Beating Around the Bush

On Thursday, I interviewed a former headmaster of the all-white private school I’m researching. Although friendly, he seemed somewhat reluctant and told me early in the interview that because of his current position, he wouldn’t discuss anything controversial. He also said several times that he no longer had any connection with the school and knew very little about its history since he left. Needless to say, this made me question how valuable he would be as a source.

Thankfully, however, he did give me some good information, particularly about the organization of the school. For example, I had not realized that—in addition to tuition—parents paid to be voting members of the school’s governing foundation. In one of the poorest counties in the nation, this would seem to a strong commitment to segregated education on the part of the parents.

He, of course, made no mention of segregation. Instead he emphasized that the decision to enroll in a private school was a “choice” made by parents because they wanted control over their children’s educations. When I tried to determine what made the school uniquely attractive to such parents, however, he stated that on a day-to-day basis, the school operated much like any public school. This of course begs the question, “So why did parents feel it necessary to leave the public school system?” When I pressed him on that, he replied that parents “obviously” had concerns about the quality of education in the public school system. “And that’s where I have to be careful what I say to you.”

Given that the school is now integrated, I asked if there had been any black students enrolled during his tenure, and he said there hadn’t. But, he was quick to mention, it wasn’t because the school was in any way discriminatory. In fact, he had on numerous occasions spoken personally with members of other races who were interested in the school, and although everyone went through the same application process, no blacks had ever applied.

Oral history is obviously limited by the interviewee’s personal memory of the past—at several points during this interview, my subject said, “Gosh, I just can’t remember that far back”—but it is also limited by what the subject chooses to remember (or “disremember”). Perhaps there is no way to know for sure which—if any—of my subject’s answers were based on “selective memory,” but obviously some things don’t add up. This, I think, speaks volumes.


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