Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007

Little Rock Nine member speaks at Drew-Freeman Middle School

Ernest Green shares story during fraternity’s Achievement Week

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Ernest Green remembers marching across the high school graduation stage on May 28,1958, and hearing his name met with a chilling silence only his family’s hoots and cheers broke through.

But unbeknownst to him, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was among the small fanfare celebrating Green, the first black student to graduate from Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., and one of nine black students to integrate the school in 1957.

Green, 66, a member of the national historically black fraternity Omega Psi Phi, recalled memories of his tumultuous high school senior year during his keynote speech Saturday for the Gamma Pi chapter’s ‘‘Achievement Week” at Drew-Freeman Middle School in Suitland. Gamma Pi is the Prince George’s County graduate chapter based in Capitol Heights. Green now lives in Washington, D.C.

‘‘It was going to war every day,” Green said. ‘‘Even the few students who wanted to befriend us were threatened. Intimidated.”

Green, then a junior at the all-black Horace Mann High School in Little Rock, talked about the spring 1957 school day when the sign up sheet for students interested in transferring to Central High School floated around his homeroom classroom. Encouraged by events making national headlines like the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. and photos of battered black youth Emmett Till in ‘‘Jet Magazine,” Green signed up and became only one of nine to integrate the all-white school. Several months later, the National Guard had to escort Green and his eight colleagues amid crowds of segregationists on his first day of senior year.

‘‘Only on that first day did it dawn on me that this was going to be a lot tougher than I imagined,” Green said.

Green told the audience there will come a time in their lives when they would stand for something and friends might not stand by them.

‘‘This week is about achievement, but it’s about being able to stand on your own,” said Green, now a managing director of public finance in D.C. for international investment bank Lehman Brothers. ‘‘Be willing to stand outside your comfort zone.”

Green said ‘‘Achievement Week,” where chapters recognize community civic, education and religious leaders, is very important to the fraternity. Green said society does not see the positive images of high achieving black youth such as Brian Forehand, a saxophonist and current Bowie State University student who performed jazz saxophonist David Sanborn’s ‘‘Chicago Song” for the audience.

The Gamma Pi chapter also uses ‘‘Achievement Week” to honor county youth with the Charles Drew Scholarship, named for the black physician and Washington, D.C. native known for his research on banking blood and plasma. Twelve $1,500 scholarships went to high school seniors and college students who maintain a 3.0 GPA or better.

The chapter raised $20,000 in scholarship money for Prince George’s county students in both private and public schools. Students from schools such as Gwynn Park High School in Brandywine, Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville and Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale received money.

One of the scholarship recipients, University of Maryland, College Park freshman Kenny Stack of Laurel, said he enjoyed the speech. Stack, 18, learned of the scholarship last school year through his guidance counselor at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville.

‘‘I thought he was really courageous for going to the school at that time,” Stack said. ‘‘It’s a lot of pressure.”

Upper Marlboro resident Antoinette Corbin-Taylor, mother of Ashton Taylor, a University of Delaware freshman away at school, accepted her son’s scholarship on his behalf. Corbin-Taylor described Green’s speech as ‘‘resounding,” and said since she already knows another Little Rock Nine member, Carlotta Walls Lanier, it was refreshing to hear from another member.

‘‘These young people are our future,” Corbin-Taylor said. ‘‘If what he said made a difference it’s a good thing.”

While introducing Green, Taylor reminded the crowd that many of them would not be able to graduate from the high schools they attended were it not for Green’s courage.

Frances Smith Prince attended Horace Mann High School with Green and has known him since grade school. Now a Suitland resident, Prince said Green deserves every bit of recognition he can get for attending Central High.

‘‘I think he’s a very brave person,” Prince said. ‘‘I’m not sure I would’ve been able to do that. There’s no telling when or if integration would’ve happened in Little Rock.”

E-mail Natalie McGill at nmcgill@gazette.net.