History Untold: Bad memories linger of integrating Alamo Heights ISD nearly 70 years later

Former Alamo Heights students share stories of racism, raise questions about rate of progress

ALAMO HEIGHTS, Texas – To this day, 80-year-old Judy Green still remembers her first class at Alamo Heights High School.

“That first day was rough,” Green said. “Being called the ‘N-word’ 24-7.”

She was among the first African Americans to integrate the Alamo Heights Independent School District — one of San Antonio’s wealthiest school districts with a predominantly white enrollment — in the 1950s.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education struck down segregation, overturning “separate but equal” as the law of the land and requiring public schools to integrate.

Green is one of several students who spoke to KSAT for this story. Each of them described negative experiences while attending Alamo Heights and raised questions about whether enough progress has been made in the affluent enclave.

‘We didn’t want to to go Alamo Heights’

For Green and other African-American students at the time, she said it meant, “You had to go to school in the district where you lived.”

Up until then, she went to segregated schools in the San Antonio Independent School District.

Green said she was more angry than scared at the prospect of attending an all-white school.

Like her family before her, Green said she and her friends wanted to attend Frederick Douglass Middle School.

“We didn’t want to go to Alamo Heights,” Green said.

When she started school there, Green said she vividly recalls some white students harassing her while walking in the hallways.

She said they would tell her, “You colored, we don’t want you colored here.”

But that wasn’t the worst of it, she said.

“They didn’t hold anything back. They called you whatever,” she said. “They would push you. They would shove you.”

The boys were worse than the girls, Green said.

They even encountered racism getting to school. One bus driver would refuse to pick them up, she said.

“It would be pouring down rain and we’d have to walk across Olmos Park and across the dam to go to school,” Green said.

‘After I left Alamo Heights, my life just bloomed’

Through it all, Green said she relied on her grandmother’s advice to take pride in who she is.

“You stand your ground. Not saying you fight, but you stand your ground,” her grandmother would tell her. “You let them know that you are who you are.”

Green said she needed to stand up for herself because teachers and administrators did little to intervene on their behalf.

If there was a problem involving one of the Black students, Green said the principal would summon all of them into his office together.

Green said that she had excellent teachers at Sojourner Truth Elementary School in the Kenwood neighborhood.

But when she was moved to Alamo Heights, she was taught the basics that she’d already learned even though she was now a ninth grader.

“It was like going through a whole year and not learning a thing,” Green said. “The teachers were not helpful at all.”

Green said she had one teacher who would provide more advanced teaching but would tell them that: “We’re smarter than we thought you were.”

Yet Green said all of the Black students were given failing grades that first year and told their families would need to pay for summer school.

When others like herself decided to transfer to Phyllis Wheatley High School, Green said the principal there was puzzled when he read their permanent records.

She said he asked, “Why did you go to summer school and take these classes? You passed them all.”

Yet Green said their grade slips showed they’d failed.

“They were all F’s,” she said.

Green said after realizing she’d been lied to, “I was really mad.”

At least, she said, Alamo Heights ISD paid for their transfers to Wheatley.

“Hallelujah,” Green said. “After I left Alamo Heights, my life just bloomed. I was happy.”

Green said she still wonders, “How did it hurt you to have black children come to your school? Because it didn’t hurt us as much as you thought it did.”

Times may have changed to an extent, Green said, but America still needs to ask itself, “What are you so afraid of? That a person doesn’t look like you?”

‘I wanted to make myself invisible;’ issues for Black students extend past integration

Fast forward to 2002, Terrell Robinson said he was traumatized by the time he graduated as a gay African-American.

Robinson, who now works for NASA, broke down remembering what it was like.

“I got so much academically,” Robinson said. “But the price I had to pay, I’ll never get that back. I’ll never get that peace of mind.”

Robinson said he went into a deep depression and considered taking his life.

“It was just too traumatic,” he said.

Robinson said that’s why he doesn’t have photographs of himself at Alamo Heights High School.

“Any senior pictures, I was not there,” Robinson said. “I wanted to make myself invisible.”

The senior prom he said was out of the question.

“I’m not going to that. I know it’s not safe. I know they wouldn’t want me there,” Robinson said.

He said the fact that both he and Judy Green had similar experiences decades apart tells him, “Nothing’s changed.”

Distinguished alumni weigh in

Yet two of its distinguished alumni, Everett Fly and Dr. Joseph Lambert tried to do what they could after they were inducted into the Hall of Fame by Alamo Heights School Foundation.

A 2014 recipient of the National Humanities Medal, Fly said he was upfront about his experiences when he was honored by the foundation.

The 1970 Alamo Heights graduate said his family warned him back then, “You always had to be careful. Every day you were on guard. You couldn’t talk back.”

The man, honored by President Obama years later, said as a student, “I was told you can’t fight back. You just have to stand there and take it.”

To this day, Fly said he can’t recall anyone ever being disciplined or held accountable.

Having heard what went through, Lambert said he told Fly about John Henry Smith, one of the first African-Americans to integrate the district.

He remembered passing him on the stairwell, “looking lost.”

Lambert said he asked himself, “Should I do anything? No, I’m a senior. He’s a freshman and I walked off.”

It was a moment Lambert said he never forgot.

Up until then, he said, “I never thought about how hard it must have been for those kids to enter an all-white school.”

