In the cafeteria, where the trouble began on Feb. 13, 1969, the floor was slick with milk spilled from those small cartons ubiquitous in American schools. Windows were broken. Tables overturned. Pieces of broken glass crunched under the feet of investigators trying to figure out what happened, and how things at Oliver High School had gotten so quickly out of control.
The anger that had flared in the room just a short time earlier had gone from the place and now there was mostly sadness. A 17-year-old senior named Ed sat by himself and did not look up at the mess around him. He was part of the school’s Grievance Committee, which had tried to head off the clash. He admitted that his group’s efforts “just turned into a big nothing.”
His friend Greg stood nearby. “I thought we were there,” Greg said. “I thought we were getting things fixed up pretty well between blacks and whites.”
Audrey Beverett agreed. In sewing class and gym class, white girls and black girls laughed and joked with each other and “it really seemed like school again.”
But then, at noon, words were exchanged in the cafeteria. Students separated. Whites at one end, blacks at the other. Stools and trays and fists flew through the air. This went on for 15 minutes. In the end, two students were taken to Allegheny General Hospital and the cafeteria was a shambles.
Oliver had experienced trouble before. In Nov. 1967, a 45-minute melee between white and black students ended only when 150 police showed up. School officials were shocked. They thought Oliver was a place of “good race relations.”
A year later, brawling students shattered dishes and tore out light fixtures in the cafeteria. The rukus spilled onto the streets outside, where teenagers lobbed rocks and bricks at each other. Students were getting accustomed to seeing lines of police officers in the hallways.
One parent at Oliver worried the kids were becoming “monsters.”
It’s not the students, said the school’s new principal, Dominic Iannotta. It’s not the school.
“The adults have taught these kids to hate,” he said. “Every time there is a disruption at Oliver, people ask the question, ‘What’s wrong with Oliver?’ Instead, they should be asking, ‘What’s wrong with the community?’”