September 7, 1965 was an average day in Huntsville. Students slowly got out of bed and headed off to school for the first day of class.
At the time, they had no idea they were becoming a part of history.
Joreen Kelly (now Joreen Waddell) put on the new clothes her mother just bought from Felder’s Dry Goods store. She fixed up her hair and walked to school.
For many of the students of Huntsville High School, the first day of school in the fall of 1965 would be like any other. But for Waddell, it was the beginning of a four-year adventure in unexplored territory.
Waddell was one of the first black students who chose to attend Huntsville High School rather than the all-black Sam Houston High School when HISD began the integration process.
“I told my mom I wanted to sign up to go to Huntsville High School,” Waddell said late last week, recalling a tense conversation with her mother, Ella Mae Kelly, who still lives in Huntsville. “She wasn’t excited at all, mainly because the summer before this was to take place, they had the ‘Hey You!’ (civil rights) movement, the marching and all of this to integrate Huntsville, period.
“It was the first time, as long as I can remember, that I went against what my mom wanted me to do because I marched and she didn’t want me to.”
When Joreen wanted to march for civil rights in Huntsville, her mother couldn’t help but worry.
“Her thing was, ‘Joreen, you’re going to go march and then you’re going to go over there to them white folk and they’re going to do something to you, because they’re going to see you out there marching,’” Waddell recalled. “I didn’t really care because that’s what I wanted to do.”
Kelly wasn’t about to stand in her daughter’s way. She always told her children they could do anything they put their mind to.
“I told them that the things that they thought would be, wouldn’t really be,” Kelly recalled. “But instead of standing in her way, I let her go and find out her herself. I knew that she was going to come into things and the atmosphere wasn’t going to be what they thought.”
Joreen’s brother, Willie B., wanted the same thing. He enrolled in the seventh grade while Waddell started the ninth.
Huntsville ISD, which had already started integrating the elementary schools, kicked off a “freedom of choice” program in 1965 in which outstanding seventh-, ninth- and 12th-grade students from the black schools could apply to change schools before full integration came to HISD in 1968.
Mom wasn’t satisfied with the “I want to go” answer.
“Then she asked, ‘Why do you want to go to Huntsville High School? Why do you want to go over there with those white people?’” Waddell said. “My answer was that I wanted to know their secret.”
That “secret,” she said, was the driving force behind her passion for integration that started before she even considered applying for high school. She couldn’t get a job.
“It was the idea I would go in and ask for a job and they would tell me they weren’t hiring,” she said. “I’m looking back in the gift-wrapping section and I see these little white girls — and I didn’t know what grade they were in — but I could see them back there wrapping gifts and they were telling me they weren’t hiring. So, I wanted to know, ‘What is their secret? Why is it they can get a job and I can’t get a job?’”
Joreen finally got her chance to find out. In 1965, she started her first day at Huntsville High School, nervous and scared.
“I was nervous because it was something new,” Waddell said. “We did not know how we were going to be treated. The summer before was when all the marching was.”
When she and her friend Altha Hatch walked up to school on the first day, they weren’t treated poorly, she said, because everyone was too busy gawking at their new classmates.
“It was really funny because we walked up on campus and all the kids were like cows in a gate,” Waddell said. “They were looking because, ‘Here are these strange people coming to our campus,’ and everybody was looking at us. It was like we were the center of attention. The kids were looking like, ‘Oh my goodness, here we go. Here we go.’”
Fortunately for Waddell and Hatch, they were members of the band and had already met many of their new classmates. Waddell played the french horn in the Sam Houston High School band while in the seventh and eighth grades but couldn’t afford to buy her own instrument to play in the HHS band.
She worked during the summer babysitting for a nurse with two kids and bought a trumpet on credit from H&H Music Company. She traveled to many different places with the band, which made her mom nervous.
“They were about to leave to go to another town and march,” Kelly said. “I went to the band director and told him how I felt. He assured me he would take care of her — and he did.”
The other kids did. too, especially one member who Waddell and Hatch confronted after he repeatedly “called us the N-word when he would walk by.” Waddell told the boy she and her brothers would beat him up if he kept up the harassment.
“That day to this he never used the word,” she said. “When we would go out on the band bus and be going into the stands we were the only two blacks in the band, the stands, everything. And when people would be standing there calling us names, he was the main one that would tell us, ‘We’re going to put you with us and we’re not going to let them bother you.’”
Waddell’s first day of school had its share of surprises.
While attending the black schools, Waddell said she and her classmates were often told by their black principals and teachers that “white kids don’t behave like that.”
“The first day of school this boy came down the hall on roller skates and I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my, white kids actually act like this. White kids are actually loud?’
“We were always told, ‘Stop being loud. White kids aren’t loud.’ When I got there I realized white kids were just the same as the black kids.”
Many students treated Waddell well. But they wouldn’t do it publicly at first.
This was apparent when white students and their parents would cross Waddell’s family in the stores. Her classmates would carefully wave at her with their hands by their hips so their parents couldn’t see. Other students would go out of their way to greet Waddell, Hatch and the other black Huntsville High School students to make them feel welcome.
