By Nancy Crowell. Jackson Preparatory School, Class of 1973
Late in the summer of 1970, my parents broke the news to me that I was going to a new school – Jackson Preparatory. I didn’t have a choice. I knew things were changing in our school system, because I had been moved from my public junior high in the middle of the ninth grade to a small, private school. As a clueless teenager, though, I didn’t realize how quickly and dramatically things were changing. It seems the white students were fleeing public schools en masse, and a group of my parents’ peers had pooled their money to start a new private school that would employ all the best teachers they could pull from the public schools. This school wouldn’t have an overtly racist agenda, like the Citizens Council schools, but it certainly would have an impact. Make no mistake about it, this school was for white kids only. It was, however, proposed not as a seg academy, but as a college preparatory school – one that would offer the best education possible in Jackson, Mississippi in 1970.
As a teenager, I didn’t know any of this. I just knew that the high school I had always imagined attending, the one my much older siblings had all attended, was no longer an option. I was not happy, but what can you do when you’re fifteen? Unbeknownst to me, the great unraveling of public education in Mississippi had begun, and I was an unwitting contributor.
As I worked through the stages of grief at not attending the public high school I had always wanted to attend, where my sister had been a Hall of Famer and one of my brothers had been senior class president, it gradually dawned on me what was actually unfolding. I had to accept I was going to Prep, but I didn’t have to like it.
Prep was both easy and uncomfortable. There were plenty of familiar faces, and I had lots of friends, but I was appalled that the school, which I finally recognized for what it was - a white flight school - had chosen red, white and blue as the school colors, and more hypocritically, a “Patriot” as the school mascot. Although I’m told the mascot was lifted from the New England Patriots, even as a teenager I found the symbol offensive. There would be no silver and blue Murrah Mustangs for me. I never did get over that. I wasn’t much for the football culture of Mississippi either, but I did go to games because as a teenager in Mississippi it’s part of the social fabric.
By the time I reached my senior year I knew two things. I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to get out of Mississippi. I can’t say I was clear about much else, although I do remember having a very frank conversation with my mother in which I announced I never planned to get married (I didn’t see the point), and if I ever did I would certainly never marry a “football player from Mississippi.” I’m not sure what prompted that declaration, but I do remember seeing the football culture as the embodiment of the macho, misogynistic, racist culture I so loathed. I loved sports, but the only way I got to play basketball was through a church league. Meanwhile, all the school funding was poured into a football team, which was coached by the best coach in the state, also from Murrah, and quickly dominated the prep league. In many ways, my school didn’t change. I was with the same people I had been with since kindergarten. The cliques were the same. The smart kids were the same. The ones who were picked on were the same. Aside from not being in the actual building I had expected to attend, it was as if my class had been lifted, mostly whole, from the public system and plopped into the private system. There were the few brave souls who stayed in the public system, and I always admired them, but the vast majority of my peers were at Prep, with a few at the Citizens Council schools.
The only answer I ever got from my parents about why I had to attend Prep was that they wanted to be sure I got a good education. I tend to buy that explanation. My parents were progressive for their time, but it’s hard to get across to people who didn’t live through it how uncertain and dangerous Mississippi became with forced integration. It was a violent place, and I’m sure the uncertainty and turmoil of what was happening around us played a factor in their decision to send me to Prep. Also, there was this odd arrangement for the year of 1970 in which the sophomores were separated from juniors and seniors and bussed to one public school. My parents surely knew I didn’t do well in stressful situations and likely wouldn’t benefit from being bussed across town to a school full of tenth graders.
I think they likely saw it as my best chance to get a college-prep worthy education without disruption, and attending college was a given in my family. But it was still a white flight school and that shame will be with me for the rest of my life.
It’s not that I didn’t like my classmates. Many of them are still good friends to this day. I didn’t like the politics of the state. I didn’t like the people who clung to the Civil War as if it was some great injustice. I never understood the people who celebrated the remaining antebellum homes, while ignoring the abject poverty that surrounds them. Neither of my parents were from Mississippi. My Mom, who grew up on a small farm in upstate New York, still had people calling her a damn yankee 50 years after she moved to the state. I was the only one of my siblings born in Mississippi. It just never felt like my true home.
It wasn’t just the racism and bigotry. Misogyny was commonplace. When my peers chose me as a ‘beauty’ from our senior class, I was both flattered and embarrassed. The beauty pageant tradition still had a stronghold, especially in the South. As a 17-year-old I felt a tug of resistance to the entire concept, but I also wanted to fit in. And of course, what teenager doesn’t want to be told they are attractive? But, is this what people would remember about me? How I looked? I’m pretty sure my conflicted feelings came through during the questioning by the judges, as I felt so awkward and uncomfortable with the whole concept.
