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Adye Bel Evans

U-M librarian emerita

Adye Bel Evans

“I was born and raised in San Antonio,” Adye Bel Evans says. “My mother was a librarian and my father was assistant principal at Phyllis Wheatley High School. All the colored schools had colored names, like Phyllis Wheatley, Booker T. Washington and so on. We lived kind of all over San Antonio. There was a colored section of town, and we always lived near that area. I knew what segregation was, but I was not defined by it. 'White' didn't count in my world.”

Evans, an emerita librarian of the U-M Library Special Collections, remembers hearing about the Brown decision from her parents, through newspapers and “just general discussions.”

“People visited each other's homes back then,” she continues. “I was an only child, so I spent a lot of time with adults. Most of the people in my family's circle of friends were in education like my parents. They thought the ruling was a good thing, but there was a lot of concern about their jobs because they knew white kids weren't going to come to the Black schools.”

Texas enacted Jim Crow laws

Even though Texas stood with the Confederacy in the Civil War, it is not commonly thought of as part of the “Deep South.” But in 1866, the Texas legislature passed a group of laws called the Black Codes, which defined the post-war legal status of Black Texans. The laws prohibited African Americans from voting or holding office, compelled them to forced labor under specific circumstances and forbade intermarriage and integrated schools.

Following the Court's Brown decision, Texans approved referenda in 1956 opposing compulsory attendance in integrated schools and extending the Jim Crow prohibition against racial intermarriage. In 1957, the Texas legislature passed laws encouraging school districts to resist federally ordered integration. Jim Crow did not fully vacate Texas until the late 1960s.

“Jim Crow was enforced in San Antonio,” Evans says of that era, when she was a grade-schooler and teen-ager. “We couldn't try on clothes in stores; they told us to take them home to try them on. We couldn't go to the front door of the movies and then we had to sit upstairs. When we could sit downstairs, we never did. We had more fun looking out over the folks sitting downstairs, dropping popcorn on them, that kind of stuff.

'We ordered at the counter but couldn't sit down'

“We used to go on Friday nights to a restaurant on Commerce Street to get something we called 'Chinaman's Fish.' It wasn't even Chinese food, that's just what we called it. We could go in to order at one end of the counter, but we couldn't sit down. Then we'd go home and sit on the porch to eat. At Woolworth's, whites sat at the front counter and Blacks at the back counter. We had our own restaurants where we could just go sit down and eat.

“Fort Sam Houston was nearby, so San Antonio was a military town. My dad was in Europe in World War II when I was about two or three years old. I had seen a picture of him in his uniform, so one day, when my mother and I were downtown, I walked up to a white man in uniform and, thinking of my father, I held out my arms and ran over to him, calling out, 'Daddy!' The man kicked at me and told my mother to get me away from him.”

Before the 1956 and 1957 laws went into effect, San Antonio schools opened quickly to Black children after Brown . They could attend any of the schools in the district but had to arrange their own transportation. Evans recalls, “All my friends, children I had gone to school with from first through ninth grade, had to make decisions about where to go to high school. My father told me I was going to Wheatley. Like any 14- or 15-year-old, I hated his decision, because all my friends were going to white schools like Thomas Jefferson and Breckenridge.

“My father asked me, if the colored schools and colored teachers weren't good enough for his child, how could I ever expect other parents to want to send their children to Wheatley? And if other children didn't go to Wheatley, then Negro teachers would lose their jobs. After Brown, the Black schools weren't at full enrollment, but the staff all got to keep their jobs. My dad left Wheatley to be principal of a Black junior high school after my first year there. Black teachers were being moved to the so-called white schools by 1963.

An environment in which someone cared

“I was angry with my father, but I did what my father said. And I had a wonderful three years in high school because I made new friends and because Wheatley was an environment in which someone cared if I went to college or not. It was a nurturing environment. In the end, it was best for me to go to Wheatley. Most of my friends who went to white schools ended up staying in San Antonio. Those of us who went to Wheatley—there are lawyers and doctors among us. All the Black kids from the white high school came to our most recent [Wheatley] class reunion. I imagine most of them did well, but they did tend to stay in San Antonio.”

The Brown decision “made me realize who I was and that my education was going to be as good as those who went to white schools,” Evans says. “We didn't know people thought us inferior, or at least we didn't care. We certainly didn't have expensive chemistry labs and gymnasia and the musical instrument programs the white schools had. We didn't even have the same books, or if they were the same, they were second-hand. But we were happy with what we had. We weren't angry. I didn't grow up with a lot of anger.

“We asked our classmates who went to the white high school how they were treated there. I think they had some terrible trouble with white teachers. And whenever the white school had events that brought people together, basketball and football games and the like, the Black students all came to our games instead. I don't know for sure if they went to social activities in the white schools, but I don't think they did. They always came to our events.

A recommendation to apply to Michigan

“When you took the SAT back then, the scores would come back with recommendations for which schools you should go to. One thing that's haunted me all these years is that my scores arrived with a letter that recommended I apply to the University of Michigan.”

But Evans's father died in 1959, her senior year of high school, so she decided to remain home a year with her mother. “That year, I went to Our Lady of the Lake, a white women's college in San Antonio,” she says. “Talk about isolation! There might have been, at the most, five of us Negro women there. Not a white girl had a word to say to me, and there wasn't a lot of interaction with the nuns either.

“After that first year, I transferred to Spelman [a predominantly Black women's college] in Atlanta, where I completed my BA in social science with a minor in Philosophy in 1963. Then I did my MS in Library Science at Rosary College in River Forest, Illinois, in 1967. Billy Joe and I met the second semester of our senior year at Spelman and Morehouse, and married shortly after we graduated.”


Richard Tillinghast |B.J. Evans
President Mary Sue Coleman | Lester Monts


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