Richard Conway (Ph.D., Univ. of Denver) taught at the universities of North Dakota, Fairleigh Dickinson, Washington, Denver, and Colorado before his eventful year at St. Paul's College. He has published essays in The Chronicle, Studies in the Novel, CLA, and Denver Magazine, as well as fiction in the Webster Review. After 20 years of chairing the English Department of Lamar Community College, Colorado, he now lives in Port Townsend, Washington.
When the call from the East came to my Colorado home, it was late August 1974. The rich Southern voice on the telephone was inviting me to the campus of Saint Paul's College in Lawrenceville, Virginia, to interview for a position as assistant professor of English. More important—though I didn't know it yet—I was being invited to meet Miss Cole.
The night before my interview I stayed at the nearest motel, 20 miles away in South Hill. Next morning, as I drove my rented car from the motel to the college, uneasy at the sight of red earth and tangled forests, I knew that—having spent all my life in the North and the West—I was now a foreigner in a foreign land. My speech and mannerisms were as different from those of the natives as they would be if I were in Prague or Pretoria. It was 20 years after Brown vs. The Board of Education. How much of the old South was still intact I did not know, but I expected to find out in tradition-rich Virginia, home of Lee as well as Jefferson.
Outside of Lawrenceville I came upon a sight that seemed to sum up all that I feared most about the experience of living in the South. A telephone work crew of a dozen men was taking a break from the morning's business, repairing some roadside poles. They were drinking coffee in two groups: here a knot of black laborers, there several white supervisors. I could see, alas, that even now, two decades after that landmark civil rights Supreme Court decision, the old order of oppression and prejudice still prevailed—whites in the power structure, blacks in the exploited labor force.
I began to feel depressed. This was an existential dilemma. Was I about to take a privileged place in that order, compromising some of my deepest values? St. Paul's College (of which I knew nothing) had a ring of exclusivity. Probably, I thought, a private college of the South, where white families sent the sons who hadn't qualified for Vanderbilt or Duke.
Would I, a white man from Colorado, become a member of the white establishment, implicitly affirming white supremacy and black exploitation, even though I had considered myself a lifelong advocate of brotherhood and equal opportunity?
Would I, who still felt twinges of guilt for not having joined the brave whites and blacks in the Mississippi voter registration drive ten years earlier—would I now serve in the camp of the oppressors?
My depression deepened. I needed the job.
Lawrenceville was surprisingly seedy for the site of the posh college of my imaginings, and so was the campus of St. Paul's. Out of the dark red earth, grass grew knee-high in untidy patches around deteriorating brick buildings. But the real surprise was the sight of black youths tossing a football in front of what I took to be a dormitory. Then I thought, well of course. They would admit a few blacks to play on the football team. Like the work crew I had passed, this was a microcosm of Southern society.
But then I saw another black face, and another, and another; and by the time I stopped to ask directions in a campus street thronged with black students, conscious now that mine was the only white skin as far as the eye could see, I had grasped the startling truth—I was about to be interviewed for a job at a black college.
The interview team consisted of three persons: President Russell, with whom I had already spoken, the Dean, and the chairwoman of the Humanities Division, Jeannette Cole. Each, though I did not yet know it of course, represented a type of humanity. The president, whose grandfather had founded the college in the nineteenth century was an example of how aristocratic lines recede from a noble sire. The dean, an emphatic man of sixty, appeared to be the sort of bureaucrat colleges attract or create, men more interested in form than substance.
And Miss Cole—ah, Miss Cole—how can I describe justly that heroic personage after all these years? One is tempted to say that she represented the indomitable spirit of African-American womanhood. One thinks of brave examples from American life and literature: the mighty Sojourner Truth, say, or Sue, the intrepid heroine of Richard Wright's "Bright Morning Star." Indeed, I came eventually to believe that Miss Cole's life had been lived with as much courage even as theirs.
The interview was a real one. They were committed to me, as I knew, because of the late hour and the money they had invested in flying me from Colorado. But still, before the contract was issued, they were intent on finding out if I were genuine.
And I, having stepped into an unexpected and alien land, was intent on finding out if I could thrive there. Would I be accepted by students and faculty? What administrative expectations would I have to meet? Could I work happily under my department head?
