My “Witness,” Part 9 Millsaps, Part 1

The first time I set foot on the Millsaps College campus was the day I moved into the Freshman Dorm (“Ezelle Hotel”). I must have spoken to an admissions counselor at Greenville High School, but I remember only a late spring phone call with John Christmas, Dean of Admissions. He “goosed” the Financial Aid office and I got a Financial Aid offer that worked. There are, no doubt, many reasons why that SHOULDN’T have worked out well, but it was one of the most spectacularly good decisions I’ve ever made.

I was, at that time, still very much the “Good Baptist Boy” my mother had raised. I wasn’t at all interested in the fraternity scene and did not sing up for “rush.” I did go to a worship service in the college chapel on that first night. There I met Bill Singer, who would become my best friend throughout my Millsaps years. I also met, or at least SAW, Don Fortenberry, the College Chaplain.

I had figured out my class schedule on my own, by reading the college catalogue. I sent in my schedule directly to the Dean’s office, much to the irritation of my assigned Faculty Advisor, Austin Wilson.:). I saw that there was a program called “Heritage” that would allow me to fulfill many of my core curriculum requirements. That sounded good, so I signed up for Heritage. This was another of my “low information” decisions that COULD have gone wrong, but went spectacularly well. Heritage was a seven semester hour (14 over two semesters) multi-disciplinary course that covered the History, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Music “Heritage” of the West. Again, I encountered teachers who knew their subjects, but were really teaching “themselves,” letting me see what they were passionate about. T.W. Lewis approached the teaching of Religion in a way we hadn’t covered at First Baptist Church. Michael Mitias BECAME the philosophers he was teaching. Jonathan Sweat made the composers and music he was teaching come alive. Catherine Freis wore her passion for Homer on her sleeve. Richard Freis quietly directed and coordinated the whole system. I was most grateful for Nell Thomas’ instruction, because we wrote all essay exams. At some point when T.W. Lewis was illuminating something about the letters of Paul, I felt a “nudge” toward a life in ministry. How this Baptist boy was going to make that work with enrollment in a United Methodist college was unclear, but I felt no “nudge” at all to transfer.

During one of Frank Laney’s lectures on European history, I felt another “nudge.” I had, of course, greatly admired Nell Thomas and my general thought at the beginning of my college work was that I would become an English teacher. Now, the “nudge” I was feeling was toward becoming a History major. As you may have noticed, I seem to listen to “nudges.” Most of the time, that has worked out. My final three years at Millsaps would be the playing out of those “nudges.”

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My “Witness,” Part 8, Greenville, Part 5

I had been following politics since the 1968 Presidential election. My father was a Republican and a Nixon supporter, so was I. In 1972 a Republican, Gil Carmichael, challenged Jim Eastland for Senator from Mississippi. Those interested in racial justice would have voted for Carmichael. Carmichael was also the Republican nominee for Governor in 1975. Pam Moore, my most politically aware Black classmate, supported Carmichael. I had been a regular and thorough reader of The Delta Democrat-Times since we moved to Greenville and had added The Commercial Appeal from my tenth grade year onward. I had been disappointed when it turned out that Richard Nixon was guilty of the Watergate crimes of which he had been accused and I accepted the necessity of his resignation.

All of the above is to say that I was paying attention to the 1976 Presidential election. During that summer I read Jimmy Carter’s campaign biography Why Not the Best? One particular story stood out to me. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter had been advocates of rescinding a policy denying worship seating at First Baptist Church in Plains, GA. That resonated with me, since we had had the same bitter argument at First Baptist Greenville, with the same unsatisfactory result. I became a Carter supporter for that reason, primarily. That support made me an outlier among my White classmates. Not a lone outlier, but an outlier still. i couldn’t (and can’t) attribute the support of Gerald Ford to racism, since the Ford supporters had been Carmichael supporters the previous year.

