By Deborah Pope Kehoe, Council School Manhattan, Class of 1973
It would be one of the questions, I knew. When I entered the English grad school program at the University of Mississippi and met new people, anyone who knew my hometown of Jackson would ask it. Where did you go to high school?
I would almost whisper the words Manhattan Academy. To be precise, its name was Council School Manhattan. I omitted the word Council because it felt less demeaning than admitting my high school was founded by the white Citizens Council. I would sometimes follow up with the irrelevant information that my older
siblings graduated from Murrah and Callaway public high schools, as if that mitigated the stigma of my own school. Ever since my undergraduate days, I assumed the where’d-you-go-to-school question stung because answering it exposed my upbringing’s racism. That wasn’t totally accurate but not totally inaccurate either. Racism exists in layers inside the mind. I’ve recently been scrutinizing those layers within my own head as a seg academy student and alum.
Every story has a beginning, so let me get this one over with. Fact: I was never
anyone’s idea of an adorable child, in appearance or behavior, and I developed into
an even less charming teenager. Taunts and pranks followed me through my school
days. My experience was not unique. It’s the timeworn fate of kids to pay a price for
not conforming, even involuntarily, to the superficial standards of their peers (or
sometimes of their elders). My coping mechanisms were also unoriginal. Early on, I
pushed back. Later I withdrew. As a student at Bailey Junior High, I was absent from
school as often as I could persuade my mother to keep me at home. When in school,
I considered a small number of people “safe,” and I knew exactly which ones to
avoid—or try to.
So, in 1969, when the Jackson Public Schools came under federal court order
to desegregate, my parents had a problem on their hands. I was slated to attend
Powell Junior High, which was closer to my house than Bailey, but to me, it was an
exotic island of exile, where I would be forced to start over identifying allies and
tormentors. The handful of students I liked at Bailey would be fleeing public school
to Council School Manhattan, so I mounted a full-throated protest until my parents
agreed to enroll me there too. My stomach churns today at the memory of that
weekend when the world stood still while my father and mother deliberated.
I’d like to say that they were slow to decide on ethical, rather than practical,
grounds to send me to a Citizens’ Council school, but that would be revising history.
I never learned what was going through their minds during those fraught days. For
years, I was stifled by the embarrassment of knowing that, on some level, my
Council school diploma was the result of my crippling inadequacy. I wanted friends
more than I wanted to take a stand against racism. My parents indulged me. It was a
junior high version of a white woman’s tears. We never spoke of the subject again.
Until the time that I discovered The Academy Stories project and was
inspired to write my own tale, the only account of what it was like for me to be
among that 1969 cohort of Jackson kids who suddenly became private school
students was my interior record of a path to self-awareness. Its trajectory was not a
In college, I liked to think of myself as literary and sophisticated. The identity
of my high school contradicted that self-image. Yet here’s what I’ve come to realize:
It was Manhattan’s lowbrow reputation that made me wince, but not its stamp of
white supremacy. Instead, I merely longed to have gone to a venerable ivy-covered
elite school—it could have been equally as segregated and white for all I cared. In
short, while my sensibilities had awakened to the shame of my high school
affiliation, I was far from being “woke” to the true source of its disgrace.
As I mentioned earlier, there are layers to this story. Here’s another. When I
retired from 26 years of teaching English at Northeast Mississippi Community
College, before a filled auditorium, I publicly reclaimed that shunned chapter of my
past. In drafting my retirement remarks, I realized the first teacher I ever loved, the
one who showed me the unity of human existence through literature’s power came
into my life in one of the tacky green buildings that housed my Manhattan tenth-
grade English classroom. Her pretty and petite appearance belied her tough
personality. “You must have worked on this a long time,” she once said, sarcastically
dismissing what I thought was a fine bit of minimalist poetry in the tradition of
William Carlos Williams. “Oh, come on, Deborah, please.”
I was her student for three years. I marvel at how advanced those classes were.
How many high school students are required to read all of Voltaire’s Candide? And
despite my years as a serial English major, the only time I’ve ever read the Cetology
Chapters in Moby Dick was in her class. I knew we were being asked to reach
beyond our grasp, and even though I joined in the occasional chirping, secretly I
exulted in her demands and ached to meet them. I never knew how she came to
teach at Manhattan. I just knew she was different. It was clear that she wanted us to
open our minds, not close them. At my retirement reception, I shared my story of
being in her class.
Of course, this is essentially a story about bad schooling at Manhattan. Yet
I’ve come to accept the paradox that a bad school can include a good teacher in spite
of itself. Even an academic institution founded on the detestable principle of white
supremacy can occasionally contain what Thomas Merton calls the good soil of
freedom, spontaneity and love in which seeds of positive growth are nurtured in the
minds of youth, even one as marginalized and fearful as I was. Then again, Jackson
was full of lots of other teens feeling marginalized and fearful—then and now—a
reality that Council Manhattan was built to ignore.
In other parts of the building, there were teachers who seamlessly inserted racist
asides into their lectures. For example, the civics teacher denounced Martin Luther
King, Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize as a “joke,” adding that “they don’t want peace.”
In Manhattan’s early years, it hired former public school teachers who wanted
to retreat into the seg world and also new teachers right out of college, unable or
unwilling to find employment elsewhere. While not to absolve anyone of the taint of
association, some like my English teacher were transformative agents in the lives of
students. Those teachers wanted to educate, not indoctrinate.
While I’m no longer reluctant to tell the truth about where I went to high
school, I still lament having had a role in the white-flight phenomenon that wreaked
havoc on the city of Jackson and dealt a deadly blow to its school system. Many
continue to pay the price for that insidious period in our state’s history. Ask me
where I went to high school today, and what wells up in me when I say Council
Manhattan is not humiliation that I was deprived of a loftier brand of alma mater,
even one just as bigoted. Instead, Manhattan represents one of many chapters of
white insulation and privilege in my life. I have a lot to make up for.
Deborah Pope Kehoe is a retired college and university English instructor who lives in Oxford, Mississippi. She is active in Thomas Merton studies and is currently co-editor of The Merton Annual. Her work has also appeared in The Merton Seasonal,The Journal of Christianity and Literature and The Southern Register.