It was a while before I returned to The Capitoline. By then, I had been on number of short forays to the Beinecke Library in New Haven where my father’s papers are archived. On the last visit, I had spent the time transcribing handwritten letters to and from my father to his father, and to his aunt Agnes, and even letters from his father to Agnes.
Some of the letters were dated from the High School years, and two of them referred directly to The Capitoline: in one, handwritten and dated Sunday December 1927 he writes to Agnes:
“…I am now ‘free’ to devote my days and nights to the pleasant labor of publishing an ambitiously planned Capitoline… By skillful manipulation of a trade rivalry we have succeeded in shaving off $200 off the printing contract, and by splitting the photography between two firms save another $200. However, in spite of these coups our innovations are going to be so expensive as to leave plenty of financial worries. I am well satisfied with the photographic arrangement in particular, and I do believe it will prove to be one of the best things we have done.”
In another undated letter, his father writes to Agnes:
“The youngster had every single line that went into this year’s Capitoline to write and then to typewrite – proof to read – the entire make up of the book to arrange and it was a huge task when school work had to be prepared…”
I had not realized that my father had been involved in the editing of the Yearbook, but when I picked up The Capitoline again I saw immediately the proud display on the inside cover. Now ‘The guy who’s responsible for this’ caption-quote under his name, that I had seen when I first skim through, made sense: he was the Editor-in-Chief of the 1928 Yearbook. Maybe that explained also the number of photographs.
I reached the last page that listed and displayed photographs of the June Seniors, and was startled by the portraits of two students on the bottom of the last page: a young African American man and an African American young woman. Simeon Osby and Thelma Donnigan.
I didn’t think the school had any African American students.
I was immediately embarrassed by the thought: it was a public school, why would it not have African American students? Why was I surprised at their presence? I went back, suddenly focused on the young faces I had barely glanced at, and saw the portrait of one more African American young man among the June Seniors, Donald Hogan.
I saw Margaret Clem, Araminta Edwards, Harold Grady, Francene Johnson and Bessie Murrel, listed in alphabetical order, among the students who had graduated in January 1928.
I had not noticed them before because there were so few of them. Because I wasn’t looking for anyone except my father.
And I had only noticed Simeon and Thelma because they had been placed out of alphabetical order, at the end of the list, at the bottom of the page, as if to draw the attention of any reader of the Yearbook to them.
Why were they there, and not on the correct alphabetical page?
I remembered the words I had seen only a few weeks before, in the letter my father wrote to his aunt Agnes, the one his father had written to her: ‘I am well satisfied with the photographic arrangement in particular, and I do believe it will prove to be one of the best things we have done.’ ‘The youngster had… the entire make up of the book to arrange.’
I had assumed this remark to refer to the photographs of the campus, to the large photograph of the Principle, even to the intriguing displays inserted inside the front and back cover.
Now I found myself asking whether my father had been responsible for, and intentional about, the placing of the photographs of two of the three African American students where they were.
What did it mean that there were so few African American Seniors?
I began to consider the whole social structure of the school and of Springfield itself at this time in a way that I had not ever thought about before. I realized that my assumption – without ever having given it a second’s thought -- had been that there wouldn’t be any African-Americans in Springfield at all at that time, and I was embarrassed again.
I was now focused, drawn to this social context to my father’s life as much by the seemingly pointed placement of the two portraits and by the surge in the Black Lives Matter movement that was making news across all media platforms -- against a police violence perpetrated predominantly against African-Americans among the minorities of color -- as by embarrassment at my own misapprehensions and assumptions.
Some quick on-line research provided the information I did not know I wanted “…1856: Springfield establishes a public school system. Within a short time, a separate school is created for black students.”
Springfield: Abraham Lincoln’s city, where the president responsible for the abolition of slavery lived between 1844 and 1861, and from where he represented the state in Congress from 1846. While Lincoln was a congressman in this city, the first public schools, opened a mere four years before the outbreak of the Civil War, were segregated by race: I was taken aback.
But according to the same site, in 1874 a new law was enacted that forbade segregation. Perhaps that meant that the school created for black students twenty years earlier was closed down. Or perhaps it opened its doors to white students.
I wondered how many parents moved their white children from Springfield High to the school created for black children; I wondered how many black parents moved their children to Springfield High. I wondered how welcoming either school was to the other.
Anyway, what could all this possibly have to do with with my father and his life.
I tried to shrug it off; the law prohibiting segregation was put in place fifty-plus years before he walked through the doors of his high school in fall of 1925. Was it in any way necessary to fall into the rabbit hole of this kind of exploration, to research the make-up of the population of Springfield at that time, determine what other high schools there could have been more welcoming to African Americans, and what determined the presence and absence of any group?
Did I really want to get into the history of our privilege and its systemic humiliation of other groups? Things had surely changed by 1928. And there were African American students at Springfield High. There were just very few of them.
So many other things could account for the small numbers: perhaps there wasn’t a large African American population in Springfield, and the ratio of students was proportional to the numbers of each ethnicity.
There was another, opposite embarrassment to contend with: should I really have been so taken aback to see that racism and segregation were systemic in Abraham Lincoln’s own city? What did I know of the population of Springfield at that time? Less than nothing.
What did I know about the history of racism in a country I did not even grow up in? Nothing much. My sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement was no more than the knee-jerk reaction of a bleeding heart liberal. I was proud of my liberal heart, though I have never spent more than an hour outside the classroom in the company of any African-American. But did it justify indulging my attention on such peripheral matters? I should return to the subject of my father, not get distracted by the red herring of race, I thought.
The embarrassment itself swung back: why did I consider it peripheral? Did my father live in a vacuum, that all this should be irrelevant to his upbringing, to his choices, to his decisions? Did I live in a vacuum, that the pervasive awareness of past discriminations of all kinds had not seeped through my consciousness through the years, had not affected my sense of what the engagement in the intellectual life of my time had to be? What is the periphery and what is the center of any life? Are those the words one should even be using, periphery and center?