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Melba Ayco shares life lessons from a childhood in the segregated South


Melba Ayco is the Artistic and Program Director for Northwest Tap Connection. The studio, located on Rainier Avenue in South Seattle, teaches children how to dance. Most of the students are African American. Along with learning how to shuffle and do a time step, Northwest Tap students get a lot of exposure to social justice issues, thanks in large part to Melba. 


When Melba was nine years old, growing up in rural Louisiana, she stepped onto a bus to head to a new school.


She was going to be one the school’s first African American students. She would end up being one of two children of color in a classroom full of white faces.


When the bus arrived in front of the school, she says crowds of white people were gathered outside, shouting and screaming for the black kids to go back home. It wasn’t until people started throwing bricks and shattering the bus’s windows that Ayko became afraid.


“I was thinking, oh my god, oh my god, what’s gonna happen?” said Melba, recalling that day.


Then, the angry mob threatened to set the bus on fire. Mr. Jackson, the principal and a white man, put a stop to that by stepping onto the bus.


“He talked about how these were children and that he wasn’t getting off.  And that if they were going to torch the bus, they needed to know they would be burning a white man too,” said Melba.


When Melba Ayco was a child, she became incredibly angry when she first became aware of what white people had compared to black people.


“It was almost like, if you’ve only ever had grape Koolaid, you never know that there are other flavors, like strawberry, that may taste better. Suddenly at nine years of age, those blinders of what I had lived, secured in segregation, are just completely torn,” Melba said.


In this story, we’ll hear how she overcame her anger. Today, Melba infuses the dance lessons with stories from her own past to help today’s kids understand the world they are living in.


“Even if you get just 10 percent of who comes through these doors rooted into understanding who they are and making a better tomorrow, that makes it so good and successful for me,” Melba said.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.
Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.