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My McCallie Black History

Twenty-eight years ago, I asked what McCallie was doing to celebrate Black History Month. There were no formal plans or events. Students of color upon request had the option of being excused to attend a ceremony or commemoration of black history. Sitting in class at a private secondary school nestled on Missionary Ridge, a former Confederate strong hold known as the “Gateway to the lower South” (1863), was in itself a personal celebration of black history. One hundred and twenty-five years before I arrived, Maj. General William T. Sherman dislodge the Rebels and began his March to the Sea laying waste and setting fire to everything in his path. Sitting in a house bequeath to surviving members of our family known to her as former slaves and free born, my great grandmother neared the end of her twilight in Minter City, MS. Founded almost 20 years after she was born, The McCallie School (est. 1905), nuanced the meaning of Black History Month for me. Black History Month became and remains for me the remembrance and the reflection of the many times that ‘dawn’ appeared on ‘the edge of darkness’ along the many journeys from slavery to freedoms. During Black History Month at McCallie I recognized an opportunity to share moments of shared history. Now some years later, in celebration of Black History Month, I would like to share with you a few aspects of my personal black history that McCallie’s community of students, teachers, host parents, administrators and alumni made and continue to make possible.

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Twenty-eight years ago, I asked what McCallie was doing to celebrate Black History Month. There were no formal plans or events. Students of color upon request had the option of being excused to attend a ceremony or commemoration of black history. Sitting in class at a private secondary school nestled on Missionary Ridge, a former Confederate strong hold known as the “Gateway to the lower South” (1863), was in itself a personal celebration of black history. One hundred and twenty-five years before I arrived, Maj. General William T. Sherman dislodge the Rebels and began his March to the Sea laying waste and setting fire to everything in his path.

My Family Oral Histories:

1. Field of Dreams Part 1, Part 2

2. Premeditated Adversity Part 1

While I was sitting in class at McCallie, down in Minter City, Mississippi on the Avent Platation, enduring her twlight, my great grandmother sat in a house bequeathed to surviving members of our family who were known to her as former slaves and free born. Founded almost 20 years after she was born, The McCallie School (est. 1905), nuanced the meaning of Black History Month for me. Black History Month became and remains for me the remembrance and the reflection of the many times that ‘dawn’ appeared on ‘the edge of darkness’ along the many journeys from slavery to freedoms. During Black History Month at McCallie I recognized an opportunity to share moments of shared history. Now some years later, in celebration of Black History Month, I would like to share with you a few aspects of my personal black history that McCallie’s community of staff, students, teachers, host parents, administrators and alumni made and continue to make possible.

I first became aware that there was such a thing as boarding school, while reading ‘Death Be Not Proud‘ by John Gunther in junior high school. Featured in Gunther’s book, Deerfield Academy was my first impression of a private secondary boarding school. Upon returning Gunther’s book to the local library, I asked the librarian if there were any other books about boarding schools. She took me to the reference section of the library and placed a copy of Peterson’s guide to secondary school on the table in front of me. At some point while reading the description of the schools, their class size and rates of admissions to some of the best colleges and universities, I took out a pencil. Using a map that I found in an encyclopedia, I wrote down the names and telephone numbers of schools in cities that were from what I could gather a day’s drive from Greenwood, MS.

Riding an adrenaline rush and my bicycle home, I worked up the nerve to make long distance calls to several of the schools on the list. One by one, I dialed the numbers. One by one, a polite voice greeted my inquiry about their school with an equally polite request for my name, number and address. One by one, the calls ended with a ‘thank you’ and a promise to send more information. I dialed McCallie’s admissions’ office. A warm polite voice greeted my inquiry with a query of her own. “How did you hear about McCallie?” After explaining how I became aware of private secondary schools like McCallie, she asked me to hold. She wanted me to speak to an admissions officer. At the end of a more detailed conversation with the admissions officer, I was put on hold again while being transferred to a third person in the admissions office. It was at this point that a sinking feeling overtook my joy and excitement as I thought of the phone bill. It is one thing to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. This long distance call was going on so long that I feared my request would be for mercy rather than forgiveness.

