By Caroline Langston, Manchester Academy, 1979-1982
We were public school people.
That was one of the first, and earliest identifications I had—probably because I was born when most of my five sisters and brothers were already in high school, and because I was a toddler when the Yazoo City Public Schools were integrated—at last—in 1970. My parents were not by any means liberals, but they chose, in the phrase my mother always used, to “stick with the public schools.”
My earliest memories were of parades that featured two homecoming queens, one black and one white, and the giant, integrated Yazoo City High School Indians marching band that thundered down Main Street in their chin-strapped hats and black, white, and red jackets with gold-fringed epaulettes.
This was what I knew: there was white Yazoo City, and there was black Yazoo City, and they were almost entirely separate, but both of them met at the door of the public schools. Events of recent history had been so effectively buried that one time in 1976, I was looking through my sister’s high school yearbook and had to ask why a picture of the Hastee-Tastee drive-through had a sign that said White Only!
But when it came time for me to go to first grade, my mother surprised me. It was an afternoon in the spring of 1974. I was sitting on the bottom step of the stairs in our house, barefooted and wearing a pair of shorts. I was five years old.
You can go to Annie Ellis Elementary like your brothers and sisters, she said. You can go to St. Clara.
St. Clara was the tiny Catholic school that would close within the year.
Or you can go to Manchester.
“Manchester” was Manchester Academy, the private school out on the edge of town that had been built in the middle of a cotton field, and had a row of fat white columns and a sign that said, “Established 1969.”
My playmate was the sheriff’s daughter and went to Manchester. She thought I should, too. She said something I didn’t understand, that I’ve kept turning over in my mind in all the years since: If I went to Manchester, I would always have a school. Even if the building burned down, I would always have some place to go.
I think now that this must have had something to do with the fact that, in 1969, when it became clear that the January 1970 integration was inevitable, the new private school was started up quickly in the Sunday School rooms of the Methodist and Presbyterian churches downtown—before there was even a building.
But back then, it just sounded alarming, like having “some place to go to” meant that somebody was going to make me go to it, like a cult. Furthermore, we were members of the First Baptist Church, and the First Baptists were supporters of the public schools., because local Mississippi Chemical CEO Owen Cooper was an FBC member, and had urged white families to support the public schools. So I went to the public schools.
Until I didn't.
My last year in the Yazoo public schools was in fifth grade at the former “Number Two” elementary school, with its battered books and grim cement halls.
How do I trace now, the circumstances that led to my walking, at last, under the white-columned portico of Manchester, one day in August of 1979? Whatever the promise of integration was, it had started to unspool.
Until then, there had been a band of white families who had been dedicated to keeping their children in public schools. These included not only the First Baptists, but many of the lawyers and management up at the chemical plant, and most of the families who’d gone to Ivy League schools and labored to set up the local arts council. (In that sense, there was a cultural divide not unlike the one that Americans everywhere have found themselves on one or the other side of in the past few years. Perhaps, in part, this was its origin.)
Then a series of major layoffs at Mississippi Chemical started to happen, and the town started its long, slow decline. But the most immediate precipitating circumstance was that I got paddled in PE class. It happened at the hand of a male teacher—who for the record was white—who called me to the front of the gym, bade me bend over, and wielded a wooden paddle as he struck me three times, in front of dozens of other students. My mother finally decided that this was enough.
The first thing I thought about Manchester was that everyone was celebrating one thing or another all the time. From the first day I attended the Booster Club’s Spaghetti Dinner to raise money for the football team, on a hot night before the school year even started, it seemed to me that everything about Manchester was about celebration: During football season, the Manchester Mavericks Marching Band played at pep rallies for half an hour every Friday morning, and—since it was a K-12 school—the little girls wore miniature cheerleader outfits and grosgrain ribbon bows in Manchester colors of gold and green. The parking lot was full for all the varsity games on Fridays, and sometimes the high school boys, godlike and unstoppable, would commandeer the public address system—on which, every day, we heard the Morning Announcements and the Morning Devotional—and would lead spontaneous cheers.
The celebration did not stop at the schoolhouse doors, but kept on going. Junior high students had the Spring Dance, and their older brothers and sisters had the Christmas Dance. People who were graduating had the Midnight to Dawn. The celebration kept on with the riding around town that took place in cars on Friday and Saturday nights, in the pool at the Yazoo Country Club (we didn’t belong), and the group family trips to Destin and Gulf Shores. (The richest kids went to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear.) And at the top of the glittery apex of experiences was tailgating at the Ole Miss-Mississippi State game.
More than once I heard my mother and others chime in, approvingly, “All these goings-on. Why, it’s just like the good old days again!”
Which begs the question, of course: The good old days were good old days for exactly whom? They were longing for a scene of high-school shenanigans where blacks were firmly in the background.
But I knew and felt nothing of this at that point. My mother during those years was severely depressed. My father had died. My siblings were all grown up and gone. In the evenings, I sat in the living room listening to the record player.
After the yelling and the lining up and the drudgery of the public schools, it was fun to be at Manchester, with its jokes and parties and a perpetual atmosphere of festival. It was neither harder nor easier than the public schools had been, but at Manchester, at least, they would let me just go to the library and read when I got bored. I became a Christian, and started going to youth group.
I felt loved there. It saved my life, I believe even now.
And yet. All that celebration, the festival of identity, of being in the charmed circle at last, strikes me now as notable for what we were not discussing. Ninety percent of the time, daily life inside the walls of Manchester functioned as though black people simply. . . did not exist. Or if they were mentioned, we parroted the way we heard adults around us talk about them, not as independent souls with agency who might have their own needs and desires, but rather, as exasperating children who kept demanding things. Who might, if unconstrained, simply take over. And “taking over” was the thing, of all things, that must be prevented.
