Bill Ingraham/AP/File
Dennis K. Bordley (right), one of the first two Black children at Caesar Rodney Elementary School, a previously segregated all-white school in Delaware, strides along on the way to first grade Sept. 9, 1959. Nearly a century earlier, Black and white residents in Covert, Michigan, chose to integrate their schools, despite laws forbidding it.

A timely lesson from a tiny town long ago

Covert, Michigan, wasn't founded as a utopia. Yet from the 1860s onward, Black and white residents farmed, voted, and educated their kids together.

Recently, a friend gave me the book “A Stronger Kinship” by historian Anna-Lisa Cox. It tells of Covert, Michigan, a small town 30 miles from my friend’s childhood home. 

His nearly all-white high school had played them in sports, yet only now was he learning that more than a century ago, Black and white residents of Covert had “lived as equal citizens,” as the book puts it. 

As far back as the 1860s, they treated each other as neighbors regardless of race, farming side by side. Black men not only voted with white men but also ran for office and won. And women helped one another in their domestic spheres. 

The integration of Covert’s schools is a good example of the town’s determined neighborliness. It was illegal to educate Black and white children together in Michigan in 1866. So when Black settlers bought land with a schoolhouse on it, a showdown might have been expected. Instead, the community, which prized education, decided to do what was right and educate all children. Of necessity, that meant educating them together – in rough-hewn, one-room schoolhouses, where children sat side by side, sharing books and “leaning over each other’s slates to work on sums,” the author explains.  

To protect the Black children, Covert’s school board listed all students’ names in its mandatory reports to the state but omitted their race, Black or white. “Covert’s school board had a secret, and they were keeping it safe in the most honest way they knew – by keeping it quiet,” Dr. Cox writes.   

But it wasn’t all about work for either children or adults. Black and white residents worshipped and socialized together, assisted with births and grieved deaths, participated in barn-raisings and attended festivals. Covert was even a safe place to love, with a handful of people marrying across the color line.

The town wasn’t founded by abolitionists or intended as a utopia. It wasn’t perfect either, yet it rejected both slavery’s grip on the North and the nation’s post-bellum oppression: Jim Crow laws, lynchings, court-sanctioned segregation. 

Against all odds, it remained “a community of radical equality” where, on a daily basis, people followed the Golden Rule. As Dr. Cox suggests, the correct question may not be “Why did Covert happen?” but “Why not?” 

“Our puzzlement over Covert reveals a hidden assumption that racism is the norm, that unfairness and injustice are the natural patterns that the nation falls into if given half a chance,” she writes.

That’s understandable “given the horrific and sorrow-filled history of race relations in this country,” she continues, “but Covert reminds us that that terrible history ... was a choice, not a given.”

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