Dark tunnel to bright moments at my school

Jewel Lockridge

At the time of the 1953 tornado, I was almost 6 and lived in the South Waco neighborhood known as White City. My recollections of the tornado have as years passed, distilled themselves into one extended day.

It was a "day" filled with wind, dark clouds, rain, rain, rain, and more rain. There was also that constant beeping sound as radio announcers broadcast reports of the tornado's death and destruction from remote (downtown locations).

A few months following the one-year anniversary of the tornado, I started school as a first-grader at South Waco Negro Elementary School (later Oakwood Elementary). The campus was many blocks away from White City in another well-known neighborhood — The Butcher's Pen.

South Waco Negro Elementary is not to be confused with South Waco Elementary, which was only a few blocks from where I grew up. Walking to school as many of the first through sixth grade students from White City did, meant crossing LaSalle Avenue.

At that time, LaSalle was a two-lane main road. To make crossing the busy thoroughfare safer, a "tunnel" was constructed under it at Ninth Street.

Some years ago I was told that African American parents in White City requested that their children be allowed to attend South Waco Elementary or that a separate school be built in their neighborhood. Part of their rationale for the parents' request was the daily danger to their children as they crossed LaSalle.

An agreement (so the story goes) was reached to build a school for the African American students on the property that is now the site of the bus barn — just of 18th and LaSalle. Subsequent discussions to which many were not privy, followed. Much to the surprise and consternation of the parents involved in the original discussions, a tunnel — not a new campus was constructed.

The underground passage had gated openings on either side of LaSalle. I'm not sure that the gates were ever locked. Sometimes during the school day or at night, dogs and cats would climb down the stairs and be there when students came through.

There were the rumors that "people" slept in the tunnel, too. That perhaps accounted for the dampness, putrid odors, and overall eeriness of our "safe" passageway. There were overhead lights that were often broken and always, always, always very dim.

Groups of neighborhood kids usually walked to and from school together. I recall times when the boys in the group would start a stampede in the tunnel. Herd instinct would take over. Much to the delight of the boys, the girls would scream and run. We'd all emerge on the other side, exhausted but happy to have another tunnel crossing behind us.

For me and countless schoolmates, South Waco Negro Elementary was literally the light at the end of the tunnel.

Our teachers were committed to preparing us for the world beyond the tunnel. They were an integral part of the village that raised us. Our teachers were extensions of the strict discipline that we had at home. They demanded and accepted no less than our best as students.

With their instruction and nurturing the tunnel became our link to the foundational skills and knowledge to overcome future challenges. The teachers at South Waco Negro Elementary made the trip through the tunnel a journey worth making.

Jewel Lockridge is director of GEAR UP at Baylor University.

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