From Classroom to A Place in History
Educator, Human and Civil Rights Pioneer
I never met the eminent school principal, Miss Alice Linfield White. But I heard stories about her all my life because she made a powerful and lasting impression on her students. One of whom was my mother. As an educator as well as a formidable woman of substance, Miss White’s indelible reputation also cast a unique shadow over my formative years and had a direct influence on my coming of age and my education.
Alice Linfield White (1854–1935) was a stern but altruistic white schoolmistress from New England with strong moral principles and ideals regarding racial equality and social justice. Toward the end of the 19th Century, with a strong belief in “enlightenment and character development through education”, she dared to challenge age-old racial restrictions in the Southern United States. At that time black students were being denied a high school education because there was no high school in the city for “colored” students. So, armed with little more than her moral compass, years of teaching experience, and dogged determination, she founded Miss Whites School for Girls/Montgomery Industrial School “for the education of young colored girls”, in Montgomery Alabama, the State capital, and the so-called “cradle of the Confederacy”.
In keeping with her vision of providing a superior education and guiding students to their full potential, Miss White persuaded an equally courageous group of teachers, all white women from the North, to join her in answering “…the urgent need for a school for colored girls where they could be given an industrial education with the secondary and junior high grades.” Against incredible odds, the women succeeded in attracting students from Montgomery as well as neighboring communities. And as the prestigious school gained local notoriety, they received many visits from well-known dignitaries and endorsements from notable citizens, pastors, and educators, one of whom was Tuskegee Institute president, Booker T. Washington, in which he mentioned the school’s “…good, practical work. Especially this is true in the way they connect the work done in the schoolrooms with the homes of their pupils…and I find they keep out of debt and spend the money that is given them economically and wisely.”
Clergyman and educator Charles F. Thwing, who was also a trustee said: “The school is seeking to educate colored girls unto noble womanhood and to train them to do efficient work as homemakers, as seamstresses, and as good members of other callings.” This was the climate of education for Negroes and women during that time.
Miss White labored tirelessly and enthusiastically to uplift her young students and their lives, with a strong emphasis on character building through education. She constantly counseled and guided the girls, becoming a genuine friend and ally, assuring them that not all white people hated them and considered them inferior.
A Precursor To HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities)?
The young girls being educated and groomed at the school came from all strata of Montgomery’s Negro populace. My mother, Alberta, was from the Fraziers, a prominent family headed by a group of successful businessmen and farmers, including her father and his three brothers, who owned a great deal of property on the outskirts of Montgomery. The school’s monthly tuition was pricey for its time and cost-prohibitive for some families, but the benevolent principal/educator was determined to make quality education available and accepted many deserving students on working scholarships. In addition to strict academic studies, there were also mandatory courses in sewing, etiquette, comportment, grooming, and the social graces. Numbered among my mother’s classmates and friends who were also being shaped, groomed and developed during their formative years, was a very poised and pretty young girl from Pine Level, Alabama named Rosa, whose name would someday become known all over the world.
In spite of the school’s reputation in the community and the mutual respect between Miss White and her students and their parents, local segregationist whites viewed her as a troublemaker and harassed her constantly. But she would not be deterred. She socialized with black citizens, attending local black churches and engaging in community activism, and continued about her business of educating her girls, opening the world to them through knowledge and self-esteem.
During a period in time when lynching was a public spectacle and viewed as entertainment by some whites, Miss White was terrorized by angry local whites and met with constant resistance to her efforts. The three-story school building with approximately 300 students was frequently pelted with rocks, rotten eggs, and tomatoes, and burned down twice. And with the growing presence of the Ku Klux Klan, the school became a prime target of intimidation. But Miss White and her staff and students persevered, keeping the school operating for over 40 years. When it closed its doors for the last time in 1928, Alice White returned in retirement to her Melrose Massachusetts. But she maintained contact with her students through loving and deeply inspirational letters of encouragement for the remainder of her life. Her influence and teachings made a profound impression on her students, and they were bound together forever by their experiences under her tutelage. Each one of these women, in her own way, left an imprint on the world, and several became initiators of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights Movement. Mrs. Parks, of course, in one key and pivotal moment in time, became one of the enduring symbols of the Movement and went on to alter the course of history.
On that historic day, December 1, 1955, I barely noticed the increasing frequency of the phone calls from our relatives in Montgomery. I was looking forward to my 12th birthday, but anticipating the usual and dreaded “too close to Christmas” IOU lead-up to the combined gift. But I began to sense an urgency in my parents’ tone in their responses to what they were hearing. Over and over again, my mother’s audible shock and exclamations of: “What?!…I can’t believe it!” shook up our household. Finally, when I heard her say: “Rosa? I can’t believe it! Rosa wouldn’t even raise her voice to save her own life!” I knew that something serious had happened to her friend, Mrs. Parks down in Montgomery.
