Preservation as Reconcilation

Today’s guest author Rosalind Lee has been leading the fight to save Mendenhall’s historic school. While the MDAH Board of Trustees recently backed down in the face of political pressure and granted a demolition permit for the 1938 building, the fight to save it goes on in Mendenhall. Last month, the massive bond bill vote that the Simpson County School District had been counting on for their big building program that would have included demolition at Mendenhall failed, massively [For:  1.281  (32.70 percent), Against:  2636  (67.30 percent)].

Tomorrow night at 6 o’clock, Rosalind’s Save Our School! group and MHT will go back to the school board to plead the school’s case. Since the building is still a Mississippi Landmark, I believe it would still qualify for the MDAH Community Heritage Preservation Grant, whose applications are due later this month. Instead of spending money to tear down the building, why not put that money toward the 20% match that grant requires and have a newly useful building that everyone can be proud of?

Rosalind published this commentary in the newspaper before July’s MDAH board meeting, and she has graciously allowed us to reprint it here. Her perspective reminds us that preservation, even of a formerly segregated place–maybe especially of a formerly segregated place–can be about racial reconciliation, not racial conflict. Schools such as Mendenhall’s tell not only about the enforced legal separation of the races but also about how Mississippi’s children of the 1970s and later have learned to learn together and bind up the wounds of the past. In this way, they tell “the rest of the story” after the difficult days of the civil rights period, and that rest of the story is as important as the earlier chapters. 

Mendenhall High School Auditorium

Welcomed Guests Forevermore
By
Rosalind Rhodes Lee

Our 1938 Mendenhall Public School, built in the art deco style and designated a Mississippi Landmark in January of 2012, is in danger of demolition.

Recently, two men, a black man and a white man, visited me. They were united in a worthy cause, to share ideas as to how we could succeed in saving our old school.

My guests were both born in 1953, a time when men of different races would not have been sitting together in a southern, white woman’s living room sharing their hopes, dreams, and visions. They would have been MOST UNLIKELY GUESTS.

I was 10 years old the year of their birth. I especially remember the fall of that year. Football season was in full swing and the school colors of black and gold adorned the town. My daddy always took me to the football games. I recall seeing members of the black community standing afar off watching our team play its games.

There was something different about the ‘53 season. It seemed that more of the black community were in attendance. I remember seeing members of both races warming their hands at the open bonfire and hearing them cheering together when the Tigers made an outstanding play.

The team broke state records, became the first undefeated, untied team in the history of the school and after much blood, sweat and tears became the 1953 Little Dixie Champs.

I don’t know the statistics of the “all black” Harper High School football team that year, and I don’t know if the white community shared their successes or failures. I do know that during the season of ‘53 all citizens of Mendenhall, regardless of their race, celebrated the success of the “mighty eleven” and the record breaking team.

Now, back to the two outstanding men who were my guests.

Clint and KevinThey were seniors in high school in 1971, a life changing year for southerners. It was the first year of full integration in the schools in Mendenhall as well as other places in the south. It was a milestone, a turning point.

As adults these men went on to become professionals, good citizens and fathers whose chests swell with pride and eyes fill with tears when referring to their children. As the men sat next to each other in my living room I couldn’t help but notice their different colored skin. Then, I noticed somewhat of a miracle. As the light filtered through the windows I could see a radiance coming from deep within each of them that broke the skin barrier, revealing their hearts and souls of the same tone and hue.

It has been 60 years since the exciting fall of the ’53 Little Dixie Champs. Boys of all races now play on the same team. They share disappointments and victories Parents, friends, and citizens of our diverse community sit together at Tiger Stadium to cheer on the Mendenhall Tigers.
It has been 42 years since Mendenhall’ s black and white students joined together in the same setting, not only to be educated, but to bond and to embrace their equality.

Mendenhall School auditorium (photo courtesy MDAH Historic Resources database, taken 8-4-2011 by Jennifer Baughn, MDAH)

Mendenhall School auditorium (photo courtesy MDAH Historic Resources database, taken 8-4-2011 by Jennifer Baughn, MDAH)

Our old school, built when thoughts of unity were only a dream, had in 1971 assumed another role, her main purpose being to provide a safe, welcoming place where hope and a united cause could flourish. Children of two different races now sat side by side in the polished seats of a majestic auditorium which had once seated only children of one race. These students, together, would embark on a new beginning, a new era.

Today in 2013 many want to save our old school. She is not a White school, a Black school, a Hispanic or Asian School. She is “OUR” school and we all love her.

Change has taken place because of the dedication and prayers of leaders such as my two friends.

They warm my heart and give me hope.

We still have work ahead of us, but there is now more joy in celebrating our similarities than our differences.

Our old school belongs to the public. She belongs to students, teachers, staff, city and county citizens and alumni who live all over the world.

She is 75 years of age this year.

Let’s celebrate by showing her the respect she deserves.

She has honored us by becoming a Mississippi Landmark. Let’s prevent her from becoming just a memory, a pile of crumbled bricks and mortar.

In a time, not too long ago, Kevin Jones, a black man and Clint Rotenberry, a white man, together, would not have been likely guests in my home. Today and forevermore they will be my most welcomed guests.

Let’s fight for “OUR OLD SCHOOL” to remain a beacon of light, to stand proudly atop her her hill radiating rays of light from her open doors to welcome all forevermore.



Categories: Civil Rights, Mendenhall, Schools

6 replies

  1. I hadn’t thought of the racial dimensions of the school’s historic importance. It’s very heartening to see the community come together to save it. I applaud them. As for the failure of the funding measure, I can only interpret that as a statement from the public intended to save the building.

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  2. The school bond issue had no funds for demolition of this building, nor did the plans presented and debated in public have any new buildings in the place of this old building. Whether we agree or disagree on this issue, I wanted to correct that information that was circulated to help defeat the bond issue.

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    • Thank you for that clarification. The overwhelming vote on the bond issue was, I’m sure, due to a variety of reasons, not confined to Mendenhall. But any group of public officials should have taken such a resounding no vote as a reason to take a step back and re-examine where they are going. Unfortunately, it seems from Thursday’s vote that they chose instead to stamp their feet like little children and punish those who they believe got them in this situation.

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  3. In a disheartening report from those who attended Thursday evening’s Simpson County School Board meeting, the board voted to approve a demolition bid for Mendenhall school for the whopping price of $350,000. You read that right. So obsessed are they with destroying a historic building which mainly needed a new roof and was in use until just a few years ago, the school board that just got a vote of no confidence in the school bond bill vote found over a quarter of a million dollars that could have gone to repairs of the building. Where is the Ethics Commission?

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