FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – A retired teacher, who now lives in Fort Wayne, is still giving lessons through her new book. It chronicles the year she and her husband taught in New Orleans in the late 1960s, sharing stories of racial inequality and bridging the cultural divide.
Denny Baron grew up in Fort Wayne and went to North Side High School. Sandra Baker Baron was born in Florida and moved to Ohio as a child. The two met on a blind date while going to school at Ball State in Muncie. For their first job as new teachers, and newlyweds, they wanted to go to a fun, magical city.
“Ball State had a career night and we saw New Orleans and we said, ‘Oh! Let’s apply there!’ and [the recruiter] said our resume was perfect. Well, it was our skin color that was perfect,” Sandra said.
They didn’t know it at first, but Carter G. Woodson Middle School would have lost government funding if it didn’t integrate. They were hired to be the White teachers at the all Black school.
“[The teachers] were so kind to us, but [on the first teacher orientation day] they all came down to look at us and it was a small faculty room and I remember looking around and it was all Black faces. That’s how our Black community often has felt. We didn’t care, but we just didn’t know what to do,” Sandra said.
It turned into a year of lessons for not just the students, but for the new teachers too. Sandra taught English and she had to learn to teach without a lot of supplies.
“They didn’t have books. I didn’t have anything but a pencil sharpener,” she said.
But, the Barons learned the Woodson Way.
“The teachers taught us the mantra: Make do,” Sandra said.
She’d read aloud to her students and have them do writing exercises in class.
The book, “Bridging the Mississippi: A Memoir of Racial Inequality and Missed Beads” is about closing the cultural divide between Black and White America in a 1960s New Orleans.
The stories shared give an intimate look into the lives of the young Black students. There are stories of the Black students not being allowed to walk on one side of the street, of a little boy who just wanted an ice cream sundae but wasn’t allowed in the soda shop, and of Sandra taking two of her students shopping in a “White” store and being told to leave.
The “missed beads” in the book’s title refer to Mardi Gras beads. In the 1960s, Black children weren’t allowed on the bleachers along the parade route to catch the beads and other prizes and treats thrown into the crowd. They had to pick the “missed beads” up off the street.
The book’s title also refers to a bridge, quite literally.
“We had to cross the Mississippi River every morning on that bridge and we fought a lot on that bridge,” Sandra said. “The book is about bridging. Bridging one culture to another, bridging the first year of marriage and of the first year teaching.”
Denny was a Physical Education teacher at Woodson.
“I didn’t feel White in an all Black school until the day Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated. The next day, it was a Friday, and when we walked in there, we knew we were White,” Denny recalled.
Sandra remembers not knowing how she could comfort her students. But, she journals every day. She thought the students could work through their grief through writing. Now, almost 55 years later, she still has a folder full of the handwritten essays titled, ‘Dr. Martin L. King.’
“Their dreams were broken, but their parents had said he’s a wonderful man but God will send another man. They had hope,” she said.
Several years ago, the Barons found some of their former students and gave them their essays back. The students also shared memories to help shape the book.
“The book is a period piece. It shows how things were in New Orleans in the 60s. The Black voices show how things are still not corrected from the 80s to today and this book shows you how things could be and should be,” Denny said.
Decades later, they now live in Fort Wayne to be closer to their grandkids. As they watch Southwest Allen County Schools navigate creating a more inclusive culture in the school district, Sandra says it has to start with conversations.
“It wasn’t so good that someone made a foolish mistake in Fort Wayne, but now we need to talk about it and step up and now we need to teach others in unity,” Sandra said. “It’s wonderful to come together in unity and harmony instead of being afraid of relationships.”
Back again in 1967/68, Sandra started her schoolyear at Carter G. Woodson wanting to go home to where it was familiar. By the end of the year, she wanted to stay and continue to nurture the connections she made with her students. But, Denny was offered an assistantship back at Ball State. They realized to make the difference they wanted to make, they needed to further their degrees and work their way up in school administration. The young couple also needed the money. They earned around $10,000 in that New Orleans teaching job, but with the help of a new credit card, had spent around $11,000.
Sandra and Denny continued teaching and working in administration in the school districts around Muncie until their retirements. Sandra also continued to spread her lessons of bridging cultural divides with teaching in Kazakhstan and Thailand. Both are experiences, she said, that wouldn’t have happened without what she learned in New Orleans.
The Barons are currently working to get the new book into schools and libraries around the area. Taylor University already has it on shelves.
In April, Sandra will go back to New Orleans to meet with former student Debra Brown Morton, who is now the senior pastor of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church. She also hopes to find more students to return their MLK essays.
“Bridging the Mississippi” is currently available on Amazon here.