After the interview, President Russell took me to the college cafeteria for lunch. I met several of the faculty, most of whom were also white, and found the atmosphere congenial, the food even better. After lunch Mr. Russell and I agreed that I would report on September 5, four days after classes started, and receive $11,000 for two semesters' work as an assistant professor of English.
On the plane home that evening I wondered if I would have taken the job if I hadn't met Miss Cole. A compact, full-bodied woman with short grey hair pulled straight back, she looked about 60 years old, and yet a certain youthful charm in the lilt of her laugh and the energy of her conversation made her seem a person of my own age, which was 38. Though she had seemed to be deferring to the two men, I realized eventually that in some unspoken way they moved to her will.
Perhaps, I thought, she had always been high spirited, determined, and self-confident; but age had given her the added dimension of self-knowledge. It seemed that her composure could not now be ruffled by senators or disturbed by lovers. Should either most surprisingly present themselves, she would be what the rest of us labor fruitlessly all our lives to become. Just herself.
I was excited to be embarking on the adventure of St. Paul's College, but I was most intrigued by the prospect of becoming acquainted with Miss Cole.
In Colorado I discussed the situation with my wife, Esther. We decided I should experience St. Paul's College and Virginia thoroughly before she left her job and our two children their schools. I packed my clothes, typewriter, and key books into my Volkswagen and headed across the continent, bound for a job I knew I'd like and a land I feared wouldn't like me.
Those first weeks at St. Paul's are still etched in my mind as the most frightening period in my teaching life. I say that deliberately. If it sounds like self-dramatization to you—it won't to any teacher—think for a moment. The most frightening event in Americans' day-to-day lives—so polls tell us—is speaking before a group. This fright varies in intensity, moderated by the speaker's experience and increased by the intimidating power of the audience.
Every teacher knows the stage fright of the first day of class, a fear that diminishes over the semester but never goes away entirely. In my case, at Saint Paul's the fear was compounded. Not only was I speaking to an unfathomed and unfriendly audience, I was, in two classes, talking about the act of speaking itself, a task guaranteed to make any speaker self-conscious.
The students in my public speaking classes were my toughest audiences, too, for they were mostly upperclassmen and women, more characterized by senior cockiness than by sophomore meekness. When I wrote my name on the board the first day—"Richard Conway"—a voice in the back, free associating, announced, "Milhaus!"—the middle name of President Richard Nixon. The students' murmurs became chuckles, and I laughed along with the joke, though its meaning, perceived by all of us, turned my stranger anxiety up a notch. No one in a white school, I felt, would have made such a connection. Though the disgraced president had just resigned and his name was on everybody's lips, more than a common first name would have been required to prompt such association to another audience. But here, before the black students in this classroom, the similarities mounted: like Nixon, the cry all but stated, you are a white man in power and not only do we not trust you, but we know that underneath that smile you, like all white men, mean to do us harm.
I had already learned, in an amusing but illuminating incident, the power of the stereotype to influence perception. Bill Forssberg was a tall, portly, red-haired white man, nearly forty, who had taught English at Saint Paul's for a year. New to the faculty was another white man with sandy hair, Allan Wetmore, who was teaching history. Allan was slight and 25 and, I would have thought, about as far from resembling Bill as another human being could be. Yet, in the first days of the semester, President Russell greeted Bill—whom he had known for a year, remember—with a professional smile and the hearty wish, "I hope you'll like it here, Allan." Bill was miffed; the white faculty members were delighted, and the point was made: we looked alike to them.
Though my students were considerably more perceptive than Mr. Russell, my problem in the classroom—the problem of every white instructor—was formidable: to get them to see me, not as just another white man, but as a person they could trust. Nowhere was this necessity more evident or the task more difficult than in the public speaking classes I taught. I had learned even as a student that the dynamics of a speech class were delicate and unpredictable. Because students' work (speech making) is displayed to all (not private as in a written exam), they are especially sensitive to how their success or failure may be perceived. And yet because such work is the stuff of the course even more than the information in the textbook, it must be examined and weighed in class discussions. There a student may easily be alienated if the instructor is not perceived to be fair, knowledgeable, and—above all—gentle.
In speech classes students get to know one another more quickly and more
thoroughly than in other classes. They bond together and act as a group more
readily. They tend to perceive the instructor with a unified vision. When the
class goes well, even the reluctant learners are
swept up in a tide of good feelings about the experience, about themselves, about the instructor. Such classes bring joy to a teacher's life. The trouble is, however, that even the most affable and judicious teacher may one day be—or appear to be—biased and even caustic. Whereupon the whole class will go dead set against that professor for the rest of the semester.