Today, every time someone “detects an accent” and asks me where I’m from, all the old feelings surface. That’s how the South “rises again” for me--as a jumble of embarrassing excuses for having been stuck in a place where I disagreed with the sentiments being expressed but had little power to do anything about it. I cringe every time I must admit I went to a white flight school despite being the product of a liberal household.
I saw first-hand that my father, a doctor, treated people equally. I worked in his office and remember black patients who were so habituated to discrimination they didn’t want to enter through the front door. My father took his Hippocratic oath to heart, and as far as I could tell, only saw people who were sick and needed treatment. The most striking indicator of this is that he counted among his patients both the family of Medgar Evers and of his 1963 murderer, Byron de la Beckwith. He didn’t see color. He did see poverty and suffering. I went on house calls with him as a child. I remember houses with dirt floors.
I remember visiting the Jackson zoo when I was very young and wanting to drink out of the ‘colored’ water fountain. After all, what kid wouldn’t want to drink “colored water”? On my street, one of the neighborhood kids called her best friend a ‘dirty Jew’ and still attended synagogue with her. I was never able to reconcile the hatred that pervaded the culture. I still can’t. I have not lived in Mississippi since I left for college when I was 17. Yet, I am forever tied to that place and that time. Flash forward all these years later and the irony doesn’t escape me that I have spent the last two decades with the man who was the star quarterback on our winning Prep football team. We connected when a high school reunion came up, and he asked someone if I would be there.
He likes to say they told him I said, “I didn’t like you people in high school—why would I come back now?” I more likely said something along the lines of “I only return to Mississippi for weddings and funerals.” Since I didn’t attend our reunion, he scoured AOL (which was the online platform at that time) and stumbled across my 10-year-old niece, who gleefully told him I was her aunt and gave him my email address. (How innocent were those first years of internet access?) I was living in Los Angeles, and he had been in Seattle for 18 years.
When I received his email with the subject line “Blast from The Past” and its brief note, the first thing I remembered was that we had one date the summer after our senior year, but he never called me back. The second thing I remembered was that he had played . . . basketball. He thought that was the funniest thing. He had been the quarterback of our championship football team, in fact. His dad was the winning coach. Initially, I didn’t remember any of that. Obviously, he was not talking to someone who would saddle him with all the baggage of football. I couldn’t have cared less about his superior passing and running skills on the gridiron.
I moved to the Pacific Northwest a few months later. That was 22 years ago. We were married in a civil ceremony in Seattle, by a black judge, with my lesbian cousin and her wife as our only witnesses. We were thrilled at the diversity and inclusiveness of our little ceremony and laughed at how far away it was from where we started.
We often talk about how those years are a shared experience that no one who wasn’t there can really grasp. We believe we have a mutual cultural shorthand that makes us closer, having lived through that hateful time in that hateful place together. We stay in touch with friends we knew, but the gap between those who stayed and us is increasingly wider. Our politics are progressive. Religion doesn’t dictate our social circles. The fact I don’t wear makeup doesn’t make me different here. It makes me normal.
My Mom always wanted me to ‘come home.’ She thought good, educated young people were abandoning the state, and it would be worse off for that. I never felt Mississippi was my home, and I certainly never felt the tug to return. I left for college and never looked back. Maybe that makes me selfish. Maybe that makes me smart. I doubt I could have succeeded there because it would not have taken me long to offend the people in power. I couldn’t play the games required to live in that world, where the Confederate flag is proud ‘heritage’ and social status is ranked by what church you attend. Yes, there are good people there. And there are memories from my childhood I cherish. I lived a privileged life in Mississippi. I had the advantages of race and money, including the privilege of getting out.
For the past 20 years we have lived 60 miles south of the Canadian border in a small town that has attracted artists, draft dodgers, writers and ne’er-do-wells since the 1950s. It is the first place that has truly felt like home to me. I am meant to be here.
There are a handful of Southern refugees here who commiserate on the dearth of quality tomatoes and happily contribute cheese grits and chess pies to potlucks. Yet they don’t miss much else about the South. Despite my best efforts, I have become a football fan.
When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them –"La Conner, Washington”. If they push it, pursuing the accent they say they detect, I must unpack the scars of growing up in Mississippi, and of having attended a seg academy, carefully. I do my best to explain, but I don’t expect them to understand.
Nancy Crowell is a photographer and freelance writer living in La Conner, Washington. Her website is crowellphotography.com. Her Instagram handle is @crowellphotography