My “Witness” Part 5, Greenville, Part 2: The worst natural disaster ever to befall Greenville and Washington County was the 1927 Mississippi River Flood. The story I heard when I was living there was that it was a time when the community came together in recovery. I was over 55 years old when I learned that many Black people were, essentially, re-enslaved and set to forced labor on the levees. They were also confined to living in tents on the levees. It’s not surprising that this part of the story was consigned to the “memory hole” of White Greenville and Washington County. I suspect that it was much more of a living and family memory in Black Greenville and Washington County, but I’ve never asked. It was, in any case, a part of the inheritance of guilt and shame that everyone carried, even if they didn’t know its source.As I mentioned, I was a seventh grader at Coleman Junior High School in the 1971-72 school year. Though many of the economic elites had removed their children to private schools, the Greenville Public School system was still about 35% White during my six years in it. Coleman was probably a little more heavily Black than that. Bass Junior High School, whose attendance zone was more in the central part of the city, was almost completely Black. Solomon, which had been the “White” Junior high school, was at least 50-50. Not so incidentally, Solomon was the only Junior High School with air conditioning. The combination of heat and humidity in the Mississippi Delta is the worst I’ve ever experienced. Though we didn’t begin school until the end of August, September, October, and May were brutally hot. That had to have had an effect on learning. Of course, the new private schools were air conditioned. I was, for the first time, a “minority.” I had a Black male teacher (Social Studies) for the first time. I still was no good in math, but by far my worst class was Physical Education. I’m not at all athletic. I was under the authority of male PE teachers (both Black and White) who knew how to coach athletes, but had no real respect or sympathy for the unathletic or any ability or willingness to adapt the curriculum for such students. I honestly do not remember any “racialized” bullying directed toward me, but there was plenty of bullying in PE for the slow, overweight and clumsy kid. Some (not all) the perpetrators were Black, but I never thought they were targeting me because of race.During Christmas break, my mother was invited to play cards at the home of the adult daughter of the pastor at First Baptist Church. Imagine my surprise when another person present was her stepson, who was the Study Hall coach at Coleman. My brother and I both told our mother he was “mean.” My mother, who had become infatuated with him, dismissed that complaint. “He just has to act that way at school so he can keep order.” My brother and I were right, and she was wrong. He was “mean” to the core.My mother married him in February 1972 and was soon pregnant with a “honeymoon baby.” My sister Jill, born November 1972, is the only thing positive about the three and a half years of hell my family and I lived with. She is now the marvelous mother of three. Everything good about her is a credit to our mother. School, along with First Baptist Church, became more havens from bullying and abuse than sources of it. Though I absorbed bullying and abuse, I have to say that my older brother and my mother absorbed more. I’d have to say though, that my brother passed some of what he absorbed down to me.During the second semester of my seventh grade year, I moved from art, which I did not like, to chorus, which I did. Kaye Ventura was the chorus teacher. She became my first Black “mentor” teacher. I became a member of the chorus and remained all three years. I learned a great deal, absorbed Black culture, and made lasting friendships with several Black students. I still think that Virgie Selzer gave the best performance of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” I’ve ever heard. Academically, I did increasingly well, with the exception of math. By eighth and ninth grade, I was making As and winning awards in English and Social Studies and doing all right in science.16 Comments
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