I knew already what a hard task it usually was to get any college public speaking class to accept and trust me. The exceptional nature of that task at Saint Paul's College was made clear to me the first semester when one of the students, a popular football player, made a rousing speech, during which he addressed the class members as "you niggers." The epithet was common slang around the campus; I had heard it often in the animated conversations of students passing by or at play. I respected its use as an effective psychological device, whereby the persecuted minority defanged the venomous words of the bigoted establishment and by such flaunting proclaimed its own lack of fear and its confidence of acceptance by those who truly mattered. In such wise did Frank Sinatra name his plane "Dago," and my boyhood Irish pals yell to each other, "Hey Mick!"
But on this day, in my classroom, it became immediately apparent as the audience stiffened that "nigger" was not acceptable language. Why? In her written critique one of the class members said, "He should not have used that word in front of our teacher." Some words, like some experiences, could not be named before me.
At the end of the first month, I eagerly picked up my paycheck. Flat broke, I had been able to charge my meals and my rent, but now I would have an odd dollar in my pocket. And I was quite anxious to see how much I would have left to send home each month. I thought I knew. I had calculated my gross amount several times, carefully, dividing the magnificent sum of $11,000 by 9 and each time coming up with $1,222. After taxes, rent, and meal charges, I figured I could keep $100 for gas and beer and still send $500 to my wife to start repaying our graduate school debts.
With consternation I read the figures: they were lower than I had calculated. Why? I examined all the little bases for some time before I spotted the source of the shortfall: my gross monthly amount was not $1,222; it was stated to be $1,133. Eight hundred dollars had been deducted from my yearly salary!
When with moist palms and accelerated heart I applied to the treasurer's office, I was told, yes, the base salary supplied to them by the president's office was $10,200. With mounting anger and apprehension, I climbed another flight to the president's office. Mr. Russell smiled calmly. He was surprised that I was surprised and explained patiently that since I had started late my salary had been prorated to apply only to the time I was actually on the job.
But, I pointed out, he had known that I would arrive late at the time he issued the contract. In fact the date of my first class had been penned in since it varied from that of the standard contract form, and the amount of my salary still read $11,000. His own contract locked him into the full salary.
No use. President Russell merely smiled a knowing smile, said that was the
way his office handled late arrivals, and
ended our interview.
For the next several months conflicted feelings about Saint Paul's College and my life there waged daily battles in my mind. I felt victimized and angry after being robbed by presidential fiat. And I still felt alienated from the black world of the college—students, faculty, staff, alike—as well as from the white world of the South, as I knew it in Lawrenceville. Being a white Northerner working for a black institution, I was regarded with distrust by both racial camps.
On the other hand, I liked my students and admired them. In an essential way they took college classes seriously, as my students from white institutions rarely had. I don't mean they were more interested in Hawthorne—or even Wright—than in basketball or the opposite sex; no, they were perfectly normal in their priorities. Nor were they especially well prepared or insightful in the classroom. But they believed—as American students, on the whole, have not believed since circa 1960—in higher education, as a means to a new life: as a way to gain money, a higher social class, in fact a new identity. And as they valued and respected the role of the college, I found myself regarding my own work there as meaningful labor, which for a teacher of freshman English is a rare feeling.
I was also making supportive interesting friendships. My closest friend at St. Paul's was Dennis Gendron, yet another white English professor. Dennis, who was about 30 and chunky, played basketball with passion, and possessed one of the greatest laughs I have every heard. It began as a chuckle, lost control and became a wild giggle, and infected everybody within earshot. If I heard him from my office, I'd have to smile with delight; if I were face-to-face with Dennis, hearing one of his outrageous stories, I'd have no choice but to laugh out loud with him.
Dennis and I played basketball every day, usually one-on-one, sometimes the two of us against our black students, a contest they called a "salt-and-pepper game." Dennis was shorter than I, so I had the key advantage, but he compensated by playing football instead, plowing into me with his sturdy, compact body whenever I managed to get between him and the basket. We had many good-natured rhubarbs about Dennis's physical style of play, neither of us realizing he was merely anticipating the present NBA game. I also found the new history teacher, Frank, from Ghana, who was quick to smile, Donna, the young music teacher from Pennsylvania, and Yasue, a Japanese immigrant who taught and practiced art.
