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Through The Front Door: As a Middle Schooler, MISD’s Sonja Harrison Stared Down Segregation in the Deep South and Opened the Door to Equality

Shane Mauldin|
Thursday, March 2, 2017
Sonja Harrison

Sonja Harrison

McKinney, Texas –  “We are not back door people.”

That’s the message that Sonja Bens Harrison learned from her mother and father.

As a black teenager growing up in segregated Brunswick, Georgia during the 1960’s, walking around to the back door of a white-owned restaurant or business was the common practice for many people of color. But not for the Bens family.

“We are not back door people.”

That idea worked its way into the fertile soil of Harrison’s heart and filled her spirit with hope and self-respect.

It carried her through the front door of Jane Macon Jr. High in 1967 when she and 10 other kids became the school’s first black students.

And, it held her up against hate when rocks and insults flew with equally painful impact.

Today, Harrison serves as McKinney ISD’s director of administrative services, a somewhat ambiguous title that boils down to this: The most difficult and serious school discipline cases eventually make their way to her desk.

It’s a tough job.

She has been a teacher, an assistant principal, a senior systems engineer and a mentor to struggling teens, among other things. Her current position can be draining at times, but Harrison has never shied away from the difficult path.

She serves as a reminder that we can work right down the hall from someone and have no idea about the road they’ve traveled.

In February, Harrison’s journey took her to the county residential center—the CRC—a world of grey steel doors and white cinder block walls—jail for teenagers.

She stood before young men in orange coveralls as a living volume of Black History and shared her journey to offer hope and encouragement. To urge them to dream—and then work to make that dream reality.

This is what she told them. This is her story:

“We are not back door people.

“As I grow up in this small southern town I have learned many lessons from my parents who learned from their parents and they learned from their parents. I am the descendent of a rich and strong heritage of a people with a dream. My grandmother and mother share stories with me of the son and daughter of slaves, their children and their children’s children, who worked the Robinson Rice Plantation in Camden County Georgia. They were uneducated with book knowledge, but they have passed to me the promise that hard work and perseverance will bring to my life.

“I do my chores at home, do my homework without prompting and respect my parents, elders and even my sisters and brothers. I enjoy my neighborhood and school friends. I ride my bike to piano lessons on Saturday mornings and practice sometimes without someone telling me to.

“My parents take care of all our needs and many of our wants. They have taught me to stand up for myself and to know that I am entitled to the good things in life just like the next person. I am reminded to never let another person take advantage of me or to ever let myself feel that I am anything less than I am. Every day I am learning life lessons taught by my parents; they leaned from their parents.

“I decide that I want to attend the ‘white’ junior high school about two miles from our home. My brother, cousin and several neighborhood kids will join me. My parents are skeptical but they enroll my brother and me in school for the coming year. As we go through the school registration, we are met with reservations from teachers and even the principal who tells us that this is not a good idea. This junior high school in Brunswick Georgia was not integrated and we will be stepping into a ‘dangerous area.’  I stand strong with my parents at my side, determined that this is the school that I will attend for 8th grade; my brother will enter 7th grade. I will let nothing happen to him or to me.

“This is the most upsetting year of my entire school life. I never knew that adults and kids could be so cruel! Daddy brings us to school and drops us off by the flagpole at 7:30 each morning. At 7:35 the first rock will be thrown at us, hitting us as we stand under this symbol of American freedom.

“I throw rocks back in an attempt to protect my brother and myself. As my friends join us, more rocks and verbal abuse will fly until the first bell rings. We report the rock throwing and name calling to the principal’s office each day before we report to our homeroom, and we wait for something to be done.
“At 3:15 p.m. each day, we depart without a word from a teacher or the principal regarding the incident. I am so disappointed, but my back is straight and I still stand tall. I remember that I asked to come here and that I will get the quality education that I deserve. I will have the same books and materials that the other kids have that were not at my school. I am a descendent of a rich and proud heritage. I’m entitled to equal treatment.

“Going to my band class is a safe haven for me at school. The band director is sensitive and I feel that no harm will come to me in his classroom. He is supportive and encouraging. Eating lunch in the cafeteria has become a constant battle. Food is thrown at us from everywhere. We position ourselves to fight back. I know that today we will be called to the principal’s office, and no one else will be held accountable for his or her actions.

“Today my English teacher told me that she thought that my skills were far behind her other students. I told her that if I needed help, my big sister was smart and she would make sure that my lessons were correct. My parents will do whatever is necessary for my success. At least she applauded my efforts.

“My parents have taught me to value education and opportunities. My daddy is constantly learning something new. He has earned a position in management and my mom has been promoted to a book keeping position at the bank.

“My family is a middle class African-American family, filled with love, joy and hope. My parents will ensure that all of us complete high school and have the opportunity for college.

“No matter how many days I come home this year with tears on my face, a torn sleeve from protecting myself and my brother or from the stings of racism and hatred. I will talk to my mama and daddy at the dinner table tonight. They will take the sting out of all of the wounds, give me a hug and send me out to tackle the next day. Why? Because I deserve the same opportunities as any other child and they will do everything that they can to provide for my strong educational foundation. I am a descendent of a rich, strong, heritage of people with a dream.

Who Am I?

A Bi-cultural, acculturated female,
An ethnic minority,
A proud American,
A positive person in a negative time,
A person of joy,
A dreamer, who will leave her mark on the world,
I am Sonja Bens Harrison.”

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