Twenty years ago today, a mother in Hartford filed a lawsuit against the state. She charged that not enough was being done to racially integrate public schools, and after years in court, she won.
The landmark Sheff vs. O'Neill lawsuit ordered Hartford's schools to desegregate. As part of that effort, more than 1,700 students from Hartford are bussed into the suburbs for school.
Chelsea Atkins is one of them.
She wakes up at 6 o’clock in the morning. Fifty minutes later, a school bus picks her up right in front of her house.
From there, the bus makes one turn onto an interstate onramp, and takes four students -- all black -- to Southington, 20 miles away from Hartford.
It’s a trip Chelsea’s been making since first grade. Now she's a sophomore.
"A lot of my close friends are the ones on the bus, because I've grown up with them.So they know just about almost everything, except my DNA."
There are a lot of reasons Linda Gilbert wanted her daughter to go to school outside the city, but it started with a flash decision. She was in a library and saw an application form.
"So I just filled it out. And I heard from it right away. And they called and said, we have one opening, and it’s in Southington, and I said I’ll take it.”
Part of it was logistics. Seeing her daughter off on an early-morning bus fit better with her work schedule.She also thought leaving the city might get Chelsea closer to educational opportunities, and farther away from bad influences.
Plus, unlike in Hartford, her classmates would not be predominantly other black or Latino students.
"I think it’s important for there to be a mixture because they’re going to learn so much about one another. Because there’s a lot of misconceptions about people of color. So this way, you get to talk to each other, and you say, oh, I didn’t know that, you know?”
Though Chelsea was just a little girl, she remembers the shock of switching districts after kindergarten.
“When I first arrived in Southington schools, it was different, because the first thing I said was, 'Mommy, none of these kids look like me.' They had never really seen an African American child, so they were just like, 'Are you on welfare? Do you live in an apartment? And I'm like, "No, what is welfare? I'm in first grade. What are you talking about? ' So it was definitely a difference, because when you’re around your own culture, they don’t ask you things like that.”
She’s still doing a lot of educating about life in Hartford – and sometimes it gets old. Like when she’s trying to plan get-togethers outside school.
“I can go to their house, but they can’t come to Hartford, because their parents bash Hartford so bad. They bash it. They're just like, 'I don’ want you to get shot. I don’t want you around that type of neighborhood. You don’t know where I’m from."
This is when it's hard, when she feels the weight of having to personally undo entrenched racial stereotypes.
But like most things dealing with race, it's complicated.
There have also been moments that brought a deep sense of belonging.
Like when the school sent a car to bring her mom from Hartford to see Chelsea's choir concert last December. Linda Gilbert had a stroke a couple of years back, and is largely home-bound.
"They were just so fantastic, you know?"
The gesture still brings tears to her eyes.
"The school did that, yes they did."
Then, there was the drill team that Chelsea started in 8th grade. They did step routines -- the kind of rhythmic stomping dances with roots deep in African American culture.
”It was like three Latinos, predominantly white, and it was like 2 ,3, 4 black girls on the team. Some of the girls who walked onto the drill team had no type of rhythm. And me and my friends, who were all minorities, were like, what did we get ourselves into?"
Before long, the team was performing during breaks at school basketball games."
And by the team we finished, we were like, wow, look what we created. It’s gorgeous. People who had no rhythm, now had rhythm. I was like, wow, I did that. We did that together as a team.”
That is what she talks about when you ask Chelsea about getting bussed to the suburbs. Not test scores or curriculum or graduation rates, but learning how to walk the line of racial identity, as she shifts between radically different environments.
"I'm from Hartford. I'm not from Southington. I listen to hip and R&B and I sometimes change up my music, but I'm never going go and change the way I talk or anything. I'm still Chelsea Tashai Atkins. How I started the program is how I'm going to end this program."
And she knows that tension isn't going to end with high school.
“If this is what the real world’s going to be like somewhat, then I guess I’m preparing myself for it.”
But before she enters the workforce, she may be up for something a little different. Chelsea went on a college tour over spring break–and visited all historically black schools.