professors, engineers in the room. They were there this past Saturday night, too.
There was Bobby Armstrong, who became Omaha’s Housing authority executive director. The Bartlett graduate hasn’t missed many reunions.
Jacquelyn Meredith Belcher, another Bartlett graduate who became a college president, also was there Saturday.
Clarence Mabin, president of his own Custom Engineering company, was there to share his stories.
Many others were there and most all offered encouragement for the future.
Some of them talked about the opportunities that black kids have today compared to what they had. I heard no condemnation about today’s youth. What I felt was more a sense of gladness that their descendants had more opportunity, like a parent wants better for his children.
It was in that spirit the torch got passed to the Horace Mann students like myself who went to school after the Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation.
Former city news editor Bob Slater remembered his father gave the Bartlett High School commencement speech in 1954. The last one for the school.
“He was scheduled to make the commencement speech for the class of ’54, he already had the speech prepared and the Brown v. Board of Education decision came down and he had to do another speech,” Mr. Slater said.
Even though school integration was passed, Horace Mann didn’t really become integrated until around the mid-1960s. Around 1964, we had a white principal named Dolores Gex.
After that, a few white students were sprinkled throughout classrooms here and there. But it wasn’t until school busing in 1968 that the school became fully integrated.
Then white kids came from all over. Classrooms were fully integrated. And many of those friendships still remain to this day.
I still run into my white classmates like Jack Kemp, Mike Jensen and Bonnie Drowns today and we share laughs about those times. Testament to how smooth the integration went here.
The next reunion will show this mix of classmates. A mixture of those who knew only segregation and those who knew the early years of integration. My hope is that strong friendships will be forged across that bridge.