By Mary Frances Richards. Indianola Academy, Class of 1978
In the 1960s and 1970s, the first law of life in the Mississippi Delta was the color of your skin. Everything else arose from that. Mama instilled this law into my subconscious when she told me about the heinous murder of Emmett Till. I was four years old. Her intention was not to terrify but to illustrate the reality of what white anger could do to black bodies. Because she was born and raised in Arizona, where there were few black people, she felt less inhibited to discuss race with her children. Her detachment encouraged a clear-eyed view of the Delta. I once asked whom people in Arizona were prejudiced against. “Mexicans,” she said.
Her courage to speak openly with me about racial prejudice was a gift.
Fate figures large in many aspects of my background - one being skin color, another, education. I was born white, into a family for whom private school tuition posed no burden. I attended the Indianola Academy for all twelve years of elementary and secondary school, and yes, I was lucky to have been a student there. In my opinion, the instruction available at Indianola Academy gave me a good, solid preparation for college. Those years shaped the person I became and the life I now lead.
The first five years differed greatly from the idealistic images of school shown in the early days of children’s television. My personality and social awkwardness were not a good mix with the other kids, most of whom were known to me since early childhood. The climate at the academy changed dramatically at the beginning of my sixth year, with an influx of students from the public school system as court-ordered integration began. Between the new classmates and joining the band in 7th grade, I found my tribe and felt more at ease. Over the following years, I became quite close with certain teachers - educators who taught me how to question, analyze, and find out.
I also grew close to one of the janitors. She was a kind, nurturing soul who always listened. Not once did I ask about her experience working for an institution where her own children could never attend. Nor did I wonder if she faced criticism from loved ones and neighbors for working at the white kids’ academy. She doubtless heard the many expressions of “n-word this and n-word that” uttered in the hallways and classrooms, sometimes by students, sometimes by teachers. (The possibility that ANY janitor ever heard this from my mouth haunts me.) What kind of hurt did that cause? All of our interactions centered on me, which seemed normal. It would never have occurred to me for it to be otherwise.
Back to my mother: at some point, Mama told me that Daddy had been part of the group which founded Indianola Academy. This was important, because she rarely made open references to Daddy’s racial beliefs or behavior. Later on, it became apparent this was a No Man’s Land in their marriage. As an adult, I heard that the idea and funding to establish the school originated among members of the white Citizens’ Council. While Daddy was alive I never broached the topic. That was simply the way things were in the 1960s. After all, our family’s business had segregated waiting rooms until 1976, when the building was enlarged. The thought crossed my adolescent mind that having one substantial waiting room was simply a way to streamline things. The realization of what a racist throwback the situation was didn’t hit me until middle age, when a childhood friend born elsewhere mentioned her shock at witnessing customer segregation in Indianola.
Sometimes we don’t see what is right in front of us because it disturbs our view of ourselves as good people living a well-deserved life. That is certainly my case. My childhood of plenty came from the people who sat all those years in the colored waiting room: they put food in my mouth, clothes on my back, and provided the tuition for me to attend Indianola Academy.
The first white Citizens’ Council was founded in Indianola in 1954, primarily to oppose racial integration of public schools following the U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring segregated education unconstitutional. The Councils were also focused on “keeping blacks in their place” under white control and preventing their voter registration. The Citizens’ Councils took the Klan hood of anonymity off oppression and put a respectable middle class face on it. The motto of the Citizens’ Councils was “States’ Rights and Racial Integrity”. The Indianola Academy motto is “Integrity and Achievement”. The founders created Indianola Academy to uphold their view of racial integrity. Its students are taught personal integrity - the quality of being honest with yourself and others. Yet honesty has stopped short of acknowledging the gulf between white and black children schooled in separate locations, leading to disparate lives.
Most of the teachers at the academy fled the public school system when desegregation became imminent. In 1966 my fellow students and I were provided textbooks and materials taken by our teachers from the public schools, while countless black pupils were forced to learn in pillaged classrooms. We started third grade two years later in the first new building on what would become a well-equipped campus.
For the last 15 years, my job has been teaching English as a second language in Belgium. I have long felt the opportunity to live and teach abroad would not have transpired without the education I received at Indianola Academy. Doubtless this pride has more to do with my own blindness than any objective reality. Despite Mama’s best efforts to help me view people with brown skin as equal to myself, I still battle the residue of an Indianola upbringing.
Due to Daddy’s business, I spent plenty of time around black adults and always felt comfortable around them. Black young people, however, were unknown to me, as were black teachers. My first black instructor was in a human services graduate class at the University of Delaware. Having a black man in authority over me was profoundly uncomfortable. His demeanor seemed so angry and resentful. How was the racial unfairness he referenced my fault? I felt like the whitest white person on God’s green earth. At the end of the semester, he asked if any of us had verbal feedback for him. I said in no uncertain terms how I felt. He listened and nodded with a quiet generosity I did not recognize. He had every right to feel angry and resentful. My reaction was my problem, not his. Now I am the instructor, and some of my students are black. What racial prejudices enter the classroom with me? Does my demeanor make students uncomfortable? Would there be less awkwardness on my part had my education been integrated? Definitely. The academy’s aims were hardly to prepare students to thrive in a multi-cultural world. Can the limitations, awkwardness, and prejudice be diminished? Not without a great deal of work.
There is no grace in the truths told here. They are ugly and painful. Perhaps the degree of pain and the desire for personal integrity make the telling all the more important.
Mary Frances Richards lives in Belgium and is a teacher at the University of Liège.