History has taken center stage in Alabama this year. In a land where “the past is never past,” commemorations of the Civil Rights Movement have magnified in a way that once seemed impossible but is now unforgettable.
Though not associated with violence, the Azalea City had its share of barriers breached. A timely pair of books revisit that era in Mobile.
One, a biography of civil rights champion John LeFlore penned by Murphy High School teacher Ken Robinson named “Port City Crusader,” debuted earlier this year. It’s now joined by another work that focuses on changes within the parochial school system and the lasting influence one diligent group of educators had on a key generation of African-American Mobilians.
“From the Back of the Pews to the Head of the Class” from ACTA Publications highlights the work done at Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic High School on Davis Avenue (now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue), just inside what is now the Henry Aaron Loop. Though religious in origin, the book doesn’t reach the reader in a “preachy” manner, but lets the anecdotes within speak for themselves.
Founded at the onset of Jim Crow’s codification, the segregated school was taught by Sisters of St. Francis who moved to Mobile from Pennsylvania. The lessons of self-determination and resolute fortitude the sisters passed on to their students proved vital as both the church’s members and priests and nuns later took on seminal roles in boycotts and protests.
Author and editor Robert McClory compiled the book via years of interviews with those who occupied Heart of Mary School during the watershed decade of the 1960s. The former students take care to highlight the stringent academic standards held by Heart of Mary and the pride they instilled in their students.
In a world where interaction with white citizens at large could prove dangerous and deadly, the Franciscan sisters taught their young charges that their lives had inherent value. Their actions backed it up.
Former student William Kelly mentioned the school’s principal, Sr. Ronald Thibodeau in particular. He recalled a visit to then-white and all-male McGill Institute during which Thibodeau took her young charges away rather than segregate them from the white students at lunch, cursing at a priest in the process.
Kelly mentioned another time when he boarded a full public bus in downtown and spied Sr. Ronald and three nuns sitting in the white section. Thibodeau insisted Kelly sit on her lap for the trip home rather than stand or disembark.
“So as I got on, sister grabbed me, picked me up and put me on her knee,” Kelly said. “The bus driver says, ‘Sister, that boy can’t sit with you.’ She says, ‘I don’t see why not. I teach him every day in school.’ And that’s where I stayed. For the whole ride. Oh man, imagine what that does for a child!”
The book is loaded with names and personalities who are familiar to both Mobilians and those beyond our town. Not only is community activist and “Order of Myths” star Dora Finley among its contributors and alums, so is former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, who also wrote the foreword.
Herman brings to life a riveting nighttime encounter with Klansmen in Daphne that left her rattled in the floor well of a car while clutching a pistol and her bloodied father. Without the intervention of a worried priest, the outcome could have been far more tragic.
Finley has one of the more poignant moments in the book when she recollects a childhood under Jim Crow, of being chased by a shotgun-wielding white man for the transgression of picking up an errant pecan from his yard. It seared something into her that Heart of Mary soothed.
“But when I came to Heart of Mary, and all through school at Heart of Mary,” Finley said – the author noting her “high and emotional voice” hitching as she spoke – “if it had not been for y’all – this is what I’m trying to explain to you – I wouldn’t have gotten this far. I was close to believing that all white people were bad, hateful. But I couldn’t ever make that link because y’all were in our lives.”
Another prominent voice in its pages is that of Sheila Flanagan, now best known as assistant director of the History Museum of Mobile. She was not only at Heart of Mary but was also in the first prominent wave of students who integrated McGill Institute and Bishop Toolen School for Girls once the diocese decided to close Heart of Mary and Convent of Mercy in the late ‘60s.
“It was difficult for all of us, but if you wanted to go to Catholic School, you had to go there,” Flanagan told Artifice. “Before us, it was desegregated but with us it was integrated. That’s a big difference.”
The quality of their Heart of Mary experience soon became evident. “What was unique to the whole transitional period was that the students from Heart of Mary could hold themselves quite well academically,” Flanagan said. “When it was time for students to be inducted into the National Honor Society, we wound up almost taking over the Honor Society because our students were so bright. We had wonderful, dedicated teachers.”
Quite simply, the book is spellbinding and inspiring. It’s stories ring honest and pull the reader along at a good clip. At 176 pages, it’s a breeze to tackle, but it packs a mighty nice kick in that short space.
If you love Mobile history – and isn’t that a point of pride here? – the book is necessary. Don’t cheat yourself by missing it.