It's Up To Us To Own Our Ignorance

Updated: Dec 15, 2019

By Marsh Nichols Jackson Preparatory School (Jackson, Mississippi), Class of 1974


It’s the three white girls in blackface I remember.


I went to Jackson Preparatory School, in Mississippi’s capital city, for three of the first four years it was open. My high school experience was wonderful. I had lots of friends, found a love of theater, was voted a senior class favorite and generally raised hell. It seemed perfect to a white girl viewing her world through the lens of white privilege. In my all-white northeast Jackson bubble, African Americans were all but invisible to me. I was oblivious.

One day in the fall of 1969, I was in the eighth grade and barely 13 when I came home from my public junior high school and learned that some court had ordered public schools desegregated immediately, which translated to right after Christmas break. This was the U.S. Supreme Court’s order in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, a case born in the Mississippi Delta, in which the high court finally said “no more” to school districts’ refusal, obfuscation and foot-dragging against desegregating “with all deliberate speed.” It had been 15 years since the court’s initial landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. At 13, I knew nothing about any of that.


My parents informed me that, come January, I would join my two younger sisters, ages 10 and 7, at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Day School, established in 1947 and operated under the umbrella of our cathedral. I knew a few kids who went there, but most children attended neighborhood public schools. Before I began at St. Andrew’s, classes usually had about eight kids. That January, the classes bulged at 30. White parents were running scared.


Curiously, my parents chose not to send my older brother to private school; their concerns apparently weren’t the same for their only male child. He and another male friend drove across town to Brinkley High, a predominantly African American school. My older sister, set to graduate the following spring, remained in public schools too. In my mind, my parents were frightened about the unknown for their three younger daughters, and they had the financial means to avoid it.


I never heard a parental discussion about ensuring a “quality education.” That became white code for parents removing their children from public schools and enrolling them in newly opened “segregation academies” across the state, in their belief desegregation would ruin public education and to keep their children away from black children


St. Andrew’s, which from its establishment included all races and ethnicities, was then and remains highly respected for its academics. At the time, it only went through ninth grade. After a year and a half, my parents had to find another place for me.


In January 1970, there were limited acceptable alternatives to public school in Jackson except St. Andrew’s and St. Joseph Catholic high school. There were a few other schools for kids with discipline issues or learning differences. An exception was Council Manhattan, run by the White Citizens’ Council, where many of my friends went that January. I protested the separation from my friends and even stated I wanted to go there. I remember my mother’s strong rebuke: “You are NOT going to the White Citizens’ Council schools.”

I had no idea why she was so quick and stern with her response. I’d never heard of the White Citizens’ Council. I did not know its history of white supremacy and right-wing resistance to racial integration. I was as insulated from that world as if wrapped in a thick layer of cotton.


I’d like to think my mother took such a strong position because my parents opposed the overtly racist foundation and philosophy of the White Citizens’ Council. I have no reason to believe otherwise. My parents, both deceased, aren’t around to ask.


So, after Christmas, I donned the St. Andrew’s uniform and off I went. To me, the best part was the bliss of air conditioning (there had been none in public school), the delicious lunches, and my English teacher, Dorothy Davis, drawling about Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha County.


Sometime later that year, we began hearing about a new school being formed: Jackson Preparatory School. Not academy. School. It sounded elite. Certainly exclusive. Most definitely all-white.


It was the school where most of my friends would go and was perceived as far superior to the Council schools. At Prep, there seemed to be no foundational racial agenda. But who among us was even aware of that aspect? Who cared? It was like living safely tucked in a gated community, accessible only with a code known to the white community. That code for entry was the ability to pay the tuition and have the right skin color. To my recollection, there was no entrance exam.


Although I grew up in Jackson, I was largely oblivious to the virulent, systemic racism that plagued Mississippi. I was a kid. My parents never discussed the racial unrest of the ’60s. When we saw picket lines downtown, our mother told us not to stare. My sisters and brother and I grew up in a home protected from most of the racial turmoil surrounding us, with next to no experience with African Americans. No one in my household uttered the “N” word; this would have been unconscionable. My father was a prominent lawyer and my mother a card-carrying member of the Junior League. My sense of privilege was threefold — money, social position and white skin.


I did see inequity all around, but we didn’t talk about it.


Throughout my childhood, housekeepers — all African Americans — worked in our home. I watched one of our housekeepers struggle to discipline her kids over the telephone because she had to work — cooking, cleaning, laundry and anything else my mother asked. I saw the rundown houses across town when my mother drove the babysitter home. I saw anyone with black skin ride in the back seat of the car. Each person of color who worked in our house called my parents “Mr.” and “Mrs.” The children, no matter what age, called these grown women by their first names. If I’d done that to one of my parents’ friends, there would have been hell to pay. But the rules were different when addressing African American men and women. I had no idea how disrespectful this was to our beloved housekeepers.


It was just the way it was.


