It was the early 1960s and the Civil Rights movement in the United States was in a state of fiery turmoil. Protests, marches, sit-ins and riots were commonplace on TV and in the newspapers. At times, people questioned whether or not black and white Americans could live peacefully with one another or if this social struggle would lead to the demise of modern civility. The faces of people like Rosa Parks and the words of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood to define an era marred by racial hostility and the civil war for civil rights.
The desegregation of American schools proved to be one of the most divisive of practices in many parts of the United States. While the resistance to desegregation by American southerners is well-known, New England was not immune to the racial tension, especially the Boston area.
In the early 1970s, forced busing sparked outrage in many communities, including Jamaica Plain, a city located between Roxbury and Dorchester. At the time, ORR’s own assistant superintendent and director of curriculum and instruction, Dr. Elise Frangos, was an English teacher at Jamaica Plain High School.
Frangos had a double-major of English and journalism at Simmons College in Boston and had recently transitioned from being a reporter to an educator. She taught Irish and African-American history at a school that had been predominantly black but now had an equal number of white students in the classroom.
“Irish kids in Boston had been segregated from the African-American kids for so long. Both groups didn’t really understand their cultures or the arduous experiences both groups went through,” said Frangos.
Her teaching position was made possible by a grant from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Society and the Irish Consulate.
“The goal was, in having a class that was fifty-fifty, can we understand each other? What are our similarities and our differences?” she said.
Though there was always the shadowy threat of violence in the air, Frangos didn’t allow the tension to make her fear for her own safety. She kept her eye on teaching, the truest manifestation of her passion for social justice and learning.
“Anyone who goes into teaching has to put safety of the kids first. First you think of the emotional and physical safety of the kids. You just have to. Especially when you’re in your 20s, you don’t tend to think about your own personal situation.”
In her time teaching at Jamaica Plain High School, Frangos helped many students come to appreciate the challenging histories written for both African-Americans and Irish-Americans. In many cases, her students came to appreciate their differences, rather than be divided because of them.
“I think a lot of friendships were forged by understanding the curriculum and content,” she said. “There’s nothing like having that grounded reality of working with children, working with their families. I think that’s the most honorable work. If I can influence that in a positive way, that’s what I’m hoping for.”
By Eric Tripoli