50 Years of an Integrated EHS

Several dozen alumni and special guests spent their Friday, November 9, on the Holy Hill participating in panel discussions and other sessions, first for students and later for alumni and parents, exploring Episcopal's segregated past and its gradual progress after integrating in 1968.
In commemoration of 50 years of black student life, Episcopal High School seeks to honor those courageous pioneering students who forever transformed the institution into a place where the dreams of all students could be nurtured and supported regardless of race or ethnic identity… -- from the Vision Statement on the 50 Years of Integration website.

On the Pendleton stage sat three giants in their professional fields. Award winning journalist James Blue ’87 served as a moderator as Civil Rights icon (and current Episcopal grandparent) the Rev. Jesse Jackson and entrepreneur and philanthropist Tony Chase ’73 reflected on issues of race, the difficulties of integration and the challenges of pursuing true equality and inclusion in America. They discussed the late ‘60s and the sometimes slow, often difficult, path to integration not only at Episcopal, but across the country (CLICK HERE for LocalLive video).

Their words and observations served as preamble for a special day commemorating 50 years of integration at Episcopal High School.

The students and faculty were also the first to see the debut of a powerful 12-minute video filmed and produced by Luke David ’93 to honor the special day (YouTube).

Chase and Jackson had played key roles at the chapel service that began the day’s events (CLICK HERE for LocalLive video), with the latter offering the invocation and the former offering a stirring call to the students to continue working to desegregate their lives.

“In many ways, this diversity in which you live is an artificial community that exists primarily in academic settings. The administration here has the capacity to choose and select a student body that has the carefully-balanced ranges of cultures, experiences, and backgrounds that now makes up EHS,” Chase noted. “But when you get out in the real world, the business world, or wherever your lives will take you, beware. Those worlds will be much less diverse. In fact, they will tend to be highly segregated, not legally, but by choice. Your choice. I encourage you to take this experience of diversity with you. Take this commitment to diversity with you, into your worlds, into your neighborhoods, into your lives.”

Following the school-wide gatherings, almost two dozen guest speakers — most of them alumni spanning five decades of life on The Holy Hill — and roughly a dozen students and teachers facilitated sessions and panels offered throughout the day.

At the front of Sperry Lecture hall stood Nettie Webb ’18, leading a presentation based on her months of research into Episcopal’s archives around the issue of race at The High School over the decades. Caroline English, one of the history teachers who mentored her through the project, stood at the monitor offering additional commentary and assisting with visuals projected on the screen.

Following Webb’s afternoon presentation, the group in the room engaged in a Q&A not just with Nettie, but with one another, reflecting on and sharing their own experiences.

In the afternoon audience was Allegra Burton, Episcopal’s first female African-American teacher who taught in the 1980s. She noted that she felt her duty was first and foremost, through her teaching and interactions in her time at Episcopal, to work at breaking stereotypes the white students had about black people. Breaking down their misguided assumptions about her and, through her, about black people became one of the primary ways she judged her efforts.

Two younger alumnae reflected on how isolating the experience of being an Episcopal student could be. Even as they struggled to feel like they were fitting in and finding their place in the EHS community, they found themselves growing more removed and disconnected from their hometown networks. They served as a reminder that even 40 years after The High School integrated, things were far from smooth or easy for students of color.

Even with several dozen in the room, the conversation was intimate and genuine, the questions honest and the answers sincere.

After lunch, students could attend one of three history panels. Webb and English covered “Voices of Integration at Episcopal.” Mike Reynolds’ and his History of the South students shared their own research on “Episcopal’s Southern Culture and The Civil Rights Movement.” Much of the research carried out by the students has been recorded and stored at the online EHS History Project site.

The third panel included three guest panelists — teacher Wade Morris, professor and author Dr. Michelle Purdy, and artist and art history professor Amber Wiley — discussing “Integration and the National Landscape.” Morris, now a history teacher at Lovett School in Atlanta, did his master’s thesis on the integration of Episcopal schools in the South (PDF). Purdy wrote Transforming the Elite: Black Students and the Desegregation of Private Schools.

Joel Sohn, Director of Community and Equity and one of the principal organizers of the commemoration events, saw reason for hope but much work still to be done.

“It takes a lot of courage for our students to hear the words of Tony Chase and Reverend Jackson and then process them as lessons to take to heart. I hope our students will truly work toward unlearning the things they've taken for granted and the habits they've formed,” Sohn said. “Perhaps this weekend saw some seeds planted, but those seeds need constant water and nourishment, so we can't stop talking about these things.

“I'm not going to stop talking about these things because these conversations are what makes community that much stronger and that more welcoming and inclusive.”

A photo gallery of the day's and evening's events are available on our Maroon & Black Flickr account and can be viewed below: 

Commemorating 50 Years of Integration