Over the next few days, our family members in Montgomery kept us informed by telephone of the evolving events as they occurred and made national news. Mother even began serving dinner in the living room on trays, in front of the TV set, telling us:
“You all come on in here and watch this! They’re making history at home!”
Sadly, Miss White had not lived to see the daring and courageous act of civil disobedience that may very well have been sparked many years ago under her influence.
A year or so after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, having encountered tremendous hardships as well as threats on their lives, Mrs. Parks and her husband, Raymond and her mother, Leona, moved to Detroit. Settling, as my family had, a few years earlier, on the city’s Westside.
My mother and Mrs. Parks remained life-long friends, and she was a frequent guest in our home. During visits, the two former classmates invariably reverted to their days as schoolgirls with recollections of Miss White and other teachers and the life lessons they were taught. Clearly, the strengths and attributes imparted to these women at Miss White’s School not only enhanced those qualities instilled in them by their families and churches but remained with them for life. Throughout their lives, as quintessential women of substance and great personal dignity, they remained the embodiment of strength, elegance, and impeccable taste.
The role of Civil Rights Icon was not one that Mrs. Parks chose for herself, and there was much more to her persona than that of “the nice quiet seamstress who just wanted to rest her feet.” But she accepted her role in history with grace and continued to live her life advocating for civil rights.
When I was growing up, rarely a day went by that my mother did not seize the opportunity to regale one or all five of her children with personal recollections and stories of her days and experiences at Miss White School. As children, we were a captive audience, but when I approached my teen years, I began to bristle at what I considered to be boring and repetitious stories, which by then I could repeat from memory, about the old spinster schoolmarm. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Mother was already planning a similar rigid all-girls educational experience for me.
Although our family had escaped the oppression of the Jim Crow South in 1954, joining in the Great Northern Migration and settling in Detroit, we still had family and property in Montgomery and visited frequently. In the summer of 1958, having graduated from the 8th grade, I was looking forward with great anticipation to high school life. My grades were very good in general, and I had made considerable effort to improve my weak math average from a C- to a B, which meant NO summer school for the first time in ages. My parents were strong education enthusiasts, keeping the five of us enrolled mostly in Catholic schools, and they always presented a united front in our home, especially when it came to studying and performing well academically. They were also strong advocates of year-round schooling and firm in their belief that we not “sit around all summer doing nothing.” So for me, as my summer began, and with high school looming, I filled countless pages of my diary with my hopes and dreams, curriculum and wardrobe plans, and thoughts and musings about what was ahead. I also had my eye on a couple of cute boys in my neighborhood who had been vying for my attention but reluctant to test my parent’s ironclad rules. My mother, it turned out, had other plans for how I would be spending that particular summer. After several weeks of hushed conversations around the house and knowing glances between my parents and older siblings, it was announced one evening at the dinner table that our family would not be taking the usual family jammed-in-the-car, 3-day drive vacation to our home in Montgomery. Instead, my mother would be going by train, and she’d be taking me with her. Just me. My suspicions were raised immediately, but the idea of a glamorous train ride and three weeks in the loving embrace of beloved aunts, uncles, cousins and childhood friends outweighed them. Then, after several shopping sprees for summer frocks and a rare trip to the hairdresser, Mother and I were on our way, and I was none the wiser. Upon our return home to Detroit, however, another dinner table announcement awaited me. Apparently, during my lovely vacation in Alabama, I had been enrolled in “a prestigious, highly ranked ALL-GIRLS Catholic high school.”
While my mother and I were in Alabama, vacationing, my older sister had been instructed to find a school similar to Miss White’s for me. And after extensive research, she chose Girls Catholic Central High School “… a private, non-boarding college preparatory secondary school for girls grades 9 through 12, fostering a genteel, religious, all-girls environment created and maintained to encourage scholastic excellence without the social distractions and pressures associated with co-ed educational systems.”
At first, I was absolutely furious at the deceptive conspiracy. I felt that not having been consulted or allowed to participate in making this decision about my future was grossly unfair, but I knew I had no choice in the matter. Mother was very pleased with the announcement and made no attempt to conceal her excitement. Channeling the infamous Miss White, she announced proudly: “There you will be educated into distinction and noble womanhood, just as I was at Miss White’s School.”
