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One of nation’s first segregated black students tells his story

William Ferchland, Tahoe Daily Tribune

He spoke like a storyteller who has told his tale hundreds of times. Hand gestures and facial expressions enhanced his presentation. His voice was comfortable and engaging and afterwards a majority of the crowd at Lake Tahoe Community College approached him and shook his hand.

Dr. Terrence Roberts, a member of the “Little Rock Nine,” spoke to a full audience at the LTCC theater Wednesday night as part of the college’s multi-cultural week.

His story focused around being part of a group of nine high school students who were the first African-Americans integrated into Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.. in 1957.

Roberts and his eight comrades faced a barrage of national headlines, daily harassments by the 1,900 member white student body and had to be escorted into the school by the National Guard.

“We showed up to go to school, not to end segregation,” said Roberts, who entered the high school as a junior. “But that gets lost in the shuffle.”

The gym showers were particularly difficult for Roberts as he told of entering the room with broken glass on the tile floor and all shower heads blasting him with hot water.

After one particular shower, a combination lock was thrown at the side of his head, causing Roberts to hit the ground in front of his locker. Blood stained the ground from a gash on his head as Roberts crawled to the safety of his coach’s office.

His mom would burn hate mail. A hardware store would give out free axe handles if they were going to be used on African-Americans. Every day Roberts thought about quitting school, but every day he talked himself out of it.

The Roberts family moved to Los Angeles where Terrence completed his senior year at a more racially diverse high school.

Forty-five years later, Roberts, a clinical psychologist in Southern California, believes racism is as alive as ever, however underground.

“I see it all the time,” he said.

During a stroll through a Southern California bookstore, Roberts and his wife were followed by a hawk-eyed store employee. The couple confronted the employee and assured him they weren’t going to steal a book. After discussions with the employee and the store manager, Roberts said the two were practically giving them books.

When asked about the lack of diversity at South Lake Tahoe elementary schools, Roberts replied the answer for integration does not lie with the school board but with families communicating with each other.

“It’s not just a school problem, it’s a community problem,” he said. “We have to stay put and learn how say hello to all the different folk who live next door.

It’s cruel to do that to kids, to set them up, to keep them separated and put it on the school board.”

Nowadays, Roberts keeps busy with his family, work and traveling. He moves around the nation frequently, doing hundreds of presentations. Home is his surroundings, and his friends are the people that Roberts believes make the right decisions, such as not smoking, for example.

“I’ll follow them around until they make an unhealthy choice,” he said.


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