Acts of white students rallying around the black students were common. One moment Waddell said she’ll never forget was when she was elected parliamentarian of the Future Homemakers of America Club.
She won the initial ballot, but because a teacher’s daughter was running for the same spot, they held a runoff. Waddell won again. Waddell and her mother said the teacher then raised the price of a trip to the state FHA meeting in Dallas.
“I went home and I told my mom, ‘I’m not going to get to go on the state meeting.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because the teacher says we have to have $100,’” she said. “Mind you in 1965, $100 was a lot of money.”
In fact, $100 in 1965 is about $730 today. Waddell’s mother was a janitor at the Sam Houston State University health center and her father, a self-employed carpenter, was at home with a debilitating illness. Her mother’s $85 a month was all the family had.
Kelly took out a loan so her daughter could make the trip.
“I told her, ‘Girl, don’t you spend all of my money. Don’t go big,’” her mom said.
But in another show of community, Waddell’s fellow FHA officers paid for nearly all of her expenses at the meeting, allowing her to take $85 back to her family.
Waddell’s experiences weren’t all good, though. Just like her mom had warned her, the FHA trip and the boy in the band were only the start of what she would experience.
When an editor for The Hive school newspaper walked in a home economics class and asked the teacher for a girl in a size-7 dress, Waddell and another girl raised their hands to be models for a back-to-school layout in the paper.
Both girls met with the editor and returned to class. The teacher later told them that the editor chose not to use a girl in that dress size.
“The paper came out on Thursday, and lo and behold who is in the paper, the other girl who raised her hand,” she said. “But the kicker of all of it was, the paper came out on Thursday and she was in the paper and I had the dress on that she was modeling.”
The same teacher who sponsored FHA was going to make Waddell scrub the floors while the other kids straightened cabinets and organized shelves. Waddell refused.
“It was a shock to her because I told her no,” Waddell said. “She said, ‘Why not? I told you that I want you to do this particular task and if you say no, I’m going to send you to the principal’s office.’ I said, ‘Send me to the office because I don’t even scrub the floors at home.’”
Off to the principal’s office she went. She called her mom, who walked from her job to the school to let the principals know her daughter would not be scrubbing any floors.
“I told (the teacher) I didn’t send my child to school to scrub floors, I sent her for an education,” Kelly recalled.
In the end, the good outweighed the bad. Waddell said the process was “smooth” and she made friends she still has today because she’s a social butterfly, of sorts.
Current HISD Board of Trustees President J.T. Langley graduated the same year as Waddell. He said last week he could not imagine going through what the black students did back in the ‘60s.
“What if myself and 19 more were chosen to go to all-black or all-Hispanic school and start your first year in high school going through that process,” Langley said. “I think about that today as time has moved on. I can’t imagine some of the stress that could have been put on them because there was an expectation. It was met by those fine young people.
“I know that the expectation was, ‘You’re supposed to be a model student.’ I’m just very thankful that as a student of Huntsville, a Hornet and graduate of the ‘69 class that I got to spend time with that group of young, black students.”
Waddell eventually made it to her senior year but she got pregnant, which was problematic at the time. Girls either had to get married or drop out of school. She spent her first semester on campus before staying at home for the rest of her pregnancy.
Efran Reese was born on May 7, 1969, just before graduation at Huntsville High School. But she wasn’t allowed to walk across the stage, so she got her diploma at home. That didn’t take away the feeling of accomplishment.
As a single mother, Waddell was determined to get her college degree, especially after one high school counselor told her she was not college material.
With her family’s support, Waddell started in the pre-nursing program at SHSU in the fall of 1969. After dropping out of college three semesters in to start working full-time and getting married, Waddell knew she still wanted a degree.
She finally became a registered nurse and worked at the Conroe Regional Medical Center as a relief charge nurse “making big bucks” when she got a call from her friend at HHS who said they were looking for a school nurse.
Waddell eventually quit her job in Conroe and began a 22-year career at Huntsville High School as a school nurse, then as a full-time health teacher before retiring last year. She now works part-time helping students get basic nursing training.
Waddell had four children — sons Derf and Dwayne Reese of Green Bay, Wis., and a daughter, Veshon Nelson who lives in Montgomery County. Efran died in 1998. Waddell has seven grandchildren.
Now, Waddell said she would still like to see a higher ratio of white to black teachers and blacks in administrative positions, but that the atmosphere was different. Overall, her experience in the district from integration was “not bad.”
Her entire perspective taught her that children aren’t inherently racist. It’s a learned trait, Waddell said.
“Have you ever heard the expression that if you leave children alone that they will take care of their own business?” Waddell asks. “It wasn’t as much the kids as it was the parents.”
An example of the childhood innocence was when she asked her grandchildren how many black children were at one of the school events he was at.
“‘Black kids?’” her grandson said. “‘No, he’s brown.’ ... (Racism) comes from what we put in their heads.”
Huntsville High School eventually became a place where students referred to each other by name rather than “that white kid” or “that black kid.”
“I still say it’s the parents,” Waddell claimed. “It has a lot to do with the music they listen to, the news media and the things they see on TV. It’s a never-ending circle. Some things change, but things remain the same.”