The young Grace Clark, one of the main characters in Catfish Alley, attended Tougaloo College from 1931 through 1935. Grace was strongly influenced by Dr. Inez Prosser. Unlike many of the characters whose names I changed for Catfish Alley, I made the decision to keep Dr. Inez Prosser’s name. Dr. Prosser was the first African American woman to earn a PhD. She earned her degree from The University of Cincinnati. Although Dr. Prosser was actually at Tougaloo College in 1930 as a faculty member, administrator, and the principal of Tougaloo High School, she left Tougaloo in 1931 to begin her doctoral work. This is where I exercised “artistic license.”
Dr. Prosser returned to Tougaloo in 1932 to work on her dissertation. Her area of study was social and family/teacher relationship variables affecting black children and how those variables differed between black children in segregated versus desegregated schools. Dr. Prosser was a pioneer, not only as a black woman with a doctoral degree, but in studying the effects of segregated education on black children.
Below is an excerpt from Catfish Alley that demonstrates how I envisioned the young Grace might have felt when she first met Dr. Inez Prosser:
Grace, September 1931
I resist the instinct now to go around to the back door of this grand old house. I set my jaw and march up the wide front steps. I’m busy admiring the arched window over the door when the door opens and I find myself face-to-face with a colored woman different from anyone I’ve ever seen before. She’s dressed in a dark well-fitted suit. I know that her shoes and clothes are the latest fashion because Adelle and I have seen clothes like this in the Good Housekeeping magazines that Mrs. Calhoun lets us have when she’s finished. Her shoes are good leather, polished and shining, with pointed toes and a smart little heel. Her hair is combed in a straight bob with short bangs and she’s wearing red lipstick. I notice that her skin is lighter than mine and very smooth. Her smile is immediate, showing white teeth. She looks so young that I assume she’s one of the students.
“Why, hello there,” she says. “May I help you?”
I’m suddenly very self-conscious of my dusty, old-fashioned dress and worn shoes. I decide that I’d better make up for what I lack in appearance by showing some spunk. I set my suitcase down and extend my hand.
“Hello,” I say in my bravest voice. “I’m Grace Clark. I would like to be a student here.”
The beautiful woman smiles again and a slight look of surprise crosses her face. She motions toward two wicker chairs on the shady porch. “You look hot and tired, Miss Clark. Please, have a seat. It’s cooler out here on the porch right now than it is inside.” She calls back over her shoulder through the still open door, “Marjory, could you please bring my guest a glass of iced tea?”
I move to the chair and stand in front of it, waiting for the woman to join me. I marvel at a colored woman asking someone to bring something to her. Other than my experience fetching and carrying for Mama or Grandma, I’ve never seen a colored woman have someone wait on her. The woman joins me and sits down.
“Please, sit down, dear. You look exhausted. Forgive me, I didn’t introduce myself. I am Dr. Inez Prosser. I am a member of the faculty, in charge of teacher education.”
I’m so overwhelmed I can’t speak. This young woman is the very person I need to see and I’ve had the good fortune to meet her even before I got through the doors of the college! I feel Mama and Grandma watching over me like angels. I do think it’s strange that Tougaloo College would put a doctor in charge of teachers. I didn’t even know women could be doctors. This is all so exciting and very confusing.
Sadly, Dr. Prosser was killed in an automobile accident in 1934. She was only 39 years old. Her life ended too soon before she had an opportunity to make even more contributions to the education of black children. I was honored to include her as part of Grace’s story in Catfish Alley.