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Take Five: Theatrical look at Detroit integration failure resonates here

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 1, 2011 - Living in Saskatchewan, Canada, playwright Joanna Glass grew up with the concept that government provides two valuable services to all people: health care and education.

After moving to the United States as an adult, Glass realized that here, neither is a priority. Her play, "Palmer Park," opening Thursday at St. Louis' Missouri History Museum, addresses the education piece.

One year after the 1967 riots that devastated Detroit, jump-started white flight and sent real estate prices plummeting, Glass and her husband, both white, bought a gorgeous home for one-third of its value in the city's Palmer Park. In doing so, the family of five joined 1,100 other households in an optimistic 1960s-style experiment in integration.

Their six-year saga is told through her tale of two families, beginning when white couple Kate and Martin Townsend, a physics professor, buy a house next to a black couple, Linda and Fletch Hazelton, a pediatrician.

Glass chronicled her own family's experience to illustrate not only the disappointment of her own pursuit but to acknowledge a long string of integration failures across the United States including St. Louis.

When Glass and her family arrived in Palmer Park in 1968, their neighborhood school of 800 children was 65 percent white, 35 percent black. Six years later, her daughter was the only white child in her class. Today there are only two white students in the entire school.

During Glass's stint in Detroit, most of the whites and many of the blacks fled. The blacks who didn't became what Glass calls "public school gypsies," middle class African-American families who live in mostly black neighborhoods and constantly seek good, safe schools for their children.

In a conversation with the Beacon, Glass, who now lives in Sarasota, Fla., talked about the play's resonance today and her starry-eyed optimism of 1968.

What factors went into your choosing to live in the city of Detroit?

Glass: My now ex-husband was offered a tenured position at Wayne State University and we wanted to live within the city limits of Detroit. We were very well aware the riots had occurred but we were very young and it was the 60s and we were very idealistic. We ran into this mantra that "integration is what occurs between the first back moving in and the last white moving out," and we felt we wanted to combat that issue.

Due to white flight, we were able to live in a lovely house; we never thought in a million years we would have been able to live in something like that. I don't know if it was naivite but I didn't understand why, if we lived there, we should have to send our children out to the suburbs to get an education.

The main root of the problem at that time -- and it does continue today -- is that most education is financed on property tax.

The struggle to maintain integration gives way when students from an adjacent working-class neighborhood are sent by legislative order to the elementary school in your middle- to upper-middle-class neighborhood. What happened?

Glass: One hundred and thirty poor kids were being moved to this school and the minute this happened, the first person to put up a for sale sign was the black pediatrician. There is an argument and he says that we expect him to stay "because of my skin color, but everybody else is going to go to the suburbs; everybody else is talking about upward mobility why can't I do that with my M.D.?"

Why did you leave Palmer Park in 1974?

Glass: We left for two reasons. My husband was offered a substantial job at Livermore Laboratories in California. The other thing is that practically everyone in the neighborhood -- and the blacks were among the first -- was trying to send their kids to private school and we had three children and we felt we were not going to do that so we needed to find a place where public schools were working.

Is there humor in the play? 

Glass: Oh, there's a lot of humor. It's hard to point out one single thing because nearly every scene has humor in it. It is in no way a lecture.

There is a very brief summary in one part of the play of TV programs on at the time, and one of them was "The Flip Wilson Show." Flip Wilson played Geraldine in drag, so there is one scene in the play in which the black pediatrician Fletcher Hazelton puts on a wig and carries a handbag and pretends to be Geraldine. 

Some of it is inverse humor. The white professor who lives next door to the black pediatrician can never pronounce the name of the French wine the professor drinks but the black professor can.  

What is the main message you want to get across with the play?

Glass: I'm calling it my own personal lament that 40 years after my experience -- I shouldn't say nothing has changed -- but I think it's well-documented that there is less school integration now than there was during Brown v. Board of Education.

So many cities basically shut down after work time, at 5:30, with everyone going out to the suburbs, and a couple of the St. Louis theater people I've talked to say essentially the same thing goes on here. There seems to be this hardcore underbelly of poverty that middle-class blacks try so hard to get away from as quickly as they can. This is a huge, very complex conversation.

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