Friday, July 21, 2023

Reconciling Segregation Academies

Ellen Ann Fentress has a really cool project where she's illuminating the histories of Mississippians who attended the many "segregation academies" that arose at the end of the sixties and the start of the seventies.   I spent most of the twilight hours last night digging through it.  

When I was really too young to have their respect, I asked both Jesse Howell and Glen Caine about this.  The only thing I had working in my favor was they both knew I was the third generation of a family that had served Mississippi Schools since the end of the First World War.  Working against me, they knew I was on friendly terms with Bob Fortenberry, William Winter, Charlie Deaton, and Ray Mabus, and I might feel some sorta way about the schools that sprang out of segregation, and I did.  

I myself had gone to St. Andrews.  One of the few private schools in Mississippi that didn't spring out of the segregation wars.  One of the reasons I went to St. Andews was that the superintendent of Jackson Public Schools had told my grandfather that "Jim better get those boys into private schools because I don't know what's gonna happen."  He wasn't long before his retirement date, so I guess he felt some sort of freedom of speech in that.  He was also pretty involved in the efforts to keep Jackson Public Schools separate for as long as they were.  After he retired, we went through three or four superintendents until Bob Fortenberry decided to return to Mississippi and take on the task.  

Glen Caine was a lot more forthcoming with me than Jesse Howell.  Glen gave an awful lot of his time to Millsaps after his tenure at Jackson Academy, and I'll always have a lot of warm feelings toward him.  Both men told me the same thing.  Their goal was to create something like Memphis University School in Jackson, and there were many reasons to create a new school than just segregation.   I believe they were telling the truth, but I also believe we can't really hold MUS faultless in all this.   

They were both very determined that I know their school had no connection with the Citizens Council.   While that was true, it's also true that no white person in Jackson was very far from the Citizens Council.  In my studies of the time when Galloway UMC split in two, a lot of the names were members of the Citizens Council.  These were people I knew; some of them were people I respected and liked.  This is a very confusing history, one that will take a good bit more than the seventy years we've had to sort it all out.

I've heard many times the story of when Mr. Howell tried to buy land for the school from Mr. Westbrook and offered him a price, to which Mr. Wesbrook said, "If that's all you got, you better go talk to Gus Primos about some of that swampy land his dad bought in Rankin County," and that's what he did.  That's how Prep ended up where it is.  

I asked both of them why they built metal commercial buildings rather than conventional construction methods.  Their schools, in the early years, were basically warehouses with air conditioners.  Both of them told me the same thing.  That style of construction met their needs, both in terms of capital outlay and expedience and that's what struck me: why expedience? Why was there such a hurry to get the school built, and why didn't they have more time to build up their capital beforehand.  

I have an awful lot of respect for both of these men.  They educated a hell of a lot of people I know and did it well.  There's still a dangling sword in all this, though.  It may be that my generation can't really address this adequately, although Ellen Ann Fentress is trying to.  People like Cindy Hyde-Smith, clearly don't give a fuck.  There's also the issue of what taking 90% of the white kids out of the Jackson Public Schools did to the system that was left after and what responsibility we have to redress this.  In a lot of ways, Jackson Schools are as segregated now as they were in 1960, and it has an impact on the quality of education you can get in Jackson and the quality of life for the people who live here.  If a city can't offer quality public education, they might as well give up on attracting young couples to the city.  

The sins of the Father is a really complicated issue for Mississippians and not one we handle well.  It has a tremendous impact on the quality of life we can offer now too, even though we're all pretty old and the fathers are mostly dead.  I don't believe in the solution of moving everybody to Madison and Rankin County and starting all over.  I don't think that solves the problem; I think it moves it further down the road.  Sometimes moving the problem further down the road can make it much more formidable when you do face it.  

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