Ethel Kline grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the most segregated cities in America during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
As a Black child, Jim Crow laws barred her from parks, pools, restaurants, movie theaters, and schools – and Kline said that experience shaped her 53-year long career in Buffalo public schools, caring for other children that society counted out.
Buffalo Public Schools is the largest district in the rust belt city, home to 28,503 students, 73 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged.
“The kids need us. They need me, and they need more people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and come in and try to do what they can. That is what I’ve tried to do,” Kline said. “Working with the kids means a lot to me. Sometimes I see my students out and about, all grown up. Maybe at one time, society had counted them out, or they were what we called ‘bad kids.’ Now they’ve gone on to become police officers and teachers and nurses. Even if I see someone, and they tell me, “Mrs. Kline, I’m working at Family Dollar,” I still praise them because it’s good to see them doing something good with their lives. They’re working. They’re being productive, and that’s so rewarding to see.”
Kline has been a Teaching Assistant at PS 74 in Buffalo for almost five decades, and says the job still fills her with purpose. “I'm from a big family, and I'm a southerner. I was raised to care, and to care not just for my own but for people in general,” she said.
Kline was born in 1953, one of 15 children. “We should have been raised on a farm or in the country, but we were all raised in the city,” she said. She and her brothers and sisters lived with their parents in an apartment on the east side of Birmingham, a predominantly Black neighborhood. As a child, Kline said, those color lines were strictly enforced – sometimes violently – and as a result she spent very little time with white people. “Where I grew up, we didn’t come into contact with white people all that much,” she said. In fact, her encounters with white people occurred chiefly on the city bus. “I rode the city bus to high school, and on the bus, there were maybe 40 seats, but there was a board – I can see that board as if it was today. It was green and it had ‘Colored’ written on it and that’s how we knew where we could sit,” she said. Kline said it didn’t matter if you were pregnant or on crutches, no additional seats would be made available for you if you were Black.
Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, the fight for civil rights raged around her. Birmingham was the site of numerous violent attacks, including 50 racially motivated bombings, prompting people to begin calling the city “Bombingham.” Peaceful marches, sit-ins, and rallies downtown were often met with violence and aggression. As a child, Kline said she and her family avoided going downtown. In hindsight, she realizes it was because they were afraid. “Oh, I was scared. Oh, yes. We were all scared, but we didn’t know we were,” she said. “We didn’t go downtown too much, but if we did, it was scary. I think we were afraid to go.”
While the Civil Rights movement achieved notable gains for Black Americans across much of the country, racism and segregation lingered in Birmingham. The Supreme Court ordered public schools to desegregate in 1954, but it wasn’t until 1963, when James Armstrong successfully sued the Birmingham Board of Education to allow his two sons to enroll in a white elementary school that segregation in the city’s schools finally began to crumble. Then, as was so often the case in Birmingham, that victory was met with violence; that fall as white students were to return to school and Black students were to join them for the first time, a bomb blew up the home of civil rights activist Arthur Shore and Governor George Wallace ordered Alabama State Troopers to bar Black students from entering schools. Days later, on September 15, members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four Sunday school children. The following year, Birmingham schools finally admitted their first Black students.
“We grew up in one of the most racist cities in the United States – Birmingham, Alabama – but we didn’t let that deter us,” Kline said. “We knew that wasn’t the way it should be and that it wasn’t the way it always would be, and we tried not to let it change us or make us bitter.”
Kline moved to Buffalo when she was 17. “When I graduated from high school, I came here because there were no jobs there for young people down there,” she said. Kline took a job at the neighborhood school and found that she loved working with children. Her students were so wise, she said. “You can’t be phony with them.”
From day one, Kline took her role as an educator seriously. “You know, schools are where we are built. We’re built in blocks, one block at a time, and so what we are doing as educators is especially important,” she said. “We are helping build lives, shaping them.”