So I began my senior year. By far the most influential person of my academic life and one of the most influential, period was central to that year. Nell Thomas was named the Best English Teacher in America during the 1960s. By 1976, she was sometimes teaching the children of people she had taught at Greenville High School. The subjects she taught that year were World Literature and AP English. I took both. Like all great teachers, though, she taught herself. She demanded precision in written and oral expression. She broke down HOW to structure an essay or essay question. She was famous for her “half points off” red marks on your “perfect” papers and exams. What she was teaching, really, was character and integrity. If we were getting a little rowdy, all she had to say was “Seniahs” (“Seniors” in Delta). I had been named a National Merit Semi-Finalist, but I was still thinking of attending Mississippi College. It was she who encouraged me to set my sights higher. I was admitted to Vanderbilt, but the financial aid package offered was inadequate for me to afford it. I was also admitted to Millsaps College, and the financial aid package was adequate. That was my first “adult” decision and it turned out to be one of my best. I’ll address Millsaps in my next post, but I need to “shout out” to one other teacher first.

Virginia Alexander was the Assistant Librarian at Greenville High School. The library sponsored the Literary Bowl inside the school and Mrs. Alexander coached our County team. She had noted my ability in writing and in rapid recall. She also was the Coach of the Debate Team. She implored me to join the Debate Team. I did so for my Senior year, if somewhat unwillingly. I mostly learned how to do it by doing it. I did fair, I guess. My partner was Pam Moore, certainly the most articulate and politically and socially aware Black woman in my class. She probably “carried” me on debate, but that is another relationship where I functioned as an “equal” to someone who likely had things to overcome that I had no experience of and could not easily imagine.

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My “Witness,” Part 7, Greenville, Part 4

I’m still learning WordPress. I was unable to discern if it’s possible to edit an already published post. Here I’m going to insert an elaboration on Part 2. I recall that we moved to Jackson, MS in October 1969. I know I attended a game between Ole Miss and LSU at Veterans Memorial Stadium during Archie Manning’s Junior year. For that reason, I’m pretty sure that we were already in Jackson when Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education was decided on October 29, 1969. In those days I read the newspaper only for the comics, so this momentous event escaped my notice. This was the decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Mississippi’s progress toward school desegregation had had all the “deliberate speed” it needed and that integration had to happen NOW. Only nine weeks later, the most momentous cultural and educational event of the 20th century took place. That absolutely HAD to happen, but I and tens of thousands of other Mississippi School children and school employees were “drafted” into a social experiment not of our choosing.

Back to Greenville: One of the ways Mississippi had tried to evade desegregation in the period between Brown v Board of Education and Alexander v Holmes County was to repeal the compulsory school attendance law. One result of that was a lazzies faire approach to school transportation. Since the state “officially” didn’t care if we went to school or not, there was also no provision made for getting us there. Our house was about two miles from Coleman, more than five miles from Weston High School (where all Greenville Public Schools tenth graders attended) and a mile and a half from Greenville High School (eleventh and twelfth grades). My mother had an 8:00-5:00 job and the responsibility of getting my four years’ younger sister to HER schools. I was “on my own” for getting FROM school almost all six years and for getting TO school for all three years of high school. I couldn’t take the bus, because there was no bus. “Forced busing” was a flash point of controversy in the early to mid-1970s in the United States as a whole, but there was not even any “voluntary” busing in Greenville. I pieced together ways to get to and from school, often using a bicycle or my feet.

My tenth grade was all right. My abusive stepfather was spending more and more time away from the house, which was all right with me. I had the best math teacher (in the sense that he was able to teach in a way that I was able to learn) for geometry. One think I discovered during that year was that I was exceptionally good at rapid recall and recitation of literary trivia. I participated in an in-school “Literary Bowl” and did quite well.

By the summer of 1975, at the end of my tenth grade year, my mother’s second marriage came to an end. That was certainly a great relief to my brother, sister and me. I’m sure my mother and sister Jill had more “mixed” feelings about it, but it was a positive life development for all of us. Also that summer, my older brother moved to the Atlanta suburbs to live with our father. He was set on becoming an Electrical Engineer and wanted to establish Georgia residency, so that he could attend Georgia Tech at the in-state tuition rate. I suppose that all brothers have ambiguous relationships, but this was also a positive development for me. I would not be directly compared to him and he would not be leading any “teasing/bullying” directed at me during my last two years of high school.

