Matt Driscoll

Unearthed 1969 essays show Tacoma kids hoped for a future better than the one they got

Cynthia Underwood, a ninth grader at Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma, was looking toward the future.

“I hope by the time this is read there will be no racial problems,” Underwood wrote in an essay assigned by Margaret Stenson, her history teacher at the school.

“I hope my children won’t have to experience the same pain and grievances that I have just because of the color of their skin,” Underwood continued, in near-perfect cursive. “We have been physically free from slavery for a long time now, but we want mental freedom also. The problems of today are much milder than those of 100 years ago, but that doesn’t put off the fact that they are still problems.”

The words are poignant, and many of them could easily be mistaken for contemporary.

In fact, they were put to lined paper 50 years ago.

Underwood’s essay is part of a recently discovered collection — all written by Jason Lee ninth graders in 1969 — originally included in a written time capsule to be read by the graduating class of 2019.

On Thursday, that’s precisely what will happen. The free event — which will run 6-8 pm at Jason Lee and is open to the public — is being billed by the district as an “evening of history, memories and light refreshments.”

But for those open to an honest reflection, it promises to be much more.

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The essays, according to John Prosser, the current chair of Jason Lee’s social studies program, underscore both the tumult of the time and concerns about things like racism, gun violence and drugs that persist today, unresolved half a century later.

The event almost didn’t happen because the letters nearly went undiscovered.

They were found, by chance, over the last two years in a pair of dust-covered binders, Prosser said. In total, there are more than 130 essays, spanning roughly 150 pages of scanned handwriting.

The musings run the gamut, Prosser said. They cover topics relatively minor in nature, like what students did for fun (for instance, memorizing the lines to Glenn Yarbrough songs), to matters of more consequence, like the Vietnam war, tense race relations and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Some of the writing is optimistic, Prosser said, while other students — like Underwood — express illuminating concerns.

“These letters — except maybe for the technology references being a dead giveaway — could have been written by current students,” Prosser said.

At first, Prosser acknowledged, he had no idea what he was looking at when the essays were found — and not just because the penmanship in many of the essays “is so good it’s almost too good.”

There was no record of Ms. Stenson’s assignment from 50 years ago, and until the second binder was located — which contained Stenson’s explanation, addressed to the Jason Lee class of 2019 — Prosser could only wonder about the essays’ origins.

“When we found that we were like, ‘Oh my god. This was a legit project for her class, clearly planned out,’” Prosser said. “They were going through a pretty transformative year in U.S history … Some letters are especially poignant for their take on the world, other letters provide strong imagery of living in 1969.”

Once Prosser realized what he had on his hands, with the district’s help he went about organizing Thursday’s event. He said the decision was obvious.

The only trouble, Prosser said, was finding Jason Lee ninth graders from 1969.

Prosser was able to locate a few. He still has no idea what happened to Cynthia Underwood, and he hasn’t been able to track down Stenson.

Tony Herrera, 64, who graduated from Jason Lee Middle School in 1969 and Stadium High School in 1972, was located. Herrera went on to join the Air Force and was stationed around the world before returning to the Tacoma area.

Today, Herrera — who is of mixed Latino and Native American ancestry — lives in Union, north of Shelton. He works for the Skokomish Indian Tribe.

When Herrera was first reminded of the essays and learned of the event, he acknowledged in an interview with The News Tribune that the project wasn’t something he had “really thought about over the last 50 years.”

However, back in 1969, Herrera said he remembers thinking the project “was really cool, because to think ahead 50 years, when you’re 14 years old, that’s hard to do.”

“I thought that was a novel concept,” Herrera said. “I certainly wanted to be a part of it, just to see how it would turn out.”

Herrera contributed three essays in total.

In 1969, the voting age was 21. With 18-year-olds being sent to Vietnam and dying in the war, Herrera thought the age should be lowered.

Two years later, it was.

The other contribution that still resonates in Herrera’s mind is an essay he wrote about “how we need to treat each other with respect and be kind to one another.”

Change on that front, Herrera said, has not been nearly as swift.

“The world would be a better place if we just treat each other right. That was the essence of what I wrote,” Herrera said.

His essay, he explained, was influenced by the recent assassinations of King and Kennedy, as well as the Watts riots in Los Angeles, the Mother’s Day riot in Tacoma in 1969 — “only a few blocks from his house,” he recalled — and the violence that rocked the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Today, though Herrera doesn’t see the same level of violence in the streets, he sees a similar level of simmering racial and societal tension.

In part, he blames politics, and specifically the current U.S. president.

“(Trump) is sowing seeds of discontent among the people. That’s my opinion,” Herrera said. “He’s stirring up racism, in my mind.”

Back in 1969 when he was 14, Herrera hoped the country would be further along by now.

He’s disappointed we’re not.

His 50-year-old essay, meanwhile, like so many in the collection, serves as both a historic relic highlighting how far we’ve come and a stark reminder of how far we have yet to go.

“I think strides have been made, but right now it’s like we’re taking a couple steps backwards,” Herrera said.

Looking around in the year 2019, it’s hard not to agree with him.