I turned 15, and off I went to Jackson Prep as a sophomore in the fall of 1971. Happy to be there, loving high school except for the fact it was school, cheering the Friday Night Lights. It never occurred to me that going to an all-white school was out of the ordinary. It was our privilege and our right. I think we felt sorry for the few friends who stayed in public school. Why stay in public school when you could go to school with all of your friends in an air-conditioned building? Prep was just like going to Murrah, the predominantly white public high school we had planned to attend before the desegregation order, with many of the same teachers and students. White teachers and white students, that is.


The public high schools had African American students but I never gave them much thought. As a matter of fact, I never gave much thought to the lives of persons of color, despite living in a state with a large African American population. I didn’t know any African American kids and didn’t go to school or church with any. How could I know about their lives or history or hopes and dreams when I never had any contact with them?


At Prep, there were no lessons about civil rights, the ripping apart of families at slave auctions and other atrocities of slavery. Not a word about Jim Crow suppression of minorities or the reason all of us were now in private school. Nothing about the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner near Philadelphia, only 70 miles east of Jackson, who had been buried in an earthen dam in 1964. We sang ”Dixie” and chanted “Hotty Toddy” and waved the Confederate battle flag.


After high school, I attended a state college, pledged a sorority and went on my merry way. I had no African American friends while in college. I attended a fraternity spring formal in a hoop-skirted antebellum dress, escorted by my date, dressed in a Confederate uniform, and didn’t think a thing about it. I never dated outside my race and didn’t know anyone who did.


Other than casually, I didn’t know any African Americans in the whole state of Mississippi.


Now, I have lived in Nashville nearly 40 years, initially as a journalist but for many more as an attorney. And I believe I am a fundamentally different person from the pretty clueless 22-year-old who packed her car and drove north in 1980.


What happened? Age and maturity, no doubt. Entering the work force and becoming friends with people who looked different from me helped. Learning about the history and heroes of the civil rights movement in which Nashville played a prominent role opened my eyes and led to deep conversations with African American friends about culture, traditions and families. I realized that the things these friends cared about were the same things I cared about. Essentially, I left the bubble of Jackson, Mississippi, and began to grow.


Was there one lightning-bolt moment that opened my eyes? I can’t name one. But I am thankful that I gradually became the person I am today. I am a progressive Democrat, which is probably enough to have my membership in the club called Mississippi revoked.


So allow me to circle back to those white girls in blackface.


It was my senior year at Jackson Prep, a month or so before graduation. There was a senior talent show. Some boys dressed up and performed as Sha Na Na, and they were hilarious. Then, three students walked on stage with their faces so blackened and their hair so hidden by Afro wigs that I didn’t know who they were at first. The trio performed as The Supremes, singing and dancing to “Stop! In the Name of Love.” The crowd went wild, cheering approval. No one thought anything about it, and it was a smashing success.


Then, I didn’t know how offensive blackface is to African Americans nor the history of blackface used by vaudeville performers to mock and degrade African Americans. I have no doubt in my mind there was no malice intended. Those girls, like most of us in the gymnasium that day, were decent kids who went on to do good things. What was absent from the entire student body that day was any knowledge of or empathy for the disrespect of nearly half the citizens of our state. In our all-white bubble of ignorance, we hooted and applauded.


Why am I writing about this moment in time from 1974? I’ll blame it on Facebook. In a post this spring, wishing one of the former faux Supremes a happy birthday, a couple of classmates brought up the talent show performance of 46 years ago and commented that the birthday girl was one of the best Supremes ever. It was as cringe-worthy for me as I’m sure it was for the birthday girl, an accomplished professional who lives hundreds of miles away.


What bothered me about the comments, which were not intended to be racist or mean-spirited, was the fact the comments WERE racist — and those posting didn’t seem to recognize it. They were only remembering a fun time in high school. I wasn’t outraged when I read it. I was sad. The comments were made on the heels of news reports and commentary putting the use of blackface in historical context following the discovery of Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia in a photo that purported to be him in blackface in the mid-1980s and Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama wearing blackface during a 1967 college skit, to name just two. Both politicians dove for cover when the stories broke.


Is there a lesson buried somewhere in this essay? I hope so. To be clear, I’m not judging any of my classmates for this because I’m just as culpable as anyone sitting in that gym that spring day watching that performance, laughing and clapping.


What I hope comes from this series of essays is a discussion about our history — the history of ALL of us — and how we go forward. I hope we take these opportunities to discuss our history, no matter how seemingly insignificant or innocent, good and bad.


It is not up to only African Americans to call out those who don’t know or don’t care or aren’t concerned with trying to understand the harm of a gesture as seemingly innocuous as a bunch of teenagers trying to be funny but insulting an entire race.


It’s up to us. To own the ignorance. To recognize the harm. To stop, in the name of love.

Marsh Nichols is a 1979 graduate of Mississippi State University and has resided in Nashville since 1980. She is an attorney and serves as Special Master to the Davidson County (Nashville) Circuit Courts in the 20th Judicial District of Tennessee, a position she’s held since 1998.

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