I flourished at Greenville High School. Barbara McCormick in English, Tommy Pullen in World History, and Caroline Acree in Latin were some of the best teachers I ever had. I took the PSAT and made a score high enough to qualify as a National Merit Scholar. The Counselor, Robert Montesi took an interest in me and became a mentor. I also led the boys in the school-winning “Literary Bowl” competition. I was a team member also of our school’s “Challenge” team. This was an academic competition hosted by Mississippi College also focused on trivia recall. I was the only junior on the State Champion team

The public and private schools in Washington County did not compete in athletics, but there WAS academic competition at the Literary Bowl hosted by the County library. I was a member of the County Champion Literary Bowl team both my junior and senior years. Since part of the “narrative” was that the private schools were academically superior to the public schools, it was especially satisfying to win a head-to-head academic competition.

My senior year, and how I came to enroll at Millsaps College is the story for the next entry.

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My “Witness,” Part 1

My “witness” Part 1: My father is an alumnus of the Stetson University choir. (Class of 1956) At some point between 1963 and 1967, the Stetson Choir was on tour through Florida. By then my father was Minister of Music at East Hill Baptist Church in Pensacola. The Stetson choir was to perform at East Hill. There was one Black student in the choir. Our family hosted this woman and her tour roommate. My parents explained to my brother and me that these would be guests in our home and that we were to treat them with respect. I found out nearly ten years later that there was at least one member of East Hill who vociferously objected to a “Negro” being in the sanctuary and leading in worship. As far as I’m aware, no one lost his/her employment over the event. There certainly were MUCH more bitter fights going on elsewhere in the South about integrated worship services. By 1968 we were living in Jacksonville, Florida. My father was Minister of Music at First Baptist Church. In in 1968 First Baptist was observing its 125th anniversary. There was also an observation of 100 years since the formerly enslaved persons at First Baptist had left to form “their own church.” The summer of 1968 was a time of high tension in the United States and there certainly had to have been some tension in Jacksonville (which is rightly called the largest city in South Georgia). Nevertheless the leadership of both First Baptist and its African American “daughter” church developed plans for a joint celebration of the 125th and 100th anniversaries.The celebrations would include joint worship services at both First Baptist and the African American church. The guest speaker for the service at First Baptist was W.A. Criswell of First Baptist Dallas. Criswell was the closest thing to a Southern Baptist “Pope” as existed in the second half of the 20th century. For some reason Criswell thought that the way to connect with this interracial audience was to tell Negro “Dialect” “Jokes.” My father was sitting on the platform near Criswell and was genuinely afraid that someone might take a shot at Criswell, miss and hit him. The next morning Homer Lindsay, Sr. the pastor at FBC Jacksonville was driving Criswell to the airport. Criswell said “Homer, I blew it didn’t I?” “WA, you blew it as bad as it’s ever been blown.”I recall that there were some Black students at my elementary school, so I guess Jacksonville was under “Freedom of Choice.” The division between the White people I knew in Jacksonville over the 1968 Presidential election was between supporters of Richard Nixon and George Wallace. My parents supported Nixon. My parental grandparents had been anti-Roosevelt Republicans, so support of Nixon didn’t necessarily have a racial component. By 1969, when I started fifth grade, I had been in at least two “integrated” worship services (“Special” services, for sure) and had had at least a few Black classmates in public school. No one in my family or my church family were overly exercised about it, as best I remember. In October 1969, due to events in my family, we moved to Jackson, MS, where my father would be Minister of Music at Broadmoor Baptist Church. A lot of other “stuff” would also happen that year.

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My “Witness” Part 1

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My “Witness” Part 2

My “witness,” Part 2: Our family was wounded and my parents’ marriage was mortally wounded in ways I didn’t appreciate when we moved to Jackson, MS in October 1969. On October 29, the Supreme Court ruled in Alexander v Holmes County Board of Education that Mississippi had had all the “deliberate speed” they needed to desegregate its public schools. Jackson Public Schools Administration spent an extra “holiday” period in January 1970 redrawing attendance zones and reassigning teachers. Just nine weeks after Alexander, Jackson Public schools were desegregated. Our house (owned by Broadmoor Baptist Church) was on the same side of Northside Drive as Boyd Elementary School, so my brother, sister, and I continued to attend Boyd, but we had new teachers and new classmates. Again, though there were other sources of tension in our home, I don’t recall anyone getting “worked up” about our attending a fully integrated school. If there were fears for our safety, no one ever spoke them aloud for me to hear. I know from reading history that there were White parents who immediately pulled their children out of public schools and put them in newly formed private “academies,” but no one talked about doing that with us in my hearing. By the end of February 1970 my father had resigned his position at Broadmoor Baptist Church and returned to Jacksonville. Our family was now in “survival” mode, since we were without an income and were living in a house set aside for the Minister of Music, who was no longer in that position or in residence. It is a great tribute to the kindness of Broadmoor Baptist Church that we did not have to move out of that house for the remainder of the school year. I had always had difficulty with math and had spent the summer of 1969 in “remedial” math in Jacksonville. My newly assigned fifth grade math teacher (my fourth of that school year) and I were not connecting. She happened to be Black. I’m sure that teaching White students and reporting to a White principal for the first time was quite stressful for her. I have sometimes been called “stubborn.” For exactly the same reason, I have also been called “Brown-eyed.” My mother sought to intervene in my math teacher relationship. The principal told her “Mrs. Altman, I can’t move a White student from a Black teacher’s class this year.” That was, by far, not the worst thing that happened that year, but it’s the only educational/academic consequence I remember.