Best of all I had come to know Miss Cole.
Working with Miss Cole (her first name was Jeannette, but nobody I knew ever used it; because of her age and her great personal presence, some sort of title was the only appropriate address), my respect for her grew daily, as did my affection.
It was something to see her as she assumed various personas of her position. She could be friendly and even merry with a colleague, yet with a proper reserve; she could be gracious to a student she approved of, but coldly tyrannical to one she did not; she could be respectful to the dean and the president, and yet confidently assertive, as one who had been saving this college from the mistakes of its (male) administrators for as long as anyone could remember and furthermore had dandled the current president on her knee some forty years ago, when he didn't know manure from shoe polish. (According to some around Saint Paul's College, he still didn't.)
I often had business with Miss Cole, about procedures, course requirements, office needs. She would talk to me easily—perhaps because she sensed I was lonely, perhaps because my interest in her and her life was so genuine and evident—telling me stories of Saint Paul's College in the early days, of what Lawrenceville used to be like, and even, on rare occasions, of what the young Miss Cole had thought and done. Involved in these tales, her voice would rise in pitch as well as volume. (Growing deaf, she held most conversations, anyway, at a level suitable for communication in a noisy factory; mistrusting the power of the telephone cable to carry her voice adequately, she talked even louder on the phone, so everyone in our department wing heard, even with the door shut, every word.) Her deep chuckle would take on a girlish giggle, and she would speak and laugh until, her eyes growing moist, she would dab at them with a dainty handkerchief she clutched in her hand.
I found the stories absorbing and the charm of the teller mesmeric. One reads often of the great attractiveness of apparently unattractive men—famous successes such as Dreiser or Zanuck or Picasso—ugly, old, balding men, whose great charm lay in their art or their power or their magnetic self-confidence. Seldom are women so celebrated (feminists could explain why), but Miss Cole was living testimony to the phenomenon's existence in both genders. She had probably never been beautiful, always short, stocky, pug-nosed; early on she must have learned to use her energy and her supple mind to achieve the notice beauty would not bring her. Maybe she always spoke louder than anyone else. Now in her old age—her energy limited by a pair of knees so painful that every step was a trial, but her self-knowledge deepened and made inviolable by lonely decades of struggle against inferiors (some white, all male)—her spirit had molded a formidable personality. I know that I was powerfully held in thrall by this old, lame, stubby woman, and that her stories and the sound of her laugh gave me the sort of pleasure only love can inspire.
Sometimes Miss Cole and I would begin a late afternoon chat and eventually discover that the other department members and even the secretary had departed for the day. As we sat alone, a sort of intimacy crept into our companionship, and she told me stories of her youth. I was astonished to learn that she had grown up in the North, New Jersey, a place easily reached in a day's drive from Lawrenceville nowadays but infinitely remote from the deep South of Lawrenceville circa 1928, when Miss Cole had arrived, fresh from college, armed with a teaching certificate.
At a Christmas reception at her house, I had noticed some tarnished tennis trophies, now 50 years old, proclaiming one Jeannette Cole as champion of the 16- and 18-year-old divisions. I teased her about them one day when she complained of her aching knees. "I guess lots of former tennis champions have trouble with their knees," I said. "Too much running around on concrete."
She fixed me with a hard stare, but her mouth was turned up. "How do you know about my tennis playing?" she demanded.
"I read about your feats in some old New York Times issues I came across in my literary research," I said as seriously as I could. "Now you know the real reason I came to Saint Paul's: to learn tennis secrets from one of the game's old masters." She looked at me balefully for about ten seconds, and then her rich chuckle began, and soon we were both laughing, with real delight, happy to find that we could communicate on a playful level.
I had arrived in the South too late to see the outward, perfectly legal, manifestations of the old separatism: the "white" and "colored" signs designating different drinking fountains, bathrooms, sections of the grandstand and bus. But Miss Cole spoke of those days vividly, her voice still crackling with the anger and frustration that such denigrating treatment had wrought in her soul.
