Rounding the corner on my morning walk, I spotted the first one. The next house had one as well. Before reaching the end of that short block, I’d stopped to admire two more.
It was at the fourth sighting of a patch of iris in full bloom that I lifted up my eyes and said a silent, “Hello, Mom.”
My mother loved the old fashioned iris. We had our own garden patch on East Main Street when I was young. When I see them today my thoughts inevitably turn to her and the lessons she taught me about beauty, respect, life-long learning, and empathy.
Mom’s been on my mind at this moment in time as I have been reading about the hollowing out of public goods and public education by those who would have everyone suffer before they would consider sharing resources with those of other races. I think of her because I am old enough to have attended segregated public schools in my youth. Mom’s actions in that moment are part of my story.
In the fall of 1963, I was a rising third-grader at Capshaw Elementary School in Cookeville, Tennessee. A WPA building constructed in 1939 as part of the New Deal, the Capshaw in my memory is a one-story, low slung brick building, with wide halls, wooden floors, rooms full of light, steps at the entrance near the administration offices and the school cafeteria, and interior stairs to navigate through a schoolhouse built into a hill. It certainly wasn’t a new building when I arrived, but it was top-of-the-line compared to the six-room, frame with brick veneer Darwin School, which housed all the community’s Black students.
Although the historic Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ordering school desegregation was handed down in 1954, the public schools in Cookeville, Putnam County, and throughout the Upper Cumberland region in Tennessee were still segregated at the beginning of 1963. The federal government had not pushed for compliance, and state and local governments were not in a rush to end the Jim Crow practice of “separate but equal.”
That all began to crumble in Cookeville when the Darwin School burned to the ground in January. Arson was suspected but never proven. For a time, the students were taught in make-shift classrooms at local Black churches. But in April, a group of Black parents came before the county board to state that they wanted their children to begin attending white schools. In Cookeville, the debate over whether to rebuild Darwin began to shift as the more progressive voices in the community argued for desegregation and compliance with the Supreme Court order.
Mother took on the position as head of Capshaw’s Parent-Teachers Association, or PTA, in the fall of 1963. She certainly understood the issue of integration and was supportive of the change. But as she endured pushback and anger, it would be a year she never forgot.
The decision was made to integrate the schools, and I recall the addition of Black children to our classrooms, already crowded to near capacity thanks to the baby boom. We generally accepted the change and I do not have any strong memories of conflict. But anytime I was called to the principal’s office, I knew that Mr. Oliver Bohannon — someone I generally tried to avoid — wanted me to take PTA materials home to mother. Often they related to the integration of the public schools.
Even with a relatively small number of Blacks and the leavening influence of Tennessee Tech University, which accepted its first Black student around the same time, Cookeville still saw pushback against the change. Giving up a privilege that is seen as a birthright — no matter how randomly and cruelly the advantage was gained — is a bridge too far for many. Years later Mother would reflect that it was one of the most difficult years of her life. “We never had a problem with the children,” she noted. It was always the parents — the alleged adults in the situation — who made her job miserable.
My parents came from families that were steeped in the Jim Crow traditions of the South, so Mother knew the mindset of other adults in the community. Both sets of grandparents lived in and generally supported a separate-but-equal world. Mother and Daddy recognized the injustice of the inequality and supported slow yet progressive change. It was in showing respect through interpersonal relationships where they first made their mark on me. Our mouths would face a date with a bar of soap if the n-word was used. We were all taught to call the Black cooks at church Mr. and Mrs. Smith, instead of using the first names in an informal and disrespectful way that we would never think to use with our friend’s parents.
As they grew older, Mother and Daddy came to turn from the way they were raised as they began life with their own family. Both saw the Black citizens in Cookeville, and later in Murfreesboro, as people to know and love; as fellow Children of God, in their religious worldview. Years later I had conversations with my father where he suggested that the turning away from their cultural upbringing included a forgiveness of their parents as well as the asking of forgiveness for their own culpability in supporting injustice.
Which brings me to 2021.
There was a time, a moment as integration began to take hold in the 1950s and 60s, to change the course of our nation’s history and the narrative about our past. Some, like my mother, tried. But soon the divide-and-conquer tactic of those in power began draining public pools, building segregation academies, and pushing racial fear to keep the middle and lower classes from realizing that their prosperity came from working together. These were tactics similar to those used after the Civil War when the opportunity of Reconstruction was pushed aside for the harshness of Jim Crow.
Because of all that we’ve witnessed over the past year, we are at another moment in time when we can change the course of our nation’s history and the narrative about who we are through our actions. Once again, Mom’s example is shaping my response.
My mother, the librarian, was a life-long reader who instilled that discipline in her son. She read to learn, and I have turned to books as one way of learning about our racial divides. In this year of pandemic, I have leaned on the many good books available to help in understanding our past, the potential of this moment, and the chance to change the future. This was my time to pick up writings by authors I may not know to gain a broader, deeper, and more nuanced perspective of what racism has done, and continues to do, to America.
Books like Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt’s Biased, and Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist, the latter usually found right at the top of the list of recommended works to read in order to understand the systemic racism in our country and how best to respond.
White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America by Anthea Butler and Ty Seidule’s Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause have helped me see my personal history from different perspectives.
Two highly influential works that have shaped my thinking are Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. The same is true of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness as well as Democracy in Chains by Duke historian Nancy MacLean, which helps the reader understand how unfettered capitalism became more sacrosanct than democracy in America, thanks to a stealth plan based on divide-and-conquer racism by the radical right.
Our nightstands and tables are also filled with books, as my wife and I continue working through several challenging yet illuminating works including Howard Thurman’s classic Jesus and the Disinherited, Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of our Discontent, and Debby Irving’s Waking Up White. I am two-thirds of the way through Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, an illuminating and hopeful book that makes the strong case that little will change until white people realize what racism has cost them too.
We are at a moment where we can change as a country. We can learn if we will just be open to narratives from other perspectives that differ from the exceptional nationalistic one we were taught in grade school. We can learn from the ordinary people in ordinary places who do extraordinary things. We can respond with the tools of grace and love instead of hatred and violence. We can follow the example of those who have walked this path before us and help bend the arc of history a little further toward justice.
When I see the patch of iris, I am reminded that Mom is still here, helping me see that we are facing another moment in America where we can change our narrative and our future. It will not be easy, but we have to continue to try, for ourselves, and for our children and grandchildren.
Our mothers are calling us.
More to come…