Renee McCraine Taylor, McCluer Academy, Class of 1979
I always lived in the same neighborhood of south Jackson, and I thought of my childhood as a bubble. Yet the fact that I lived in the same house through childhood was hardly the point. The idea of the bubble itself was the structure of my memories. Until recently, I would say I didn’t notice the outside world going on around me, including the full public life of my own beloved maternal grandmother.
Here is my story:
I was in the third grade at Marshall Elementary School in southwest Jackson when the Alexander v. Holmes court case changed the trajectory of my education and of millions more. Nearly 15 years after the Brown decision, the U.S. Supreme Court finally decided that public schools were to desegregate immediately. My mother was livid. She hated being told what to do by the federal government. My father, who ran the state Highway Patrol’s forms department and photo lab, was a quiet man who mostly kept his thoughts to himself. But they decided that their youngest was not going to be part of what they saw as a governmental game of mixing the races together to prove a point. My parents fell into the “separate but equal” camp on race relations at that time as did numerous Mississippi whites.
Although my parents were in the separate but equal camp politically, I want to say that I was expected to show respect to everyone. If I were asked a question by a black individual, it was “Yes ma’am” or “Yes sir”. At my father’s funeral visitation, an African American woman told me, “I just had to come see your father and pay my respects. He gave me my first job. He could have hired anyone, but he hired me.” Thanks to her, I realized my father had a sense of fairness on the personal level despite those hard days.
As sweeping integration arrived in public schools, I left. I started fourth grade at a just-organized private school operating at Hillcrest Baptist Church. Later on, I moved to Citizens Council School Number 2, later known as McCluer Academy. The family explanation for my exit from the public system had been pursuit of a quality education. I was too young to sense that this may not have been necessary, but in hindsight, of course, I know its fallacy.
For starters, the overnight all-white schools had barebones curriculum and resources. That was clear to me in comparing my experience with my older sister’s. She stayed at public Wingfield High School for the four years of Latin offered there (that was the justification my parents gave for allowing her to stay.) She played on the Wingfield tennis team and volleyball team and due to that, went on to play college tennis and volleyball at Mississippi University for Women.
As for me, there were no foreign language or art classes at McCluer. No tennis courts or volleyball teams either. There were very few advanced classes available to students. My Hillcrest church fourth grade skipped the standard elementary school practice of breaking into small groups to teach reading, standard procedure in public schools. Also, no hot lunch. I took sandwiches to school every day, and, occasionally soup in a thermos, lukewarm by lunchtime. I don’t know anyone who had a cafeteria in private schools--junk food was for sale, though.
A standout memory for me came my junior year in advanced biology class. In this class, we could choose to study evolution or human physiology. Since many classmates attended very conservative churches, it wasn’t too surprising that one student raised her hand and proclaimed that “God made men and women. We don’t need to know anything beyond that.” Neither I nor anyone else took issue out loud. At that point, Miss McCulley told the class, “I hope one day you see or read Inherit the Wind.” The 1960 film is the story of the Scopes anti-evolution trial in the 1920s Tennessee, but also a metaphor for McCarthyism of the era.
After class I asked Miss McCulley, “What about the dinosaurs without evolution?” She apologized, saying she was sorry I would not get to learn about them. When I finally saw “Inherit the Wind” on TV as an adult in the 1980s, of course I thought back to Miss McCulley and the certainty of the girl in biology class.
In retrospect I see that I knew more than I acknowledged. I couldn’t miss the fact that my father worked at the Highway Patrol at the time of the May 1970 Jackson State University shootings. We lived a couple of blocks from the family of police lieutenant William Skinner, who was killed in the Republic of New Africa raid in Jackson in August 1971. Even as I thought I lived in my own world, the real one persisted in bearing down.
My academy story and my family story fused together, due to my grandmother. McCluer’s scant offerings applied to extracurricular clubs, too. Jackson’s flagship public school Murrah had DECA, ROTC, Junior Historical Society, Thespians, Speech Squad and The Murrah Singers. McCluer had much less. Yet there was one club that McCluer had: Patriotic American Youth. PAY was established by my grandmother in 1958. I was excited to support my grandmother by helping to establish a McCluer chapter. In my mind, it was just another civic organization. During the convention each year, we divided up into committees, wrote legislation and argued bills just like at the State Capitol. I did not think about how the chapters hailed from all-white academies. There was lots of anti-communist talk. John McCain, whose family is originally from Mississippi, spoke on his Vietnam POW experience. I remember PAY as focused on an anti-communist message, not racism. And yet.