Once, speaking of her childhood in Jersey City, Miss Cole recalled some mischief she and her friends had been wont to play upon a businessman in their neighborhood, a Chinese launderer. I could see the little girls sticking their heads into the laundry's open window, jabbering their imitation of Chinese, and racing away with shrieks of laughter, one more ordeal in the harassed and bewildered immigrant's life. The ordinary stuff of childhood cruelty, you might say, but I wonder how ordinary such an experience was to a Southern Negro child. All of us growing up in the North, even in the worst urban ghettoes, had some ethnic group or race we could comfortably feel superior to—the Micks, or the Polacks, or, most frequently, the Negroes themselves—but even the Negroes, as Miss Cole's story attested, were able to look down upon some newly-arrived, nonwhite minority.
By contrast, the Negro of the South—where there were precious few other nonwhites and few ethnic minorities of any sort—had been reared in an atmosphere of unrelieved inferiority. Like all black persons growing up in the United States, Miss Cole had no doubt met many vestiges of white contempt in her formative years. But her quick mind and assertive personality had enabled her, I believed, to disdain them with the same feisty spirit with which the child had mocked the Chinese launderer.
Such repudiation had been possible in the North, where legal equality was at least given lip service (and where racial hypocrisy has created generations of proud, bitter, black intellectuals), but when Miss Cole came to Virginia she found a social structure that tolerated but one role for blacks and allowed no deviation from the rule of segregation. She found a movie theatre that required Negroes to be seated in the balcony and a railroad that allowed them to sit only on benches in cars open to the weather.
I told Miss Cole that, as a child, I'd always preferred to sit in the balcony
(one of the many ironies of the American separatist policy; I could have added
that I also preferred to sit in the back of the bus), but I could see that such
preferences were irrelevant (and unwelcome) in the face of a hateful
prohibition. If her Southern colleagues had grown inured to insinuations of
segregation, this perky girl from New Jersey was always acutely
conscious of the insult to her humanity. "I never went to the movies," she sniffed.
But she did ride the trains. Partly, I guessed, because she had no alternative when she wanted to spend a day in Richmond, and partly perhaps because on warm spring days the open cars were the very best place to be, particularly if you were an exuberant young person seeing the South for the first time. With her eyes crinkling with laughter, Miss Cole recalled for me the characteristic meandering of the train. Her father had been a porter on a crack Northern line, so she was familiar with the proud tradition of punctuality in the railroad ethos.
But such insistent regularity, such slavish meeting of deadline, ran counter to a folkway of the South, older than the steam locomotive and deeper than modern notions of progress. Northerners dismissed this folkway as laziness, but for Southerners it meant valuing the worker more than his work, refusing to sacrifice the moment for a mere idea, such as a train schedule or the future. I've often wondered how typical of the South were the engineers on Miss Cole's Richmond trains and whether they experienced any crises of identity as both railroad men and human beings (Southern style), but I do know that Miss Cole's face still creased with a nostalgic smile as she remembered how the train would stop wherever the engineer saw a house on fire, a parade, or a ballgame he wanted to watch.
The old South must have been not only a new experience for the young black teacher from New Jersey, but in some ways a particularly daunting experience. Why, I used to wonder, had she stayed? When I asked Miss Cole this, she just shrugged and said that jobs were hard to come by. As I tried to reconstruct those long-ago days of Miss Cole's, and the College's youth, certain ideas coalesced. I could see that an able young black woman, full of vigor and noble intentions but essentially naive about the real historical plight of her people and without a focus for her brimming energy, might find in the Old South her roots and her directions.
Moreover, I had heard enough about Dr. Russell, the hallowed founder, to envision him as a man of personal charisma and great spiritual warmth. A story that Miss Cole told me concerned the legendary "whiteness" of the great man. It seems that a small party of white folk was lost on a stormy night and sought refuge at his large impressive residence. Mr. Russell graciously offered them supper and rooms for the night, and they left the next morning, beaming thanks and inviting their host to visit them in Richmond, all unaware that the dark "servants" were in fact his wife and children.
Could it be, I wondered, that in this gifted man, who combined the self-confidence and the sophistication of the best Northern whites with a passionate devotion to her people such as she had found in only a few remarkable Southern blacks—could it be that in Dr. Russell Miss Cole had found a mentor worthy of her love? I was, perhaps, romantic to believe so, but the more I talked to her the more I was convinced that in nearly 50 years of dedicating the energy of her heart to the service of Saint Paul's College—during which time she never married—President James Russell, Sr., was the only man who never disappointed her.
