By Bridget Smith Pieschel Winston Academy (Louisville, Mississippi), Class of 1975
I assume that most white girls born in 1957 in Mississippi had the “white blindness” I recall. I had so little interaction with African Americans that I didn’t think of them as part of the world I lived in. I have just a few memories that indicate I thought about race at all. When I was about 14, my mother hired an African American woman to iron our clothes. Ivy’s skin was not black. She had blue eyes. My assumption that she was African American came from the way she spoke and her curly black hair. One day after Ivy had gone home, I asked mother, “Why does Ivy have blue eyes?” Mother, uncharacteristically blunt, said, “Well, she had a white father.” Instantly I imagined Ivy at home living with a black mother and a white father. It never occurred to me that Ivy didn’t have a relationship with her biological father, or that she could have been the result of rape. My question was answered, and I didn’t think about it again.
During the 1967-68 school year, I was in the fifth grade at Fair Elementary School. It was so close to my house that I often walked to and from school. That year there was one African American girl in my class. She sat in the back and never said a word. I do not remember ever trying to speak to her at all, and I don’t remember her name. The only time I heard her voice was when she gave an oral book report. I was surprised at how loud and animated her voice was when she was talking about her book, Little Red Cap. Also during that year something that our principal called “a game” started. We had two spouts at our water fountain in the hall, so two people could drink at the same time. I was in line once and my entire line shifted to the left spout. A white girl ran up and got a drink at the now open right spout.
Immediately the girls in front of me began saying, “Ew, you got the touch! You got the touch!”
The girl who had used the right spout looked embarrassed. She used her forefinger to start touching the girls shouting at her. “I gave it to YOU. You got the touch now!” Then there was a confusing flurry of girls touching each other, “Saying, now you have it!” There was RUNNING IN THE HALL. This infraction brought teacher wrath down upon us. We were cowed and guilty, and returned to class. This “No touch game” continued. Soon, anywhere we were, especially on the playground, one or two people would run up—touch a couple of us—and run away screaming, “You got the TOUCH!” Then whoever had been touched had to touch someone else quickly to get rid of it. For some reason, I was rarely “touched.” This was probably a result of my general reputation. I didn’t like to play any games at all—no jump rope, no chase, so I was considered strange. I still didn’t know what “the touch” meant.
I didn’t want to ask, because I knew it would be a stupid question. Eventually, just from hearing others talk about it, I realized that “the touch” meant you had touched something that had been touched by a black child. For white children, this touch was a humiliating curse. One day our teacher read an announcement to the class. It was from our principal, Mr. Ming, whom all of us feared (word was he had an electric paddle). Mr. Ming told all of us to stop playing the “no touch game” immediately. I felt embarrassed that he even knew about it. I don’t remember how my classmates and I reacted to the order. It was late spring, and school was soon out for summer vacation.
For my sixth grade year, 1968-69, I moved across the street to the “Junior High School” where the sixth, seventh and eighth grade students simmered until they were ready for high school. Sixth grade appealed to me. We had different teachers for different subjects; we had chorus; we had band; My parents bought me a clarinet. I started menstruating. I made good friends—even a friend who was a boy. I worked on the campaign for a 7th grader who ran for student government president. He won. My social studies teacher told me that I had a “wonderful mind.” I do not remember a single African American teacher in the entire building, or a single African American child. They must have been there, at least in token numbers. I did not see them. When school ended for the summer break, I was certain that I would return with my class of seventh graders in the fall of 1969.
My parents must have been discussing school desegregation for at least a year. But I didn’t hear them. My father had grown more and more worried as the state began to lose the fight to keep the schools segregated. White supremacists had thought allowing a few black students into the white public schools would satisfy the federal government. However, in the spring of 1969, word came down from the Mississippi Department of Education that some Louisville schools would be “consolidated.” What had been the African American high school in Louisville would become the new Junior High School. All of the African American high school students would move over to the white high school. The name of the old high school was “Camille.” I didn’t even know where the building was. My friends began to talk about what it would be like to be at “Camille” with black students, and even black teachers. Most of them were worried, but they seemed excited too. Many of them had parents who saw desegregation and consolidation as inevitable. They might have been worried, but they decided there was nothing to be done about it. My father must have been actively meeting with Louisville’s version of a white citizen’s council for some time. These men decided that the only way to keep Louisville schools white was to create a new white private school and leave the public schools to the African Americans.
Late in the summer, my parents told me that I was going to a “new school” in the fall. It would be a “better” school. I asked if all of my friends from last year would be at the new school. My mother told me she was sure some of them would be.
The newly elected “board” of the segregationist academy chose an old house downtown as a temporary location. They were building “Winston Academy” across town. I began my seventh grade year with about thirty other white seventh and eighth graders, and a small faculty of retired public school teachers who taught English, math, general science, and social studies. There was no art; no foreign language; no science lab; no band; no chorus. My social studies teacher was the same one I had the previous year. She was our “headmistress.” She told us we were “pioneers.” Most of the students, who came from all over the county, and a few from outside our county, were unfamiliar. But three of my good friends were there. I settled in. The school in a house was a pleasant novelty. Since there was no lunch room, most brought sack lunches. For some reason my parents allowed me to walk two blocks downtown to eat at a café by myself. With two dollars, I had my favorite lunch—a bowl of chili, a slice of pie, and a glass of water. Nobody paid any attention to me while I sat at the counter. I liked being alone and ordering my meal. I left a nickel tip.
I was oblivious to what had happened. Most of my church and school friends stayed in the public schools, and appeared to be having a wonderful time. My parents wouldn’t openly criticize their parents, but repeated that my school was “better” than theirs. I felt special. After one semester in the house, our faculty realized that a school ought to have a rudimentary library. Word was sent home with all of us that each family should donate a few books to the library. My mother sent three or four, but I only remember one of them—The Old Masters. Every page had a painting by a great artist. I learned the following year that my mother had assumed her books were loaned for the house’s temporary library. She told me to ask the librarian in our new red brick school to return her book. Mother’s request was not well received. Mrs. Parks sternly said “Library books cannot be given back.” And that was that.
It wasn’t until tenth grade that I had a just a glimpse of a reason I had been removed from the public school. One night my father said to my mother, “she’s going with one of those black boys.” He was furious. The “she” was the daughter of somebody he knew. How horrible! How unprotected that girl was! My school was safe from those boys.
At Winston Academy we were told that we were true patriots. A patriot soldier was our mascot. For our yearbook I drew a picture of a man holding a musket and wearing a tricorn hat. I didn’t have much of an artistic imagination. Not only did we have a yearbook, we had a chorus teacher. We sang our alma mater fervently.
Valiant Spirit of Winston Academy;
Shining for all to see,
Giving us victory,
Against the strongest foe.
God guides the course we go.
The spirit of freedom lives
In Winston Academy.
I took everything at face value. I believed that my school was “better,” more “refined,” “safer.” My indoctrination was insidious. Nobody ever talked about what “better” meant. In fact, there was no “race” talk I remember, although there must have been racist conversations. They must not have bothered me at all. Once when a senior wore an afro wig and black face (with a white jumpsuit) to school during homecoming week, the principal sent him home. We were uncomfortable when we saw him, but still laughed at his daring.
My teachers liked me—I was smart. I edited the school newspaper. I was Star Student. I gave the salutatorian’s speech at graduation. I believed Winston Academy gave me the best education in my town. At graduation, my old social studies teacher gave those of us who had been in the house school a gold pin. It said “Pioneer.”
Bridget Smith Pieschel is a professor of English and Women’s Studies at Mississippi University for Women. Follow @BridgetPieschel