The Tougaloo Series Part 1: “From Slaves to Scholars”

I was recently asked in an interview why I believe the Catfish Alley story is mine to tell. I suppose that question could be expected when one is white and writing from the point of view of black characters. My response may seem simple: I believe a writer always puts herself or himself into the point of view of someone else–black or white, male or female, old or young. Why must we perpetuate segregation by assuming only blacks can write of the black experience? Or that whites can only speak from the white perspective? I do agree that complete objectivity is not possible. We can never completely eliminate the point of view from which we see the world–the way of being within which we reside, that very being which causes us to ask the questions about the world that we do. However, I believe understanding is based on the desire to place oneself empathically into the experience of another–to look underneath the carapace of another person’s world. And I believe understanding is the genesis of change.

My questions are about the experiences, both black and white, of the world in which I grew up; a world I took for granted, that remained unexamined for much of my life. One of my questions led me to want to step into the experience of blacks who sought an education during times in our history when obstacles confronted them at every turn. The search for answers led me to Tougaloo College.

Grace Clark, one of the main characters in Catfish Alley, dreamed her whole life of going to college to earn a teaching degree. In 1931, subsequent to a shocking revelation from Mr. and Mrs. Calhoun who owned the property her small house was situated on, Grace’s dream came true and she found herself getting off the back of a wagon on a dusty road that led to Tougaloo College. Here’s an excerpt from the novel:

September 1931
“It’s so hot and dry today, the wagon wheels leave a cloud of dust behind as the kind colored farmer who gave me a ride from the Jackson bus station drives his mules on down the winding dirt road. I set Grandma’s old suitcase down and brush the dust off my dress, wishing I’d just stayed on the back of that wagon. Maybe I could go home with that farmer, find a new family and a new life. I’m a hard worker. I could pick cotton. No one would know me. No one would know this terrible secret I carry about myself. …But I’ve felt sorry for myself long enough. So I wipe my face with the handkerchief from my pocket, pick up my little suitcase, square my shoulders, and strike out down the long driveway and through the arch to Tougaloo College.”

I chose Tougaloo College for my story because Tougaloo’s history is synonymous with the history of blacks in Mississippi. Here is what the Tougaloo College website says about the College and its history:

“Tougaloo College is a private, coeducational, historically black four-year liberal arts, church related, but not church controlled institution. It sits on 500 acres of land located on West County Line Road on the northern edge of Jackson, Mississippi. In Good Biblical Style1, one might say that the Amistad, the famous court case which freed Africans who were accused of mutiny after they killed a part of the captor crew of the slave ship Amistad and took over the vessel, begat the American Missionary Association, and the American Missionary Association begat Tougaloo College and her five sister institutions.”

Amistad, the movie, chronicles the history of the mutiny and court case.

The Tougaloo website goes on to say

“In 1869, the American Missionary Association of New York purchased five hundred acres of land from John Boddie, owner of the Boddie Plantation to establish a school for the training of young people ‘irrespective of religious tenets and conducted on the most liberal principles for the benefit of our citizens in general.’  The Mississippi State Legislature granted the institution a charter under the name of ‘ Tougaloo University’ in 1871. The Normal Department was recognized as a teacher training school until 1892, at which time the College ceased to receive aid from the state. Courses for college credit were first offered in 1897, and in 1901, the first Bachelor of Arts degree was awarded to Traverse S. Crawford. In 1916, the name of the institution was changed to Tougaloo College.”

The mansion as it appeared originally is pictured below.

Early photo of the Tougaloo Mansion

The mansion in c. 1900.

The Boddie mansion circa 1900

The entrance gate to Tougaloo College as Grace might have seen it.

As stated so eloquently by Ernest Limbo, Professor of History at Tougaloo College:

“Throughout the South, and perhaps throughout America, white people, institutions, and society were considered superior to their black counterparts. Tougaloo College exists because African Americans refused to believe that black was inferior to white, and it continues to remind generations of students that white supremacy was a myth perpetuated by a people desperate to retain power. Tougaloo’s existence dispels the romantic notion some have of the South’s history.”

My writing is about opening a window into the Southern culture from the perspective of just one Southern storyteller. I don’t have any romantic notions about the South’s history, and definitely none about white supremacy. I follow the questions sparked by my experiences and those of others. And sometimes, if I’m lucky, there’s a story at the end of the path.

One Response to “The Tougaloo Series Part 1: “From Slaves to Scholars””

  1. Ruby Midkiff says:

    Thank you for writing CATFISH ALLEY. Best book I have read in a long, long time. Moved me to tears and that is hard for any book to do. MUCH better than THE HELP!!! I hope that this, too, will become a movie!!!! I will be first in line to see it!!!!

    I was raised in a small town in Southern Mississippi and I think we have alot to learn about each other, black and white. And I learned a great deal in your beautifully written book of fiction. THANK YOU!!!!

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