A version of this article appeared on print in our January 2017 issue.
My grandmother, Katherine Butler Jones, was one of the people who was instrumental in starting the METCO program. 50 years after the METCO began, she explains the process of starting the program dedicated to integrating schools in and around Boston.
How did the idea of starting the METCO program first come about?
The idea for the METCO program evolved from some of the issues of discrimination in the South, where children were educated in separate schools, and there was a beginning of a breakdown of that and people saying that this shouldn’t be the way things are. In the North, the schools were segregated [too]. Black children were going to separate schools and white children were going to separate schools. So I think that those are two important things.
The other thing was the schools in Boston were disasters. They were not providing a good education for the children especially in the schools that were segregated. It was a time of crisis in the country around education for black children, and it was difficult for people to have their children sent to another school in another district. The beginning of the move to desegregate the schools and the beginning of the METCO program was because the Boston school system was not willing to have children of color go to predominantly white schools. Out of this situation and out of the fact that there was some attempt on the part of black parents to try and desegregate schools in the south, to provide a better education for their children, there was a group of people, led by the superintendent of schools in Brookline, who said to each other if we have space in our school system for children to come in from Boston, why can’t we come together, different school committees and different superintendents, and see what our communities would say about this and how we could make implement this possibility. There was a group of people, and I was included in that group, who got together and started thinking about how to go about this, how to get people of seven communities to talk about working with the Boston community to make it possible.
Who were the biggest supporters of METCO?
The key person from the Boston school area was Ruth Batson, an NAACP official, and she was able to get the [education committee of the] NAACP to think this was a good idea. There was money available from the federal government. That was an important piece too, because people were saying: “how are you going to pay for this?”
Representatives from the Fair Housing and Equal Rights committee from a lot of the communities were on the executive committee of METCO. The principals came together and met before the program started. The Secretary of State of Massachusetts, people from religious organizations in Boston, and ten people that started working on this project on getting children to come to suburban public schools.
What was your role in the process?
I had started a freedom school a couple of years before, which was an exchange with the two communities of Roxbury and Newton. The children came from Roxbury to Newton one month and the others came from Newton to Roxbury. We planned programs — taking them to different places that they would not normally go to and see, and that established a base for people who were concerned with, and interested in, integrating education. The freedom schools were a precursor to METCO. The freedom schools were kind of a copy for what people had done in the South, learning black history in integrated settings.
I was part of the planning process for the program. We did training for the teachers and provided materials, list of books for the students to learn, setting up meetings with the teacher and students that were coming in, meeting with faculty to talk about METCO students. When I look at my notes in what happened, it was like a full time job. Every day you were working on making this program a successful endeavor. After the METCO program began, I became an administrator for it for 4 years. I then ran for school committee in Newton, and I was the first black person elected to the school committee, and I defeated a white male incumbent. That started my eight years on the school committee, which has eight people, one from each district of the city. The school committee has a lot of power to shape what’s going on in the schools. I felt very good about the work that was accomplished when I was on the school committee. I think we did good work making sure that the program advanced and that the school hired more black teachers, that kids had some role models. All of those kind of things I thought were important.
Why did you believe this was a beneficial program for both kids from Newton and from Boston?
First, it’s important for people of different races and religions to interact with each other and get to know each other. Two, because it made an important difference for these young people who came from Boston and went through the METCO program, not only in terms of the educational program, but also the extra curricular programs that they were involved in.
Underneath the idea of education, there had to be a belief that children weren’t just coming out to communities and going back, but that the parents had to be interested in working. Each child had a host family in the respective community that they were going to. The host families were chosen, that meant you wanted to have a reciprocal relationship so there’s not the sentiment that the white community is extending itself.
Also, to do a lot of field trips to places where people would have the chance to go to places like the African-American museum and learn something. So that was the background.
Can you describe the process of starting METCO? What were the biggest challenges?
A vote had to happen in each community in order for [the program] to begin. We worked immensely hard to put it together. So finally in 1966, it was voted and work was being done with parents. Everyone went through an application process and each of the people that applied was interviewed by the director of the program, Ruth Batson. There was an elementary and secondary education act that was passed that made it possible for kids of one community to go to another. The teachers had to be trained because they [didn’t] have any considerable experience working with black children. There needed to be black history taught in the schools. The parents from Boston had to be very much involved with what was going on. We had meetings with the teachers to talk about curriculum: ‘what more do we need to do’. Newton decided not to charge any tuition, which meant whatever money was available from the state was available for training programs. We [also] had to do all the things that you wouldn’t necessarily have to think about: late buses, make sure that people could be actively involved in the community. Each year, the school committee of each town has to vote that they would like to continue to participate in this program.
Who offered the biggest resistance? Why do you think these people didn’t support METCO?
Naturally there was opposition, and the Boston school committee didn’t want to do anything. The person who was the most vocal and most repulsive person on the school committee was Louise Day Hicks. She said under no circumstances would the school system do anything to make it possible for children from Boston to go to suburban schools. The main argument was that [people] have no responsibility for anything that wasn’t in their respective community. For children to come to another community was something that they didn’t want to see happen. However, what happened after the success of the program was that each year, more communities wanted to be a part of this. And that’s the only reason it’s been able to grow and expand.
Can you describe the first few years of the METCO program in Newton? What went well, what needed improvement?
I think that because it was innovative and kind of earth-shaking for this kind of thing to happen, people put all that they had into making sure that it would work, and so you had a lot of energy and collaboration. The host families who volunteered to do this were very sincere and dedicated to their role and they did a lot more than having their students go to their house. There were ties between the families of the METCO students and the families of the Newton children. It was amazing, with the situation at this period of time in Boston, that this program got off the ground and is still operating. We [also] made curriculum changes made and a lot of field trips that expanded the horizons for the both the children from Newton and the people from Boston.
When you were growing up, did you experience a lack of diversity at your school? If so, how did this influence your approach to starting the METCO program?
I went to[The Modern School in Harlem], an all-black school, so I started my education in an all-black environment. Living in Harlem I had black role models. Having black role models was very, very important to my development. I saw people in all ranks of life: people who worked in service, people who were teachers. That’s important in terms of having a sense of knowing something about the community.
Where do you think your passion for improving the educational system comes from?
I think it comes from having had a good education and knowing how important that it is for people in the rest of their lives. Learning is important, and learning from other people. Travel is important: if you can go and see how people live in different places in this world, that enriches you and gives you some energy to keep on doing what needs to be done. Those are the things that I think emanated from going to the Ethical Culture School [later on in my education].
What more do you think we can do to increase diversity within all public schools?
It’s terrible that this program has had to continue for this long because Boston hasn’t been able to get its act together. It’s not fair for children to have to get up at 6:00 in the morning and go out and get on a bus and go out on another bus to be educated; that’s not right. One thing that has to happen is the confidence of parents in the Boston school system to improve because if people have an alternative, they’re going to choose that even if it means a lot of sacrifice on their part. I’m concerned that it’s been necessary to keep it going for this length of time because Boston hasn’t been doing what it’s needs to do to build a stronger education system for their children. But I’m glad that this program exists and it’s been helping these children for a number of years. That’s the kind of thing that makes you feel so good, the success of these students. Most of the kids go on to higher education and graduate work as well.