Spring came to Lawrenceville. The statement is factually correct but—like saying F. Scott Fitzgerald had a good prose style—the words are woefully inadequate, in this case to express the beauty and soft poignancy of Virginia in April. Flowers of delicate hues were everywhere; perfume arrived on every breeze; and at night the woods rang with the mating calls of beast and insect.
As one who had grown up to the exuberance of Pennsylvania springtimes, I had awaited the Eastern spring with keen anticipation. During the rainy, dank winter I had missed the bracing dry snow of Colorado, but now I figured to be recompensed by the vitality of spring, a season that is all too brief and unmagical in the arid altitudes of the Rocky Mountain West.
Even so, I was not prepared for the power of a Southern spring. At last I could feel for myself the mystique I had heard of from legions of Dixie rhapsodists. Nor were the charms of the season lost upon the students, who strolled the awakening campus, entwined even more closely than usual.
That year, 1975, I comprehended for the first time what is now a commonplace in the lore of American sports mythology: basketball is a passion for black Americans. As far as I'm concerned, a good deal of rubbish has been written about the black athlete's special genetic attributes for the game. That is no more true than the assertion heard in the 1920s that Jews had genetic gifts for prize fighting, as members of that ethnic group tried to fight their way out of the ghetto, dominating boxing's world classes with equal "evidence" of physical superiority. After one of our salt and pepper games, which Dennis and I lost as usual, one of the students—who had prevailed over us with the customary dazzling assortment of behind-the-back passes, through-the-legs dribbling (sometimes their legs, sometimes ours), and aerial leaping—consoled me by confiding happily, "Mr. Conway, you got to understand, Ball is a Brothers' game."
I did begin to understand, from that remark and from the absolute allegiance given that belief among the students, that when one group of human beings focuses its energy upon an area our culture respects and rewards—medicine, literature, law, sport—and seeks with a single-minded intensity to dominate that area—it will prevail. I have always resented the allegations that blacks are born better athletes (faster, taller, longer-legged) because behind that allegation lies a racist dismissal of the black achievement; they are seen as merely better animals, bred for sport, as Jimmy the Greek so unfortunately said. Whereas the truth is so much less and so much more: blacks have excelled at sport because they have sought excellence, pouring their poetry and their craft into this, their most unobstructed avenue to social respect. And if they are indeed superior physical beings, it is because they have willed such an achievement.
But though Dennis and I were unskilled, thirtyish, middle-aged, and worst of all, white, we were not so bad that we could flout the law of averages. Every amateur athlete remembers the joy of freakish days when the putts drop, the backhands go down the line, the jump shots swish; we call it "playing up to our potential." There came such a day for Dennis and me towards the end of my time in Lawrenceville, and it led to a moment I still regard as marking my greatest acceptance as a teacher.
That day we happened to be playing two members of the men's championship intramural team. Even the intramural teams at basketball-mad Saint Paul's College were great, probably better than many white colleges' varsities. Our opponents, Rodney and Mack—two members of the Aces, the intramural champions—were far superior to us, but their skill mattered little that day. Dennis and I were unable to miss even the wildest shots. Playing as though possessed by the spirits of NBA greats, we passed, dribbled, and shot with uncanny accuracy and unwhite grace. Dennis made his celebrated drive to the basket, giving his low chuckle as he bounced defenders out of the way. I threw up left-handed hookshots from the key and even from mid-court (I am left-handed, but still…). After 10 frenzied minutes, Dennis crashed the key, ricocheted off Rodney, threw up a desperate off-balance shot with his back to the basket, and we had won the game, 11 goals to 1. Rodney and Mack were shocked—and embarrassed—since quite a few students had paused to witness the unlikely spectacle. Dennis and I looked at each other with a wild surmise and then stomped around the gym, right fists in the air, shouting "White Power!"
The rest of this story has to do with a suit I had bought the year before. It was the first suit I had ever bought entirely on my own—no maternal or wifely advice—and I was proud of it. It was a very smart suit, one might even say eye-catching, made of a medium-blue houndstooth pattern and having navy-blue piping on the pockets and breast. The night Dennis and I beat the Aces, feeling in a gala mood, I decided my suit would make its Saint Paul's College debut at a concert I was attending. It was a rather elegant piano-soprano recital, well attended by nattily tailored men and women. Most of the students were quite poor, but I admired how they were able to make their clothes money count, selecting only the most fashionable garments. Their passion for tasteful clothes, I reflected, was, like their passion for basketball, part of their determination to be recognized for excellence. Rodney was at the concert—we exchanged nods and smiles—and later he came up to me at the reception. I noted with approval his corduroy jacket with leather patches and epaulets and saw him appraising my own attire. Taking my hand, he said with a wide grin—words I have held in my heart ever since—"Mr. Conway, you not only play like us, you dress like us!"
