I didn’t know there was going to be a “part 2” to this blog entry about Tuskegee, but someone pointed out that I didn’t finish the story. What happened to my sister and family during that month of September, 1963? Until Gov. Wallace re-opened Tuskegee High School, where did she go to school? Did she even go back to Tuskegee High School, or did my parents send her somewhere else? As I wrote in the earlier blog, when Gov. Wallace shut down Tuskegee High School in September, 1963 as an attempt to prevent court-ordered integration, he shut down the ONLY high school in the entire community. The black students that would have integrated Tuskegee simply returned to their old rural schools just like always. However, the white students in Tuskegee had nowhere to go. Their school was closed.
The day after Wallace shut down the school, my father bought a used VW van and drove some of the neighborhood kids 30 miles away to the nearby town of Tallassee, Alabama and enrolled them in school there (where they were joined by a flood of other families from Tuskegee). He and other neighborhood parents took turns driving the “Maple Street Bus” back and forth to Tallassee every day. In addition to Tallassee, white families in Tuskegee also sent their children to schools in nearby Shorter and Notasulga in Macon County. I have often heard it said that the “racist” white families in Tuskegee went to great extremes to avoid sending their children to school with blacks, which included finding schools in other communities, but that is not accurate at all. I know from my own family’s perspective that the reason my sister went to school in Tallassee was because there WAS no other school in Tuskegee to attend. It was either stay home or go to school somewhere else while the school was shut down, and my parents sent them to Tallassee. The original idea was to basically make the kids fend for themselves at a “foreign” school until things could be sorted out in Montgomery and Washington, and then return home when the dust settled. But the biggest problem all of the Tuskegee transients faced was that the “welcome” mat didn’t exist for them at those other schools. My sister endured immediate harassment from the local students in Tallassee, because the schools were bitter rivals. The same was true in Shorter and Notasulga.
Of course, since Tuskegee was such a small, close-knit community, all of the white families talked about nothing else except the school closing, and they were all aware of the continued harassment their kids were enduring at their temporary out-of-town schools. Keep in mind that I’m not talking about a few families, or even most families. I’m talking about ALL families, because every white kid in town had to be driven somewhere else to school. After a couple of weeks of torture at other schools, many local parents decided that they couldn’t wait any longer, and that they needed to come up with a better plan. They decided to simply open their own school, and bring their children back home. To me, this became the shining golden moment in this whole tornado of chaos, because of how they handled it. A group of local families saw a problem and fixed it on their own as a solution to government interference, and in spite of government interference. For my way of thinking, that’s both the American way and the Southern way of doing things.
Of course, the school they opened would need to be a private school that didn’t fall under the government’s jurisdiction, because if they tried to open an alternative public school, then it would be immediately cast right back into the legal wrangling between Wallace and the Kennedys. So, they made it a private school and named it Macon Academy, which started out by holding classes in an old empty hotel in downtown Tuskegee. Ironically, the initial idea for the creation of Macon Academy actually came from Wallace himself, who encouraged communities in Alabama to create private educational academies that could remain legally segregated outside the reach of Federal law. However, from my own family’s perspective, I can advise that the creation of Macon Academy had a lot more to do with solving the problem of not having a school at all than with segregation. Macon Academy would be the first co-ed private school in the Deep South, and it was founded by ordinary parents who were fed up with an overbearing government (Federal and State) and decided to take matters into their own hands. My parents were two of those founding parents, and they pulled my sister out of the school in Tallassee and brought her back home to enroll in Macon Academy. They also cleaned toilets, prepared food, volunteered to coach football, and all kinds of other things so that the school could stay afloat and give their kids a place to get an education. Since there wasn’t a functioning cafeteria in the new school, they ordered lunches daily from the Lakeview Café in Tuskegee, which was owned by my grandfather. He delivered free food every day to the school as his way of helping out.
