Phillis Wheatley High School & the Erasure of Black Achievement

** I recently came across some papers relating to Wheatley High School while doing some archival research, and I decided to post this essay here. It’s old, but still relevant to some things happening in HISD. As always, share and leave a comment! **

The internet is abuzz this week with an article on the new documentary, Freeway: A Crack in the System, and the Hollywood film Kill the Messenger. It confirms longstanding conspiracy theories about the U.S. government’s role in flooding Black neighborhoods with crack cocaine. I was reminded about a local news story covering the demolition of an old Black high school in Fifth Ward. My grandfather attended Phillis Wheatley High School in the 1950s, and this story was another signifier of the lingering effects of crack on Black neighborhoods. My grandfather took pride in his alma mater, and I know that it pained him to see its reputation deteriorate from the 1970s to the 1990s. Houston’s Black high schools were once amazing places, and the ease with which one can correlate their demise with the crack epidemic is harrowing.

About a month ago, demolition began on the old Phillis Wheatley High School. The decision to destroy the campus came after a lengthy battle that evinced the antipathy between Wheatley alumni and HISD board members. Generally, alumni feel that the old Wheatley campus should be preserved as a testament to the high achievements it espoused for much of the 20th century. After the school opened in January 1927 in the McGowan Elementary School building (3415 Lyons Avenue), it quickly became a model of Black education. In 1929, Wheatley moved to a new building at 1700 Gregg Street. By 1949, when an updated Wheatley opened at 4900 Market Street, it was celebrated as one of the best Black high schools in the South.

However, after integration in the 1970s, conditions at the school took a sad turn. Changes in discipline, demographics, and American culture in general posed unforeseen challenges to Wheatley administrators. In the 1980s, when the crack epidemic decimated Black neighborhoods, Fifth Ward became a shell of itself, and Wheatley suffered along with it. In autumn 2006, a new campus opened at 4900 Market Street (now changed to 4801 Providence). However, the new facilities have yet to fully redeem Wheatley’s negative reputation. Labeled one of the infamous “dropout factories” in 2007, it continued to be plagued by crime and low academic performance, though recently it has seen an improvement in its ratings.

It is a shame that Wheatley’s story is so common across the United States. The decline of Black institutions and neighborhoods in the late 1970s onward has been well-documented, and scholars will probably never stop debating the primary causes of the fall. Was it that we focused too much on assimilation during the Civil Rights Movement, so that we neglected to ensure the perpetuity of our own institutions? Did we fail to pass on the value of our communal struggle to our children after the civil rights and voting acts of the 1960s? Did the government use these legislative acts to pacify us while they began more covert plans to maintain the racist capitalist status quo? Each of these plays a role in the state of Black America today, but the CIA-Crack Cocaine scandal compels us to examine where we stood with our own government just one generation after the Civil Rights Movement.

After Gary Webb’s exposé on the CIA-Crack Cocaine scandal was published in 1996, the CIA’s credibility suffered a serious blow. The mainstream media worked to discredit Webb, but many Black American community leaders argued for the validity of his work. Crack’s appearance, seemingly out of nowhere, coupled with corrupt, inadequate police and the devastating effects of the drug itself could not all be coincidental. Just when Black Americans were getting on their feet, purchasing homes, and graduating from college, crack materialized. The “War on Drugs” complemented this destruction, tainting the lives of millions of Black Americans through incarceration.

Crack became a death knell for institutions like Wheatley High School. Black people who could afford to moved their children to schools in the suburbs. Drug dealers lurked about the campus, and gang fights made hallways perilous. Amidst all of this, alumni of my grandfather’s generation seemed out of touch by constantly heralding the glory of bygone days. Perhaps they were, but their words were important. The crack epidemic undid decades of work, and someone had to remind young people that desolation had not always defined Fifth Ward. These same people are yet trying to tell the city of Houston that the demolition of the old high school erases an important history.

The purposeful destruction of Black neighborhoods throughout U.S. history necessitates some sort of monument-keeping. Maintaining these symbols of Black achievement keeps our history from being washed away. Who will pass on the story of pre-1970s Fifth Ward when these older Wheatley alumni have died? We surely cannot rely on textbooks or the mainstream media for the upkeep of our cultural legacies. With urban renewal and gentrification contributing to the erasure of our neighborhoods and landmarks, how can we ensure that Black achievement is not relegated only to MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech?

The demolition of old Wheatley is not entirely a negative thing. A preparatory for boys is slated to be built in its place. This new school will undoubtedly provide a great service to the community (though I would argue a school for girls is needed, too). Issues with public education in Texas aside, Wheatley does seem to be thriving in its shiny new campus. A glance at Wheatley’s website today reveals a new era of optimism and promise for the beleaguered high school. Beautiful young brown faces alternate with scrolling images of the brand new campus. Smiling teens posing in purple track and cheerleading uniforms show off their Wildcat pride.

Our struggles after the Civil Rights Movement don’t have to define us. I hope that Wheatley (and Fifth Ward) can turn itself around. In order to do that, though, we must not allow its story to begin with the troublesome 1970s and 1980s. The students at Wheatley today must know that their school, and Black America broadly conceived, produced exceptional people and achieved great things on its own before integration. We must not erase the negative aspects of our history, but we do not have to begin with the negative, either.

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