Throughout the year I had been engaged in various maneuvers to recover my lost money. The dean and the president professed not to see the logic of my position, but when I asked advice from the American Association of University Professors, my case crystallized. The contract was clear, said the AAUP lawyer, most especially since the regular printed date of the start of service—prepared for all faculty—had been crossed out and the date of my first day handwritten in, whereas the salary figure was untouched. Unquestionably, wrote the lawyer, the court would award me every penny, unless I had written the date in myself. Well, I would have been dumb enough to sign the regular contract, thus giving Mr. Russell an argument for proration, but instead he had altered the starting date in his own hand.
Armed with this information I conceived of a bold step: I would hale Mr. Russell into small claims court where even without a lawyer I could hardly lose. I could picture his face as the white judge sneered, with a knowing look at me, "Why, it's as plain as black and white: Saint Paul's College owes the full amount to Mr. Conway."
But I was uncomfortable with this picture. I too was a member of the Saint Paul's College family and I didn't want to be part of any white cabal opposing, however fairly in this case, any attempt by the black man to exercise power or to manifest dignity. Though I would have enjoyed humbling Mr. Russell myself, I could not bear to see him humbled at my behest by white authority.
And so I decided to compromise. Hitherto, perhaps alone among the faculty, I had withheld my participation in the Founder's Fund. Nearly every college has some charity that it "invites" its employees to support voluntarily. In large public universities this is usually some form of the United Way; in small private colleges it is some sort of recruitment slush fund, labeled Scholarship Development. I believe in the principle of these funds (if not always their proper distribution)—that you should stroke the hand that feeds you—and I would have kicked back, uh, contributed, if I had been paid fairly.
I decided to spread the state of my case before Mr. Russell once more, this time reinforced by the AAUP opinion, tell him of my decision to go to small claims court (and maybe make local headlines—Black College Cheats White Professor), and then offer to donate $150 to the Founder's Fund if he settled first, paying me the $800 he had withheld over the year. I decided one more thing. I decided to ask Miss Cole to be a go-between. She had understood the matter from my first complaints (having seen such contracts attempted in the past) and been sympathetic, not least because the administration was exploiting one of her minions. I don't know what mixture of anger, scorn, humor, and maternal fiat she employed, but in a week she had my answer. It was yes.
As May approached, I told Miss Cole—what she had long divined—that I was leaving. Saint Paul's College was no place for me: I was a Westerner, not a Southerner; I was white, not black. I especially did not want my children—who loved Colorado—to grow up in that tangled web of race relations, caught between the oppressors and the oppressed, learning both exploitation and hostility. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps, like me, they would have learned cultural complexities in the East that are not easily found in the open atmosphere of the West.
In a few weeks I packed my clothes, my books, and my typewriter back into the VW and headed west. I craved the open spaces—in human relations and in land—that the West seemed to promise. When I said goodbye to Miss Cole, there was so much to say that I said little. Oddly I felt more a sense of gain than one of loss. I would miss our chats, her gleeful chuckle, even her booming voice attempting to talk on the telephone without using the telephone. But I had had a most unexpected and illuminating year, and I had gotten to know an enchanting and heroic woman. I said none of this, but when I got home I wrote a poem:
seventy, she remembers
What things were like before federal money came
To soothe white consciences. She tucks
Her short grey straightened hair and sighs.
Her world has changed.
The stores have taken down the "white" and "colored"
Signs. They lie in basements, almost forgotten.
The theatre, with its Jim Crow balcony, is
Dark and empty now. Reared in the North,
Conscious of her virtue, she saw no movies.
Trains, which once pulled covered cars for white folk
And open cars for blacks, have paused for good.
She rode those open cars,
Protected by an all-weather wrath.
In the halls, students troop gaily,
Thoughtless inheritors of a brighter black world.
Her lip curling,
Her magnificent heart beating faster,
She stands on aching knees,
A black Napoleon,
Pent in her private Elba.
[Miss Cole died 9 August 1997. Richard Conway was one of the honorary pallbearers.]