To a kid, is there anything more deeply personal and life-affirming than your school? It is your second home and your second family. It is your own tribal touchstone, and many of us make a point of returning to our classmates in periodic reunions throughout the years. Yet, here was an entire generation of students in Tuskegee that had their school and classmates ripped out of their hearts and lives. They were forced into being unwelcome nomads at other schools, and the only alternative was attending a new school that was a pathetic shell of what their old school had been. Of course race is an important part of this story, but the entire nation was watching and, in most cases, pre-judging based upon ugly stereotypes and prejudices of their own. Suddenly, ordinary daily questions that everybody takes for granted in high school (who’s taking you to prom, who you play for homecoming, who sits behind you in English) were wiped off the table because of the petty swordplay between the Governor and the President. My current brother-in-law was a senior that year in high school, and he chose to remain in school at Shorter so that he might continue to compete in athletics. Everything that happened ended up costing him a shot at a coveted college athletic scholarship.
Some of the other Tuskegee students also stayed at their new schools in Shorter, Tallassee, and Notasulga. Others enrolled at the new Macon Academy. And at the end of September, when a newly integrated Tuskegee High School re-opened, others went back to their old school. The classes at Macon Academy contained perhaps eight students each, and back at Tuskegee High School, the classes were down to five or six students each. The classes at Tallassee, Shorter, and Notasulga were full, but still very uninviting. The kids kept calling each other to try and convince them to reconsider their family choices and attend whatever school they’d each chosen because they all missed each other and just wanted to get back together in school. The decisions made by the parents as to where to send their children to school for the rest of that school year became highly emotional and volatile. Friends, neighbors, and even families became enemies, and the decision to help open Macon Academy and enroll my sister there ended up getting my parents fired from their jobs.
I mentioned that my maternal grandfather provided food for Macon Academy from his café. He was also a farmer in addition to running the café. My parents supported our family by working for my other (paternal) grandfather at the family-owned clothing store on the square in downtown Tuskegee. My father’s father was certainly not a civil rights activist by any stretch, but he was a shrewd businessman who understood the economy extremely well. He expressly forbid his three sons from sending their children (his grandchildren) to a private school in Tuskegee, because he was worried about what that would do to his business. Tuskegee had only recently emerged from a devastating black boycott of white-owned businesses, and my grandfather was prepared to do whatever it took to make sure he didn’t have to suffer through anything like that again. Two of his sons complied with his wishes, and all of my cousins returned to classes at the newly integrated Tuskegee Public Schools, much to my grandfather’s delight. My father, however, was a different story. He and my mother had busted their butts to help open Macon Academy, and they were not prepared to buckle under to my grandfather’s edict and bail out on their fellow founding families. So, in direct defiance to my grandfather (their employer), my parents kept my sister enrolled in Macon Academy. My grandfather, in return, fired both of them.
My other grandfather responded by hiring both of them. My mother went to work at the café and my father suddenly became a farmhand. Our cousins were not allowed to speak to us or play with us during this time. Many other families in Tuskegee that also fell on opposite sides of the issue became lifelong enemies. After three years of struggling and worrying about the quality of education in both Macon Academy and Tuskegee High School, my father worked out a solution by 1966. We would leave Tuskegee and Macon County entirely by moving to Auburn in adjoining Lee County and attend the integrated public schools there. In return, my grandfather would hire my father back at the clothing store. When he told my mother what they were going to do, she refused to go. She said Tuskegee was her home, and she’d be damned if anybody could force her to leave. My father told her, “Well, good luck then, because the kids and I are moving to Auburn.” She changed her mind. I spent two years in kindergarten enrolled at Macon Academy (don’t ask – it’s a long story), and then the rest of my school education came from my new home in Auburn. My cousins also moved to Auburn right after that, and at least those fences could be finally mended. My older sister graduated from an integrated Auburn High School in 1969, and the rest of us followed right behind her in 1971, 1973, and 1978.
Recently at work, I was in a conference room waiting on a committee meeting to start when I mentioned something about doing a recruiting trip to Macon Academy for a potential scholarship student. One of the other faculty members sneered, “Oh you mean that old George Wallace racist school?” I didn’t say anything back to her, because what could I say? In the times we live, anything I said that would have totally factual and correct would still have been perceived as racist. Those of us who stood right on the line during these difficult times have had to learn to keep our mouths shut, because it’s impossible to have a rational discussion on the topic. We talk about it to each other in private, but we never allow ourselves to be caught with any public opinions on the subject. At best, all we can do is hang on to things secretly until society moves to a different time that is more tolerant of alternative viewpoints. Maybe a future generation can objectively handle the whole truth about all the things that happened to everybody back then.