In 1991, I graduated McCallie. In what can be best described as an exit interview, Spencer McCallie III invited me into his office after graduation. We had a conversation about the circumstances surrounding my application and admission to the class I had just graduated. He wanted to ascertain and ensure my understanding and appreciation of a surreal sadistic saga that had been book-ended by my graduation. How did I come out on the other side of it?

The application and admission process was at the time, the third time in my life that I had a direct confrontation with what I now call, privileged equilibria of power. The first encounter began when my mother agreed to drive me to a ‘Boy Scouts of America’ meeting for new members. When I asked her to take me, she knew that I would be turned away. However, rather than tell me what I could or could not do based on the color of my skin, she allowed me to hear it from the Scout master.

The second encounter took place towards the end of 8th grade. I was the first black student nominated for the Kathleen Bankston Award. The nomination was not for an unblemished record of achievement. The nomination was for the drastic and radical change in my behavior and grades after I decided to stop doing just enough to pass. I did not know that I was nominated. The question and debate surrounding my nomination, however, created a palpable tension and stress. A compromise was reached. There would be one award for a black student and one for a white student. The white student, Nathan, had been a straight arrow since first grade. I was happy not to eclipse recognition of his effort.

Several months after the Kathleen Bankston Award, the father of one of my white classmates encountered by chance a McCallie admissions officer on a recruiting trip in Mississippi. The admissions officer mentioned that McCallie was considering my application until concerns were raised by parents of enrolled students. Rather than a confirmation of the allegations, a counter narrative based on my academics and the opinion pieces I wrote for the local newspaper as part of an essay contest was offered to allay the ‘concerns’ that were raised. The real underlying concern, however, was that of the blacks students studying at McCallie, my study at the school would tarnish the shine and blunt the sashay that being a McCallie student bestowed on the status of wealthy white parents in a southern town small enough for such things to matter.

Desegregation of schools across the South engendered three general reactions among white parents. Lower income white students had to attend schools with black students. Middle and upper income white students matriculated to private all white schools like Pillow Academy founded in 1965. Wealthy southern gentry sent their kids to elite private secondary schools that predate the social unrest of the Civil Rights Movement. I was part of a group of students from the black section of town who were bussed to school in the affluent white section of town.

As noted above there were black students at McCallie, my application was not the first straw but for some in my hometown it was the last straw. The application and admissions process subtly turned into the check point for my third encounter with a privileged equilibrium of power. An oddity of this particular privileged equilibrium of power manifested as persons of extreme privilege experiencing perceived slights, demonstrative insolence and irreverence towards their perception of the world and their place in it as grave injury. I had to tend to the obstacles that were put in my way. Thanks to Spencer McCallie and the McCallie community, however, I did not have to attend the injury to vestiges of a status quo.

McCallie worked with my retired elementary school teacher, Mrs. Lillian Harris, to turn her kitchen into a temporary designated testing center so that I could take the SSAT. Other options were made unavailable to me. Parents of some of the McCallie students from Greenwood implied a connection between their objections to my application, the enrollment of their sons and their participation in annual fund raising. One of the parents flew to Chattanooga and met with Spencer to make the case against me – in person. There were concerns about an event that McCallie held at the homes of current students where perspective students and their parents could spend a virtual day at McCallie. Scheduling the event in my hometown after sunset and agreeing to the arrival of my mother and I in a taxi allayed concerns about parking our car on the street and being seen entering the front entrance. On top of everything else, the process of obtaining transcripts and acquiring references was so petty and banal that in a moment of frustration, I picked up the phone and called McCallie. I asked to speak to the Headmaster. Spencer McCallie took my call. He did not say much on the telephone. Interjecting a question here and there, he mostly listened as I told him about what I was experiencing from my vantage point. I can not recall how the conversation ended.

The next morning I went to school exasperated and exhausted. The first bell rang. I took my seat and began completing the exercise that was written on the board. The door to the classroom opened. The principal beckoned to my teacher. Retuning to the classroom, she walked over to my desk. “Tommye the principal would like to speak to you.” These were not strange words to me. Before I could get a read on the body language and facial expression of the principal, I noticed an vaguely familiar white face standing next to him. He was an admissions officer from McCallie who had flown to Greenwood. If you know the Yahoo-Mississippi Delta, you understand that faring to Greenwood is a special task. The admissions officer, my mother and I spent the rest of that day navigating the obstacles to completing my application.

