Lessons from My Laundry Class

My high school laundry class is one of the lenses through which I came to learn and understand the way things were and still are concerning race.

When I am leisurely living my daily life a few images dart across my mind that remind me of times past and the similarity of experiences then and relationship to what is happening in the present.   I could share at least one story about race every day for the rest of my life and not run out.  The reality of living in this country has helped me understand that its systems were designed and established to promote unjust, disparate treatment for some and the plan is working well.

I attended Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.  It was built in 1929 as the Negro School of Industrial Arts chiefly funded by Julius Rosewald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company.  Other funds came from various sources as all available Little Rock building funds were used to build Little Rock High School which is now Central High School.  The main purpose of Dunbar High School was to teach labor force skills.  It was not intended to be an academic school but one that supported and prepared Blacks (Negroes) for servitude.  The curriculum reflected this intent.

My Laundry Class was held in the basement of Dunbar High school in 1949.   The room had a concrete floor, several huge tub-like washing machines, dryers that were like industrial cylinders, many ironing boards and irons.  Our teacher, Mrs. Jackson’s office was on the west side of the classroom and used to keep records of the intake and outgoing laundry items.  The classroom was not the usual design for a classroom but more like a work training setting.

Big bundles of clothes from white families in the city of Little Rock were brought into the classroom on a regular basis.  Our job, with instruction, was to learn to wash, dry, fold, iron and package the laundry for delivery back to the families that were supplying the items for our education and training.  

My classmates and I received instruction daily about how to perform this operation.  I have to admit that I was purposely a slow learner.  Something about the class did not excite me enough to work for a good grade.  I did not understand how to iron so that I did not leave burn marks on the clothing, especially the men’s shirts.  Maybe it was because I did not agree with the reality of the injustice.  Scorched and burned pieces caused much harm and earned me many Ds as my class grade.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I was not a much better student in the home economics cooking or sewing classes either.  Many teachers were serious about teaching academics despite the intended purpose of the school, a limited budget, used books, equipment, furniture and other materials from Central.   They also valued the students as people, and lived in their community.  Most did an exceptional job of teaching under the circumstances.

Many students I knew personally left Little Rock after graduating from High School, made valuable contributions to the communities where they chose to live and were very successful. When the systems established by those who govern our national empire begin to work equally for all, there is an immediate movement to make changes.  Our national and local educational systems are going through such a change now so that those deemed more worthy will get the greatest benefit.  The eyes of the blind have yet to be opened.  

From the laundry class I learned to be true to my inner center and not indulge in deception and dishonesty.  I gained an awareness level that remains heightened, a gift of discernment and strength to develop a victorious spirit.   These gifts have served me well.  

And by the way, I still lack good laundry, cooking and sewing skills.

Joyce Williams
Retired public school educator, administrator, principal & consultant
New Millennium Church, Little Rock
Resides in Little Rock