This is the second of three articles examining the lives of Eastern Jackson County black couples in honor of February as Black History Month.
Clarence Lawrence Jr. saw Tracy Piper standing at a drinking fountain during his second grade year.
Instantly, he felt drawn to her cute demeanor, her braided pigtails that fell past her shoulders, each secured with a ribbon.
“I fell in love with her,” Clarence said. “I knew right then I wanted to marry her. I didn’t have a date with her until I was a senior in high school.”
Tracy and Book attended the all-black Lincoln Elementary School in Marshall, Mo., about 80 miles from Independence. They never attended kindergarten because the grade wasn’t offered for the black students in Marshall at the time they started school.
“No, it really doesn’t,” Book said of whether it feels strange to hear others discuss their monumental first day of kindergarten.
“That’s what we knew,” Tracy said. “You just didn’t do it.”
“I didn’t think about it at all,” Book said about attending an integrated school one day. “I was perfectly happy at Lincoln School. We had good teachers, and all of my peers were there. The teachers taught us well, and we had good sports. I just never thought about going to an integrated school.”
Lincoln School only offered first through ninth grades, Tracy said, and then black students were bused 30 miles one way to Sedalia, Mo., because blacks were unable to attend high school in Marshall.
“It really didn’t concern anyone until the early ’50s,” Tracy, 64, said. “I know when my older sister was ready to go to 10th grade, my mother began her fight because she said no child of hers would ride 60 miles a day when there were two high schools in town.”
Tracy started attending Catholic schools in sixth grade. In seventh through 12th grade, Tracy was the lone black student at Mercy High School. She momentarily searches for the right words to describe the experience. For high school proms, she usually asked her dates to accompany her “because nobody was really going to ask you, and I feel that’s mainly because their parents wouldn’t allow them to.”
“I don’t remember it being super hard. The first year, I guess, was kind of hard,” Tracy said. “Nobody was really mean to you, but you were not really accepted. They had to get used to what you were like. Overall, I had a lot of fun.”
Tracy was a good student who loved books and said her teachers provided her with extra reading assignments, “pushing her outside of what was in school.” She graduated with a class of 16 students in 1963.
“That’s your way out: education,” Tracy said her mother repeatedly emphasized. “That’s your way to succeed. She wasn’t really an outgoing person until it came to seeing her children get an education.”
Meanwhile, Clarence set out to earn his nickname “Book.” It started out as “Booker T.” because of the instrumental R&B band Booker T. & the M.G.’s “Green Onions,” a song Clarence loved.
“I either whistled it or hummed it everywhere I went,” Book, 63, said, “and my friend Harry started calling me Booker T. Over the years, it’s gotten shortened to just Book.”
Seventh grade at Marshall Junior/Senior High School marked Book’s first year of attending school with white children.
“We were just alike; we were just different colored people,” Book said. “I wouldn’t call it a seamless transition – there were some scuffles, but I think you would have that at any school. We got along pretty good.”
High school served as a good experience for Book, who described himself as well-liked and popular. In 1965, he became the first black president of a Marshall senior class. He was co-captain of the football team and was captain of the track team.
“I think we were a little bit more protected because we grew up in a small town compared to the city,” Tracy said. “I never felt threatened.”
Book and Tracy married on Jan. 5, 1973, nearly eight years after their first date. She worked as a registered nurse while Book bought a transport truck and hauled gasoline after a stint in the U.S. Air Force.
Tracy and Book moved frequently because of Book’s work but settled in Independence in 1997. In moving to Falls City, Neb., during the late 1970s, the Lawrences remained the only black family among 5,500 people.
“We were on the tour,” Tracy said jokingly. “There were some people who weren’t as nice, but there were some friendly people. People would drive by our house, point and say, ‘That’s where they live.’”
Both Tracy and Book are now active in St. Mark Catholic Church’s choir. Tracy serves on the church’s social justice ministry, and Book is active in the Knights of Columbus. They said their parents instilled in them the importance of education and hard work.
“Nobody really owes you anything. You have to get it for yourself,” Tracy said of the beliefs she was taught. “You’re as good as anyone, but you’re not better than anyone – and there’s something to be learned from everyone.”