As the newly consolidated Cleveland Central High School launches their new school year, I felt inspired to share a little of my own story in our local paper, the Bolivar Commercial…I hope it will be an encouragement to those who read it.
There were seven of us on the track and field team….a scrappy little group of country girls from the public schools of Jefferson County, Mississippi. Four white students and three black students. We didn’t even have a real track at our school…we ran on the grass around the perimeter of the football field for practice. It was my task to set the blocks for our sprinter, Eunice Washington…we both became superstitious about following our set routine as she won race after race. And in the spring of 1970, our little rag-tag team won the state track championship by one point. It is a fond memory during what was a difficult time.
We knew change was coming to our schools, and as I finished my junior year I was hopeful we would have one more season to play sports together. But after four years of the ‘freedom of choice’ plan to desegregate the school system, the federal courts mandated a total consolidation of the two high schools in Fayette beginning that fall. Fayette was in the spotlight during the civil rights movement, and tensions in our small town ran high. There was a great deal of uncertainty as to what would happen, and parents from both the black and white communities were concerned for the safety of their children. Half of my classmates finished their last year of high school in a neighboring county, and the other half earned the required credits and finished early. I was in that group, so I missed having my senior year of high school. It was hard for my 17 year old self to fully understand. I graduated with 16 classmates and began my higher education at a nearby community college.
30 years after the fact, while working on a live performance show related to that time and place, I reconnected with my teammate, Eunice…she was one of the first students who had come to Jefferson High School on the ‘freedom of choice’ plan. I asked if she would share recollections of her experiences during those days. She told me that it had been very hard, and that she had often been scared, and then she paused and said, “But you were always kind to me.” In that moment, I was totally undone. Her words offered absolution, and they fell on my ear like a blessing. ”Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?”
I wanted to share this story in hopes it will be an encouragement to all the good citizens of Cleveland as we work to move our community forward, and especially to the young people who are entering a new year in a new school.
In looking back on our little rag-tag state championship track team, I learned that we were much stronger and faster and better together than we would have been separately. To my knowledge, there has not been another girls state championship team from Jefferson County in any sport since our unlikely victory.
Here’s to the students of Cleveland Central High School and Middle School… cherish every moment and be kind to each other. Go, Wolves!