York Town Square

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York community leader: ‘We didn’t have equal opportunity to achieve’

Voni B. Grimes graduated from York’s William Penn Senior High School mid-year in 1942. This is his graduation photo. Background posts: New book gives insight into Voni B. Grimes, Who are York County’s most influential people? and A short test of your black history knowledge.

Two images among many stand out after a recent walk with community leader Voni B. Grimes.
We walked from his boyhood home to the site of his segregated Smallwood school and back.
The first image came when we gazed across the College Avenue at the former all-white Noell school, now occupied by the Community Progress Council. This College Avenue-Susquehanna Avenue intersection was a dividing point between the best education York schools could offer white pupils and hand-me-down education for black students.
And then a second image… .

Voni Grimes’ mantra ‘It’s better to have an education and not need it than to need an education and not have it’ helped propel him to success. Here, he stands on the Great Wall of China.
When we reached William Penn Senior High School, which covers the site of the Smallwood building, a stone-faced police officer got out of his car and walked past a group of students. He made no attempt to interact or build relationships. It looked like the last place he wanted to be. Meanwhile, Voni Grimes greeted – and was acknowledged – by many young people during the walk.
More than students should emulate Voni.
Cops should, too.
My column (9/21/08) based on that walk follows:

Each school day, young Voni B. Grimes would walk to East College Avenue, a half-block from his home.
The home’s address was 228 Susquehanna Avenue, but calling the dirt alley an avenue was the most charity that part of town ever saw.
Often, his white friends would join him for the short stroll or meet at the intersection. That’s where their time together ended for the school day.
The Noell Elementary School stood almost across the street, its doors open only to white students.
Those kids crossed the intersection and entered its welcoming doors.
Voni commenced his walk of more than five blocks to the segregated Smallwood School.

In drafting his autobiography, Voni Grimes did not set out to write about race.
He mainly wanted to show how his lifelong quest for learning translated into what proved to be a lifelong pattern of achievement. In fact, “through education” could be appended to his book’s title: “Bridging Troubled Waters.”
But themes of race emerged on many of the book’s 90 pages.
Grimes grew up in York, but his story is typical of that faced by many people of color of his generation across America. It’s a story still being played out.
Themes of race were part of the lure that attracted high-profile National Public Radio to York earlier this month to garner local views about the presidential candidates.

After saying goodbye to his buddies, Voni walked down East College Avenue toward his “private school,” as he later joked about Smallwood.
He passed York Collegiate Institute’s gym and could see the old City Market a half block away. That’s where he would earn a nickel here and dime there for unloading produce from motorized and horse-drawn farm vehicles.
On winter days, he was just about frozen by the time he passed Hannah Penn Junior High. Two vents exhaled warm air from that school’s interior to the street.
That was the place to thaw before trekking the final block to Smallwood, in the shadow of William Penn Senior High School.

Smallwood School gained its name from prominent black educator James Smallwood.
Smallwood and Aquilla Howard schools were erected in the early 1930s to educate black families, such as the Grimeses, who came to York for work from Bamberg, S.C., and other points south.
Voni grew used to getting hand-me-down books. They were often stale editions, replaced by new books at the white elementary schools.
One day, Smallwood teacher and principal, Mr. Hopewell, asked his class to turn to Page 22.
That page was missing from Voni’s book.
Turn to Page 11 two times, the principal said with a smile.
Voni smiled, too.
But part of him did not enjoy this brief moment that says much about institutional inequalities embedded in York’s education system in those pre-World War II years.
Too many Page 22s were missing at Smallwood and Howard.
So, sometime in his boyhood, he made a vow: “I’m not going to live like this my whole life.”

Hannah Penn Junior High School was Voni’s first integrated school. The black students were behind in math, but they at least had the same textbooks.
“It wasn’t that we lacked ability,” Voni later wrote. “We didn’t have equal opportunity to achieve.”
Voni caught up, doing well in college prep courses at William Penn.
At graduation, he and other blacks received general education diplomas instead of those earmarked for college-bound graduates. The thinking in York education circles was that blacks would not go to college, so it didn’t make any difference what type of diploma they received.
But schools in York offered a larger lesson that stuck with Voni B. Grimes: “It’s better to have an education and not need it than to need an education and not have it.”

One morning 75 years later, Voni repeated the walk from his now boarded-up boyhood home to the site of the long-demolished Smallwood School.
This time, he wore polished wingtip loafers instead of the pair of well-worn school shoes of his youth.
He didn’t need to walk, actually. His red Cadillac was parked behind the old York Collegiate Institute gym, now the Voni B. Grimes Gym.
He stood at the Susquehanna Avenue-East College Avenue intersection, the former divisive crossroads where he and his friends parted ways each day.
Noell now represents something far different. Community Progress Council, an agency serving low- to moderate-income residents, occupies the building — it’s no longer a school.
As he proceeded, many people greeted him. At William Penn, students milling outside respectfully commented out of Voni’s earshot.
“There’s that Voni Grimes.”
Walking back, not far from the Smallwood site, Voni paused.
There lay a penny.
Would he make the effort?
He bent down, picked it up and slipped it in his pocket.
Good luck, he said.
Make that pluck.
Because Voni Grimes never counted on chance.
He, like so many black people of his generation, had to muster all they were worth to bridge the educational divide.
Voni Grimes succeeded.
Many did not.
Page 22 was missing and turning to 11 twice just wasn’t an option.