It turns out that the PAY, through payments to my grandmother, was funded by the state Sov
ereignty Commission. The commission was Mississippi’s spy agency from 1956 until 1977, established to fight the civil rights movement. Letters from and about my grandmother and her work for PAY and the Citizens Council are at the state Department of Archives and History. My grandmother, Mrs. Mac as she was known, was a documented player in white resistance.
I have to weigh the documented truth about her public life against what I know about Mamaw personally. As a Carroll County farmer’s wife in the 1930s, she was proud that she had helped two black brothers, young men whose parents had moved away. She’d found jobs for them. Flash forward 40 years, and one of the brothers was in the V.A. hospital in Jackson with cancer. Of all the people these men could have reached out to in their time of need, they contacted my grandmother.
Mamaw was such a contradiction in terms to me. She edited cookbooks, sang in the church choir and attended various meetings of more ordinary clubs as well. I think her PAY work was her way of creating a new life after her husband’s death and the sale of the Carroll County farm. Always in a nice dress and wearing an American flag or Liberty Bell pin, she perpetually travelled for PAY throughout the school year. It seemed as if she was only around Christmas and Thanksgiving, although she never forgot my birthday. She’d call if she were on the road.
As an Ole Miss freshman, I started to question my academy education. I met my best friend for the next 40 years in a lab class. Carol Marks was a Jackson public school graduate from Murrah High, one of the smartest, best read individuals I ever knew. I don’t remember a single book I was required to read at McCluer, even though we were assigned book reports and term papers every year. Carol and her siblings, all Murrah graduates, are one of the most accomplished families I’ve ever known.
My supposed bubble burst for good in my 30s when I read The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity by James C. Cobb. Most of my reading before that 1992 book had been about military history and The Holocaust. When I read the story of Emmett Till’s death, I sobbed. I was only two years old when Medgar Evers was assassinated. In my childhood, we had a housekeeper, Mildred Ford, who worked with me on my reading. She helped me practice and improve beyond the reading instruction I received at my white-flight school. Had it not been for those afternoons on the front porch with her, I am not sure where I would be. She and I would sit on our front porch, and she would help me read out loud.
Cobb’s book prodded me to see the entire system through my love for Mildred Ford. I thought about how if a white man had killed her, they would not have been punished for their crime. I was angry when it penetrated me in personal terms. I was angry for Mildred Ford. I was angry at myself for not having been more curious about the world outside my white bubble. In hindsight, I realize my deep tears over Cobb’s book were my acknowledgement that I’d always had a sense of the racial injustice on the other side of the bubble. My childhood adoration of Mildred Ford came back to the surface. I sobbed because I knew my world had always operated a thin bubble membrane’s worth away from hard facts of the times’ reality. The membrane had been flimsy and shifting even during my childhood.
In my six years at McCluer, I do not remember any of my friends ever discussing race. We were caught up in our own world: could we beat Manhattan Academy during football and baseball season; could the girls basketball team beat Canton Academy; who was dating who, and where were we going on Senior Trip. These things occupied most of our academy-shaped minds.
After being raised in a white world, my work world has been in hospitals with large proportions of African American staff and patients. I began nursing at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and then, as a neonatal nurse practitioner, at the Regional Medical Center in Memphis. Nursing helped me look at life through a different lens. We are more alike than we are different, I know now, despite the opposite messaging of my schooling.
I will always be a work in progress. At Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans, I had a discussion that made me realize my continuing capacity for myopia. One day I told a co-worker that my husband and I had had a great meal at Commander’s Palace. She’d never been there, she said.
“What?” I stupidly said, “How can you have lived here all of your life and never eaten there?”
“When I was growing up, we were not allowed to eat that those types of restaurants,” she said. Once again, I realized how thick and resistant the walls of my head are.
Henri Bergson wrote, “To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” I cannot change my childhood, but I can own my white privilege and continue to study the past. By keeping my mind open to those around me in the present, I can strive to be a different person now.
Renee McCraine Taylor is a neonatal nurse practitioner in Montgomery, Alabama. She received her bachelor’s in nursing from the University of Mississippi and her master’s from the University of Alabama-Birmingham.