By Mary Kennerly
Editor’s note: The following is the 10th narrative accepted for publication in the Advocate’s new South Carolina Stories of Racial Awakening Project. See guidelines, here.
My 68 years of racial awakening has been enriching, frightening, startling and happened only because others led me and pulled me along.
Jim Crow was law when I was born in Spartanburg. My childhood was a life of total white-privilege segregation. While in high school, the Civil Rights movement exploded with the March on Washington, bombing of the Birmingham church, the Voting Rights Act, the march in Selma, Freedom Riders, Malcolm X’s assassination and race riots. The Brown versus Board of Education case occurred when I was in first grade, but schools finally integrated while I was in college.
As a child, I knew almost nothing about what was happening regarding civil rights and race relations. I heard that “colored people” were making demands and taking actions that violated the will of God; I believed this to be true.
In 1965, I enrolled at Columbia College when Wright Spears was president, and I joined College Place Methodist Church, where Eben Taylor was the minister. I heard a new story about the Civil Rights movement and a new perspective regarding God’s will for us. While there, the first African-American student came to Columbia College. My roommate was assigned as her mentor, and she became my first black friend. Those events jump-started my awakening.
In my senior year I did my student teaching. In our first seminar, it was announced that schools in Columbia were to be integrated that fall and would anyone be willing to help begin that process by student-teaching in a black school. With some fear but with determination to move on with my awakening, I raised my hand. I was the only white person at Crane Creek Elementary School that semester. The Orangeburg Massacre occurred in February, and Martin Luther King was assassinated in April. I was concerned about what else may happen, but I always felt safe at Crane Creek—another step in my awakening.
I married and moved to Atlanta, where my husband attended Emory’s Candler Seminary in a time when changes in Emory’s policies and practices regarding racial equality were tense and difficult. The public schools had just integrated, and I was assigned to a position in a rural area with only one white student in my class. I visited every child’s home and was horrified to see dirt floors, no electricity and no plumbing. The reality of housing inequality and its effects on children startled me.
My closest co-workers were African American. They were older, wiser and helped me in so many ways. But the school was located in a white community with black children being bussed in. Racial tensions were a frequent reality. I did not seek, predict or expect what happened to me there, but I was forced to continue my awakening.
In the decades following those 1960s experiences, my awakening continued. With anxiety and amazement, I have seen many racial barriers lowered: families of color move into our neighborhood, doctors and nurses of color heal us, superintendents of color lead school districts in our state, students of color become student body presidents in white majority schools, we elect an African-American president. Each of these changes jolted me, but each time I whispered, “Thank goodness.”
In 1986, I became the principal of a school that experienced extraordinary and rapid racial change. Those changes were not always welcomed by existing families or faculty members. I felt compelled to provide an environment that allowed all children to thrive academically. I wasn’t exactly sure how to do this but did think I could be a good leader for such change. A rude awakening was in store for me again.
Some of the teachers and staff were angry with me, some parents were angry with me and some community leaders were angry with me. I received little criticism but also little support from those who supervised me. I was on my own, awakening again and frightened again. And what I learned about myself and my own racism in those years forced me to take a good look inward. I knew then that my awakening would be a life-long endeavor. I had to learn how to relate to people of other races in a genuine way without feeling like a great white savior—not easy for me. Thankfully, others along the way helped me with understanding and grace, much needed in my uncomfortable transitions of awakening.
In my last job before retiring, I directed a federal grant and in 2013 was responsible for planning an African-American history tour for teachers. I had little idea about how to effectively do this but found friends in the University of South Carolina African-American Studies Department who helped. I planned the itinerary, not really knowing what we would see. I organized the details, meals, hotels, tickets, etc., and amazingly in the midst of all that found the trip to be monumentally life-changing. The historic events of my lifetime related to racial equality became blatantly evident and heart-wrenching for me in that five-day trip. Entering the church where the little girls were bombed, tearfully walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and seeing the interactive museum events of Rosa Parks bus ride forced me to come to grips with the depth of what really happened and think seriously about the struggles with racial inequality we are facing today. My awakening was overwhelming on every day of that trip.
Thankfully, many positive changes in race relations have taken place in South Carolina and in our country during my lifetime. We have moved toward God’s will because we faced our struggles against change, the unknown and fear of loss. I have witnessed those struggles and agonizingly felt them within myself. My awakening has been real, invigorating, painful, gratifying, confusing—and it is not over. I can only hope there are still experiences and people out there who will continue to lead me and pull me along. I hope our church, our state and our country will also continue moving toward racial awakening.
Kennerly is a 68-year-old white female and a member of Trinity United Methodist Church, West Columbia.