Dying and Remembering

by Joy Schulman

After my 50-year anniversary high school reunion, I was exhilarated and full of emotion, as was the rest of the organizing committee, which I headed. Through our conscientiousness and hard work, we had succeeded in getting out a representative portion of our class. As the class was 50 years ago, our attendance was equally divided between African-American and Jewish classmates. The valedictorian and salutatorian were both there, as well as the cheerleaders and best dancers. And to everyone’s delight, the basketball players showed up! That basketball team, those very tall Black men, had been named the best team in the country in 1967, and had gone on to play in college and professionally. We were all very happy to see each other. The dancing and socializing went on for nearly five hours. The night before, at was originally a gathering for out-of-towners, nearly 50 people showed up. And on Sunday morning over brunch, a classmate of our own, a well-known historian, talked about Jews and Blacks in Newark’s civil rights movement.

Out of a graduating class of 480 students, 160 attended, about one third. But the percentage was actually much higher because 59 of our fellow students had died.

There was only one dead student that I had known well–Tom Flagg–and he had been a very important friend to me. I met him in Honors English when I was a sophomore. We were both odd people out—-me because I came from one of the poorer schools that fed into Weequahic High and Tom because he was Black, even though he came from a richer school. We bonded very quickly and he would mouth snide comments to me from across the room. He was very smart and very athletic, seemingly the personality traits for being outgoing and confident, but he was very reserved. I got to know why: his parents, who both had PhDs, were trailblazers. His mother was the first Black person to become principal of an integrated school in Newark, and ultimately became Assistant Superintendent. Of course they wanted their children to go to the best elementary school in Newark, and so before he went to kindergarten, some white civil rights activists bought them a house on an all white block that was zoned for that best school. Until his younger sister enrolled 2 years later, he was the only Black student, and though he did not need guards at the door, he went through some awful stuff that he learned to endure and ignore by being reserved. My friendship with Tommy extended past high school. In our 20s, when I was home from Wisconsin and he from Michigan, we went into NYC together. (I remember it was to see a Woody Allen film.) And I spoke to him on the phone around 15 years ago, when I read that his mother was giving a keynote speech at the main branch of the Newark Public library. But that was the last time; the geographical distance between us was too great.

The alumni association of my high school has a weekly newsletter that I read irregularly. Two years ago they reported Tom dead, but I had not seen it. An old friend, who had read it, called me to offer condolences because she knew I was close to Tom. Instead she shocked me.

I really had no one to commiserate with and felt terrible. I wrote a little note on his legacy page, and I also wrote on the Facebook page of my high school classmates. About 20 people responded about what a nice kid he was. But their intensity did not match mine. Besides just liking him, I learned so much from his life experience. He was very smart, very respectful, but he had heard slurs even in elementary school. White people acted nervous when they were on an elevator with him. During the 1967 riots in Newark, he was stopped numerous times by the National Guard. I think that the racism was so stark because he fit no negative stereotype. When we were graduating in 1967, 43 colleges tried to recruit him, including the Ivy Leagues. He decided on University of Michigan, saying he did not want to be in an Ivy League fish bowl. His first letter to me from there had these words. “I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere, either with the poor Black kids from Detroit or the rich white kids from the suburbs.” That was the constant of his life. Without having anyone to grieve with, Tom’s death receded to the back of my mind.

Then about 6 months after his death, his sister contacted me. Though I did not know her at all, I was so happy to hear from her. The first line of her email was “you might not remember me, but I remember you” and an offering to send me Tom’s obituary. In response I poured out my heart to her, and we became email friends. We finally met for lunch in Newark. Afterwards, she drove us to the old neighborhood, where we dwelled on every corner and remembered the classmates that used to live there.

Their well known mother was still living at age 99. But she died a few months after I met up with Tom’s sister. Her funeral service was quite a send off—-a declaration from Newark’s mayor, Ras Baraka, the attendance of past mayors and city officials, as well as many of the children of those progressive parents who had conspired to buy the Flaggs a house on that formerly all white block. The Black congregants in the beautiful old Church in Newark sang familiar spirituals.

Alma Flagg was laid to rest, and so was my mind. I forgave myself for not seeing Tom in the years before his death.

Growing up in Newark influenced by whole life. I have been involved in progressive politics, with an emphasis on anti-racist work for my whole adult life, and professionally have been an advocate as a lawyer, community organizer and union representative.