At last came the time when I finally knew that I believed something fundamentally different than they. It was a spring day, and it was announced that we were going to have a special assembly about the Yazoo City elections. They pulled in all of the oldest upperclassmen--I just happened to be standing with some other junior high kids on the stairs that led from the gym up to the chorus room; we’d ducked out of chorus period to find out what was going on.
A man with a microphone was standing on the court. After the upperclassmen had quieted down, he said that the town elections were coming up, and that we needed every single person who could be possibly registered to vote to go do so, because we didn’t want the black mayoral candidate winning the election: “I want every one of y’all who can to come on down, ‘cause we’ve got to defeat this guy.”
The registrations, through some kind of sleight-of-hand, were to be fast-tracked in order to get bodies to the polls.
Standing on the carpeted stairs to the chorus room, I could stand it no longer. “But that’s wrong,” I said. “That’s cheating. They shouldn’t be doing that.”
The moment I said it, though, one of the other kids who was standing on the stairs with me, a girl with a strawberry blonde ponytail, wheeled around. Her face was red as she stared at me with angry eyes and spat out, “What are you talking about? Do you want Yazoo City to end up like Tchula?”
Tchula was a little town up the road in the Delta, and it was indeed one of those places, adults said, where blacks had just taken over. They’d elected a black mayor, and now the stores were closing down, and it was some place “you just couldn’t go to any more.”
I stood back, stunned. There was so much I still did not understand, and some things I would not understand for decades—like when it finally occurred to me that the “good old days” adults always talked about were effectively made possible by a local police state, and when that had gone, all the infrastructure and sense of a public square had dissipated with it.
I didn’t say anything else. If this were a movie, now would have been the moment that I would have spoken up, and taken Little Miss Strawberry Blonde to task in the way that noble white folks are always the heroes in movies.
But I did not. I held my disapproval like a simmering reservoir, though I could not face what it meant.
I was on my way out of town, anyhow. Within the year, I accepted a scholarship to attend boarding school way up in the Northeast, in Massachusetts, and left Yazoo City entirely.
I’d never before been north of Washington, D.C., before, and suddenly I had arrived in an orderly little suburb of Boston, on a campus with Bullfinch-brick buildings set on historic quadrangles, over which a clock tower named after the school’s founder glowed purple at night over the long main lawn. Most of the students were from the Boston to Washington corridor, or California, or overseas. The Southerners who were there were, for the most part, from places like Virginia and North Carolina, loaded with money, and were almost as alien to me as the New Englanders.
Suddenly the range of things to be confused about was greater than ever—if, in Yazoo City, my family had been regarded as open-minded and rather contrarian, that was not the automatic assumption with the people I met now. In fact, most people I met took a tone of suspicion. Some people were blunt. More than once, I was asked something along the lines of, So what’s it like growing up in some place so awful?
I knew so little, it’s true. One time at a late-night snack in the common room of the dorm, I made the remark in front of a dorm counselor that back at home, lots of people drove big old cars, and that up here, all the cars were so small and new! Deftly, without making me feel embarrassed, the dorm counselor remarked that this wasn’t merely an aesthetic choice, you had to take into account that people down South were so much poorer. That teacher herself was black, and from rural Louisiana, infinitely wise and kind, and how she must have marveled at my ignorance.
But mostly, I just wanted to hide. When we read Richard Wright’s Black Boy in my ninth grade English class, and I recognized so many of the street names and places in Jackson where the protagonist had been humiliated and abused, I sat in class and pretended I had vanished.
In addition, of the only three or four other Mississippians who were at the school, one who came in as a new student when I did was none other than the son of James Meredith, whose name I knew, of course, from hearing it spoken ruefully from the mouths of adults, but of whose struggle I knew absolutely nothing.
When we were in tenth grade, his father was invited to address the student body at an all-school meeting. When the appointed night came, I hung back under the trees limbs on the edges of the dark quadrangle that fronted the auditorium, watching my fellow students streaming across the grass, and up the stone steps.
Once the event had started, I made it as far as the white, wainscoted vestibule, but still I could not bring myself to go inside the auditorium. I was afraid that if I did, it would be as though I had a scarlet “M” for Mississippi on my chest, and that I would be the representative for the system that had oppressed him. I stood outside the closed, interior set of doors, and I could hear the resonance of Meredith’s speech vibrating against the wood, but I could not hear the words.
One time, in a late night dorm conversation, I found myself in a conversation with another girl who said that it was my duty to disavow the whole system I came from, or it was clear that I was a racist, too.
A whole flock of images passed through my head at that moment: So many people at Manchester whom I loved, who had saved my life at such a sad time.
My throat tightened as I tried to speak. Yes, they were racists. I said. And they were wrong. But they were good people, too. I was not going to repudiate everything about them.
Her face burned with righteousness. I wished, in that moment, that someday I could feel completely convicted about something, could not feel that complicated sense of division in myself.
I feel sorry for you, she said. For how ignorant you are.
And I did not know what to say.
I still don’t.
Caroline Langston was a regular contributor to Image’s Good Letters blog, and is writing a memoir about the U.S. cultural divide. She has contributed to Sojourners’ God's Politics blog, and aired several commentaries on NPR’s All Things Considered, in addition to writing book reviews for Image, Books and Culture, and other outlets. She is a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, and a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She lives outside Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.