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My “Witness, Part 4 Greenville

My “witness” Part 4: Greenville:Greenville, MS is a Mississippi River port city in the Mississippi Delta. A book about the Delta calls it “The Most Southern Place on Earth.” That is quite true. Our family moved to Greenville is late August of 1971. Unbeknownst to us, when the 1969 Supreme Court decision Alexander v Holmes County, ordering unified, non-segregated school districts in Mississippi came down, a community meeting took place at the Buster Brown Community Center to plan for private academies to educate the White children in Washington County whose parents could afford the tuition. By the time we arrived in Greenville in 1971, those private schools had been built and were up and running. Most other communities in the Delta, the Jackson area, and any other areas of the state where Whites were not in a clear majority likewise established private schools, with the goal of continuing “separate, but (un)equal” education. The State Legislature even appropriated money to support these private schools. I was about to start seventh grade, so the larger political events were unknown to me. It’s certainly clear, with 50 years of perspective, that the decision to withdraw White students from public schools in Mississippi was a nearly fatal self-inflicted wound to the communities that made it. A strong, well-funded public school system is the single most important economic development tool any community has The economic struggles of the Delta over the last 50 years make that clear, well beyond any moral or ethical issues raised by continuing resistance to lifting up ALL in the state. I began seventh grade at Coleman Junior High School. I soon learned that Coleman had been the “Black” high school in Greenville. Major League Baseball player George Scott, and NFL players Gloster and Willie Richardson had starred for the Coleman Tigers before their pro careers. Numerous other athletes, scholars, and other professionals were Coleman alumni. It’s clear to me, now, that re-purposing the building as a “Junior” High School, while apparently “practical,” was also an act of cultural erasure. I recall the football stands being dismantled while I was in PE that 1971-72 school year. There may have been a safety-related reason, but that was, likewise, a kind of cultural erasure. The obvious divide in the Delta is between Black and White, but there is, likewise, a “caste” system within the White community. At the top are the owners of the means of production and distribution. Those would be owners of agricultural land and of the towing companies at the Port of Greenville. Just behind would be the businesses directly supporting the owners-Cotton Brokers, Agricultural Equipment dealers, other vehicle dealers, fuel brokers, etc. Just behind would be the professionals, doctors and lawyers, vets, etc. In a position sort of by himself was Hodding Carter, III the owner/publisher of the local newspaper. There were also small business owners, restauranteurs, service stations, etc. In a unique position were the Chinese grocery store owners. These were not “Black,” but not quite “White” either. Ethnic Chinese children moved from the “Black” to “White” schools in the Delta in the early 1950s. White clergy were “hired help,” if sometimes well compensated “hired help.”My mother was a department manager at a private hospital. She was a woman doing a “woman’s job.” She was not well paid. She was definitely part of the “hired help.” We were in a somewhat isolated position. In Mississippi the first two questions people ask are “Where are you from and Who are your people.” Well, we weren’t “from there” and our “people” were out of state. Furthermore, my mother was a divorced woman in 1971, long before that became “trendy.” As our family did, we found our way to church, in this case First Baptist Church. This church had all the White castes, from “owners” to “hired help.” There was also a “Chinese Mission” that had Chinese language services on Sunday afternoons. There were also second and third generation native English speakers who attended “regular” Sunday School and Worship. That’s a lot of (necessary) throat clearing. I’ll talk more about my experience of church and school in Greenville at a later time.

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