Nathalie Hills: The Charlestown High Student who became responsible for her own education

Photo: InSaphoWeTrust

Nathalie Hills sat on a cold bus seat bound for Charlestown High School in fall of 1979. The bus crossed over the Charlestown Bridge, revealing a crowd that had gathered to greet the students from the South End. Boston Police officers formed a protective barrier around the bus. Parents and children lined the streets, bearing signs that read “Charlestown Against Forced Busing!” and screaming, “Niggers go home!” Young men picked up small rocks and hurled them at the bus, ignoring the police. The bus kept crawling, cutting through the crowd.

With a loud pop, a rock shattered a window, spraying shards of glass across the inside of the bus. The students collectively screamed in shock, and Hills felt bits of glass become entangled in her hair. Although forced busing in Boston Public Schools had started in 1974, parents were still livid five years later.

“We had no choice. They were busing us regardless, and we had to go to school,” Hills said, one of about 700 minority students bused every school day to Charlestown High School.

During her two years at Charlestown High School, weekly rioting and hallway fights kept the school from being a center for learning. Students casually yelled racial epithets inside classrooms and out in the streets. In the midst of the chaos, two teenaged girls courageously took responsibility for their education and changed their future.

“You could tell the tension was in the air, no question,” Dhetra Polk, one of Hills’ high school friends recalls. “They didn’t want us in their community, and they made that known to us. We knew that going out there, but we didn’t have a choice. It was the school you were assigned to.”

The journey to Charlestown High School took about an hour from the South End because the bus stopped periodically through the neighborhood to pick up other students.

“We had to wake up at 5:30, and be out of the house by 6,” Hills remembers. “It was dark, so it was scary. You were by yourself.”

Before busing was ordered by Judge Arthur Garrity, students in black neighborhoods had to attend some of the worst schools in the city. A 1962 Harvard University study found schools without artificial lighting and with split floorboards and wooden stair wells that were firetraps. Some of the buildings were built before the Civil War and 21 out of 35 were recommended to be condemned.

A new Charlestown High School had recently been opened on Medford Street. But Hills said students were so afraid of each other that they ignored the new swimming pool and gym. Students fought back by organizing protests or simply chose not to attend school.

“They took attendance at the start and end of the day,” Sharyn Hills, one of Nathalie’s older sisters said. She was bussed to East Boston to attend Umana Harbor School of Science and Technology. “They had to make sure no one was skipping out. It was such a large building with so many doors. You could easily slip out and not come back.”

Staying late for extracurricular activities or sports was simply out of the question, Polk said.

“I never participated in any after school events. I remember the bus monitor told me, ‘Dhetra, if you do not have a way home from school, do not go,’” Polk said. “Where the school was situated and where the MBTA [is located] is kind of far. You have to walk past the projects, through the community to the train stop.”

On September 28, 1979, a black sophomore football player, Darryl Williams was shot in the neck while huddling with his Jamaica Plain High School teammates at Charlestown High School. He would be paralyzed, and one of his teenaged assailants would be released from custody and arrested four times before trial.

Sharyn Hills chose to emotionally withdraw to cope from the violence. “I was never the type to give my phone number out or have people around the house,” she remembers. “I was a loner.” The situation was so stressful that it prevented black students from building friendships with each other.

Arriving home after her first day at Charlestown High School, Nathalie Hills’ mother, who is white, sat her down on the couch and spoke firmly to her. “She explained we should never, ever treat anyone different because of the color of their skin, we all have the same color blood. We are all human beings with differences in cultures and that we should learn from one another,” Hills said. “She then proceeded to say, ‘Act like you got some sense, don’t start any fights because of words and yes, I do expect you to defend yourself if someone hits you. You are not a punching bag, protect your face, but try to reason with the person first.’”

“One day, a white boy decided to pick on me. He wanted my seat in the front of the class and said I better ‘get up and go in the back of the classroom where my half-breed self belongs,’” Hills frowned.

Hills would be attacked by white students at school and then return home to her white mother. She said it led to a growing resentment against her mother. She said she was ashamed to bring friends home to meet her.

Racial tension surrounded Hills at school, at home and in her neighborhood. Between 1962 and 1974, the South End absorbed one of the largest urban renewal projects in the nation’s history. While the Castle Square project brought in new housing and public improvements, it also displaced many minority residents. Wealthier, younger white professionals moved into apartments that used to be single family homes.

Hills remembers watching an elderly white man get attacked while passing through her neighborhood. A group of boys picked up bricks and began hurling them into the man’s car windshield, glass shattering across the road. As the car swerved into a pole, the group dragged the man from the wreck and began to beat him.

“If someone of color got hurt [in school], rioting broke out in the neighborhood we lived in because of it,” Hills said. “You would look at the news, and they would report on all the attacks, and you knew that evening there was going to be retaliation.”

After spending two years at Charlestown High, Hills started to question whether her education was suffering. “You had to prepare yourself to learn with all the craziness going on,” she said. “That was my concern. Are we gonna learn anything or are we gonna fight all day?”

Hills and Polk got the courage to stand up for their future.

“After all that took place, the riots in the hallways, and the fighting and craziness, we went to see our guidance counselor,” Polk said. “We told him we wanted to go to college and this just wasn’t working for us.”

After their meeting, the two girls were given a way out. They were recommended to enroll at Another Course To College, a recently opened public school in Beacon Hill. At ACC, the girls thrived at the college prep school.

“I liked ACC better. The classes were a challenge, they were no joke,” Hills said with a smile. “And you had a mixture of kids, and everyone was very serious about getting their stuff together.” After spending two years in the program, the girls graduated and went on to college. Both of them now work in finance.

But Hills said busing has left a scar. “Constantly being called a half-breed or an oreo or a zebra, that had an effect. Even today, in the workplace, my defenses automatically go up,” Hills said. “As a kid I always had to defend myself because of the color of my skin. I’ve always had to fight.”

Court appointed master Charles Willie wrote that Boston’s citizens acted violently because they followed Mayor Kevin White and the School Committee in refusing to accept the desegregation order. “If political leaders had ‘laid down the law’ and backed Judge Garrity’s order, it would have been obeyed, by and large, without much resistance,” Willie wrote in the October 1981 issue of the Boston Review.

Hills says that as children grow up, they will outgrow the racist practices of their parents.

“It was more adults adding fuel to the fire, because the kids played, we got along. But as soon as their parents get into it, it becomes a big thing,” Polk said. “Kids will make-up and play again the next day.”

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