Both of my parents interjected an additional admonishment about the cost of the tuition and what tremendous sacrifices they were willing to make on my behalf, so any further complaints from me were out of the question. But additional revelations from my sister about her intense meeting with the school’s principal added more fuel to the discussion and piqued my interest. After my sister had submitted my transcript to the admissions board and subsequently received notification of “probationary acceptance”, she requested a meeting with the principal. During the meeting, in response to my sister’s insistence that my grades were outstanding, the rigid IHM nun principle stated emphatically: “Transcripts don’t mean much in the end…It’s been my experience that your kind never does well in this environment. I’ll give her a few weeks to try out, but if she doesn’t do well, she’ll have to leave.”
After hearing this, and observing my parents’ reaction, — my father was absolutely furious and had to be restrained from paying the school a personal visit to tell them a thing or two — I began to change my mind and welcomed the challenge. I knew that the proverbial intellectual gauntlet had been thrown down, and I now had something to prove. All that remained was for me to take the admission exam. It was a done deal. But there went my wardrobe plans, not to mention, proximity to those waiting cute boys. Most of my classmates and neighborhood friends were heading off to city public high schools such as Northwestern, Chadsey or Cass Tech. But I would be taking two buses and traveling nearly 10 miles in the opposite direction towards downtown Detroit.
Fortunately for me, Girls Catholic Central High School turned out to be the perfect school for me. Although the curriculum was tough and the nuns were even more strict than my elementary school nuns at St. Jude in Montgomery, and with a subtle undercurrent of Northern style racial prejudice thrown in for good measure, it was a good fit. I did well in my classes and forged solid and loyal friendships with many of my classmates. At the time of my enrollment, the student body consisted of only a handful of black girls, and we constantly had to work harder to demonstrate our intellect and to earn good grades. But the social changes of the late 1950s and early 1960s began to bring about the enrollment of more students of color, and we grew in number. Thereafter, in an atmosphere of ethnic, cultural, and economic diversity, young women of all nationalities, some foreign-born from Eastern European countries, were assimilating comfortably. The interactions and camaraderie between the girls proved to be mutually beneficial, culminating in a formal, religious commencement ceremony representative of our four-year academic achievements.
During my four years of high school, I had several testy confrontations with the intensely rigid and notorious principal. Nothing serious. Let’s just say, we didn’t see eye-to-eye on certain racial stereotypes that she held dear and refused to relinquish. But to my increasing delight, the power she thought she wielded over me was minuscule and her threatening notes and phone calls to my mother were received with as much disdain as they were submitted with. My mother was equally, if not more formidable and she knew exactly what the basis of the complaints was. She refused to tolerate the nonsense and she was my strongest champion and demanded respect. The influence of Miss Alice White was far-reaching and apparently everlasting.
My graduation was a joyous event for my entire family, but especially for my mother. She had so wanted for me the same special type of educational experience that she had as a young girl, and that she knew I would greatly benefit from. And she was right.
Miss White’s Lingering Influence:
Even long after she retired and returned to Massachusetts, Miss White maintained contact with many of her favorite students. They continued to learn from her as she shared with them, her philosophical views, new literary discoveries, and world and cultural events. She was a prolific and frequent letter writer and among the most cherished keepsakes of my mother’s were several beautifully written, thoughtful and inspirational letters she received from Miss White over the years. I am very pleased to have one of my late mother’s letters in my possession and to share it here, as the spirit of her principal’s magnificent achievement lives on.
Copy of Miss White’s letter to my mother, postmarked December 18, 1928, with two-cents US postage. Her love of words is clearly on display.
In closing, she wrote the word: “Mizpah” — a word of Hebrew origin which means “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are absent from each other.”
NOTE: Miss White’s return address, 314 Main Street in Melrose, Massachusetts, where she was residing at the time, was then known as “The Colonial”. The building is still standing, still bears the same name, and now houses “luxury condos with Beacon Hill charm in the heart of Melrose.”
Personal recollections of the school principal who helped to shape Mrs. Rosa and my mother.
Mrs. Willis: “I was the youngest of five children and my only sister was married with children of her own. So when Mamma and Papa started planning for my formal education, they heard about Miss White’s School for Girls, and they saw it as a way for me to be with girls my own age and to continue the home training and discipline they were providing. They wanted me to have the education that wasn’t available to them. Miss White made that possible. She was a strict and stern educator, but she always expressed her devotion and how much she believed in us. She believed very strongly in the old saying: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”, and she often used me as an example to show how my uniform dresses were always perfectly washed and ironed.”
Mrs. Parks: “What I learned best at Miss White’s School was that I was a person with dignity and self-respect and I should not set my sights lower than anybody just because I was black. We were taught to be ambitious and to believe that we could do what we wanted in life. This was not something I learned just at Miss White’s school. I had learned it from my grandparents and my mother too. But what I had learned at home was reinforced by the teachers I had at Miss White’s school.”