Long-ago Deep South school could teach us a lesson, author says

Politics and schools have been inseparable lately in Chicago. Could a segregated school from the Deep South in the 1940s through the 1960s have any lessons that could inform today’s debate?

Evanston author Robert McClory thinks it might. His book, “From the Back of the Pews to the Head of the Class” (ACTA Publications, 2013) tells through numerous interviews the story of Most Pure Heart of Mary High School in Mobile, Ala., whose alumni went on to remarkable success in great numbers around the country, running companies and public institutions and even serving in the Cabinet.

Here’s an edited transcript of what McClory says about the book and the lessons of the school.

Q: What is this book about?

A: The book is about this small, underfunded Catholic high school in segregated Mobile, Ala. And it is about what happened in that school when the teachers and the students were motivated to be successful in every way.

The teachers came in and said: You are going on to college — and it worked. Now, 60 years later, we find what they did. It is amazing. They had become doctors and lawyers and heads of business and founders of their own businesses and heads of school systems. It’s just an amazing record of achievement.

Q: Are there lessons there for school systems today that are trying to replicate that kind of achievement?

A: Well, in a way, there are. The idea of high motivation, the idea that you can succeed. The teachers were very positive about the students. In the book, the students, now 65 or older, are saying: I don’t understand what happened, really. I was taking algebra, and Sister said we are going to take more difficult algebra. She kept raising the bar, and I discovered I had taken college algebra and passed it — in high school.

The students also were reading some of the great writings of Western literature, and for the first time encountering these things and feeling the achievement of learning and being able to express what they had found.

A significant factor was the students all had at least one parent who was raising them, and they knew each other because it was a ghetto. If a kid started getting in trouble out in the street, before he got home, his mom knew about it. You don’t have that anymore. You don’t have the parents that involved in the education of their children, or that close to their children or to the neighbors’ children. Everybody is kind of in a box. That is a real difficulty.

Q: Despite the school’s success, it didn’t get much support from the top, did it?

Twice a year, the Catholic school students marched through the streets of Alabama on the Feast of Christ the King and on the first of May in honor of Mary. These were big events, and the fact that the black high school always came in last was a matter of some pain and resentment. The local bishop said a mass on the parade ground, and because the black students came in last, the mass was almost over by the time they got there.

That was a real put-down and they resented it. It was mentioned in almost every one of the interviews. Finally, they challenged that bishop and got to march third or fourth, but it seems like that never lasted, soon they were marching last again.

There was nothing coming from the administration, from downtown, from the bishop’s office. The pressure and inspiration was coming entirely from Dominican white nuns who came from Sinsinawa, Wis. Coming from the north, they had an expectation that talented kids would go to college. That is what they had experienced in their lifetimes. They took that paradigm of success, that expectation of success, and planted it in those kids so firmly that they caught on and they succeeded.

It was contagious, this idea that you will succeed, you will have to compete in a world where an awful lot of people don’t like you or want you around, but by your talents, you will overcome that. That lesson hit the students profoundly.

One nun said: The students changed me as much or more than I changed them. One day the nun found two students arguing on the playground, and she said: Stop that argument. What are you talking about?

One of the kids said, well, Sophie says you are white and I say you are black. This nun was stunned that some people thought she was black. She said, I have made it, they think I am black. I have so absorbed the black culture and the positive values in that. She said she went home and dreamed that night that she got up and looked in the mirror and, yes, she was black.

That happened to a lot of those teachers. They said it transformed them. But the school closed in 1968 because they didn’t want to have a segregated school any longer.

One of the school’s alumni is retired in Chicago. For many years, he worked for one of the big can companies and was very successful. Now he devotes a lot of his time to visiting inmates in prison. You see that with the other former students, too — in their latter years they are still active. That spirit is still printed on them.

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