McCallie’s rapid response went a long way to freeing me up to deal with antagonism on the home front towards the idea of going to a boarding school. The first question out of my father’s mouth was, “Why do you want to go to school with all of those white kids?” It was asked often. I answered once. “I want the same education as all those ‘white’ kids?” The race of the majority of students that attend schools like McCallie was not a factor for me. My thinking and imagination of private secondary school was formed reading ‘Death Be Not Proud’. I could not read the color of the students between the lines. Thinking I was crossing a line and setting an example that it is possible to be centered outside of his influence my father acted out. His first and last visit to McCallie was when he dropped me off at my dorm. As I unloaded personal items including my saxophone from the car, he told me, “That is my saxophone. I am still paying on it. Put it back.” A bit stunned, but without protest, I put the saxophone back in the car. Years later I was just as happy to let him keep the hormones and the newly found religion he offered me as a cure for my sexuality.

When I first told my mother about McCallie she said, ‘I would clean houses and mop floors to make sure you can go if they accept you.’ One of her brothers, a Baptist minister, told her that I would not succeed. Certain of his prediction, he stated that if I succeed, he would get on his knees and apologize. I am still waiting. Among my uncle’s fears was the concern that my growth and development in the church were not complete. The teachings of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), thankfully behind me, are still a very important part of me and my understanding of the ‘masks of god’. McCallie required students to spend time on matters of faith or mediation be that time attending church, synagogue, masque or temple. I took advantage of this to explore the faiths and beliefs of different communities of varying faiths in Chattanooga, TN. I did not leave the church or abandon religion. I evolved.

Many years ago, during this month of the year, I received the cautious acceptance of a captive audience assembled for chapel. With Spencer McCallie’s approval and Mr. Waller (now a fellow alumnus of Williams College) advising, events were scheduled, plans were made and Black History Month celebrated. Few knew at the time that I was not just celebrating Black History Month with the McCallie community. I was at McCallie celebrating Black History Month because the spirit of community at McCallie inspired administrators, staff, teachers, host parents, fellow students and alumni to carry water for me to the ‘edge of a darkness’ and the break of a ‘dawn’. Now in the midst of my most intense encounter with premeditated adversity and a foreign privileged equilibrium of power, I stand my ground because the honor, truth and duty afforded me before I took my first class at McCallie, are still the strongest winds at my back! It is my McCallie Black History!

Curriculum Vitae

Tom L. States PhD Candidate

Fields of Interest: Political Theory, International Relations, Marxist Political Economy

Research Topic: eRacism - Conflicts of Difference

Education History: Williams College, BA Political Science; New York University, MA Politics; York University PhD Candidate

Languages: English, German

Hometown: Greenwood, Mississippi

Words of Wisdom: “IT” is what you are when you are young. Your youth mistakes certainty of the few things that you think you know for knowledge of things that it takes a life time to understand. With time and a few life experiences “IT” becomes the thing you pursue to give your life meaning. Somewhere along the way of having or getting “IT” you ask yourself, ‘Is this “IT”? Panic sets in when you realize that “IT” is your life. Fear and insecurity is that feeling you get when “IT” has not been worth a life time.

Bookshelf

Harvey, David. Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference. New York: Longman, 1996.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press. 1967.

Cancian, Francesca M. Gender Politics: Love and Power in the Private and Public Spheres. Gender and the Life Course. Ed. Alice S. Rossi. New York: Aldine, 1985.

Sand, Shlomo. The Invention of the Jewish People. New York: Verso, 2009.

Lay, Shawn. The Invisible Empire In The West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920's. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Journal

Carothers, Thomas. Think Again: Civil Society. Foreign Policy Date, (Winter: 1999-2000).

Ober, Josiah. The original meaning of "democracy": Capacity to do things, not majority rule. Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics. American Political Science Association meetings, Philadelphia, (2006).