After meeting at their Hall of Fame induction in 2020, Fly and Lambert said AHISD allowed them to research its enrollment records to historically document the district’s Black students.

In April 2020, they said they gave AHISD a written proposal recognizing the district’s first African-American students who Lambert called “Black Pioneers.”

But instead of the larger event Lambert had in mind, he said, “What they finally allowed us to do was recognize one person per year.”

Six months later, in October 2020, they also proposed the teaching of Black history and setting up an exhibit of “Alamo Heights Black Pioneers” for Black History Month in February 2021.

Yet soon after that, they said the district told them that teaching Black history and having an exhibit would call special attention to African Americans and unfairly ignore other ethnic groups.

Lambert said they also wanted to personally visit with African American students who are currently enrolled, but the district policy wouldn’t allow it.

“We were told that we cannot single out any group by race,” Lambert said.

District launches Equity Council after viral video involving racial slurs

Fly and Lambert said they were asked to become part of the district’s Equity Council, which was formed after a viral video on social media showed some of the district’s students using racial slurs.

Fly said a white cheerleader said she didn’t want her picture taken with him decades earlier when he was football player for Alamo Heights.

He said he told the district’s spokeswoman “some important lessons are not being taught and maintained at Alamo Heights.”

Fly said he pointed out there are obvious “blind spots” that are not being acknowledged or corrected.

They said that while the district had been cooperative to a point, after the pandemic, everything came to a standstill with little to no movement on equity since then.

Times may have changed, Fly said, but then again, “I have to say very clearly, I’ve had folks as recent as a year ago ask me about what if I brought my kids into Alamo Heights? Would they be mistreated?”

He said, “There are still enough bad actors really affecting Alamo Heights’ reputation.”

Alamo Heights ISD responds

AHISD has provided a written statement in response to the experiences described by former Black students for this report. Some of the statement is included in the story above, but we are including the entirety of the statement below:

“It is horrible that any Alamo Heights ISD students at any time in our history would have had experiences like these. We empathize with their pain, and we deeply regret that they - or any students - had to experience such treatment. Racist treatment and harassment of any person, at any time, anywhere, is never condoned.

“While we can’t speak for the students of the past, we can assure you that today our campuses work intentionally to prevent those types of behaviors. Racist treatment and harassment is prohibited, should be reported to school administrators, and will be responded to accordingly.

“AHISD is clear about what students and parents should do if they experience any form of racist treatment or harassment. Our policies and guidance for students and parents are posted on our website on the Policies & Reporting Bullying and Mistreatment webpage. On that page there is a section about Reporting Discrimination, Harassment, or Racism. Additionally, on the front page of our website, in the Shortcuts section, we post a link where anyone can anonymously report a safety concern of any kind.

“For secondary students, AHISD has an Extracurricular Code, which is posted on our website. This code holds our students who are involved in any extracurricular activity to higher standards of conduct, given that they are leaders who represent their school. Violations of this code result in extracurricular consequences for a student. The code prohibits any type of mistreatment or harassment of another student.

“On a district-wide level, as part of AHISD’s Vision 2020 goals, in the 2020-2021 school year the district and school community engaged in a collaborative effort to identify and work to eliminate any bias, prejudice, or discrimination that may affect student achievement and learning experiences. Sixty-one school and community members volunteered to work in three teams to work on this task. The findings and recommendations from this work were presented to and adopted by the AHISD Board of Trustees in May 2021, and this work continues to be prioritized in our efforts around annual improvement planning. We conduct annual student and parent surveys that include questions about belonging and inclusion as well as a comprehensive local community based accountability system that measures student well-being annually.

“AHISD is intentional with our character education efforts to develop caring and compassionate citizens. Our three elementary campuses have scheduled time every day in their homerooms to have “Morning Meetings” in which the teacher leads age-appropriate conversations to cultivate belonging, inclusion, and core character traits. Our two secondary campuses (grade 6-8 and grades 9-12) also have a dedicated time during the week in an Advisory in which the whole campus experiences age-appropriate content to cultivate belonging, inclusion, and core character traits.

“All of our campuses are members of character.org and each has active campus Character Education Teams who are a large part of the content of Morning Meetings and Advisory lessons and who lead many other campus-specific efforts to cultivate belonging, inclusion, and core character traits. Each of our five campuses and our district have received national recognition from character.org for Promising Practices in character education.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) posts student demographic data online, and the demographic data for AHISD is:

African American1072.2%
American Indian10.2%
Pacific Islander7.1%
Two or more races1102.3%

Fly reviewed the statement that Alamo Heights ISD submitted to KSAT in response to an inquiry for this story — his response is below.

“AHISD’s commitment and policies are important and essential steps to address negative behaviors. Racist and bullying acts of the past cannot be changed,” Fly said. “However, the 2020 incident makes it clear that for more than 100 years racism and bullying remain as chronic problems. It is critically important to directly, and honestly, address the damage through intentional acts of healing and education.”

About the Authors

Jessie Degollado has been with KSAT since 1984. She is a general assignments reporter who covers a wide variety of stories. Raised in Laredo and as an anchor/reporter at KRGV in the Rio Grande Valley, Jessie is especially familiar with border and immigration issues. In 2007, Jessie also was inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.

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