This article is Part II to my earlier article “Separate and Unequal — Part I, Elementary and High School Days,” which chronicled my experiences attending Virginia’s segregated schools during the 1950s and 60s. During the spring of 1968, I was awarded an A Better Chance (ABC) scholarship to attend Culver Military Academy (now Culver Academies), a private boarding school in Indiana. My Culver days, sprinkled with nuggets of experiences growing up black during the Jim Crow era, are chronicled here.
The summer of 1968 marked a new station in my life. To put the time in perspective, the spring and summer of 1968 were tumultuous: Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April and Senator Robert F. Kennedy in June; and, two black athletes staged a demonstration against racial discrimination by raising clenched fists during the playing of the National Anthem at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
Before my enrollment into Culver, I attended a transition program at Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts. I recall boarding a bus in downtown Richmond, Virginia, and an overnight stay at a hotel in Washington, DC. The bright lights, hustle, and bustle of the big city and the sounds of sirens at night were fascinating to a little boy from small-town Sandston, Virginia.
The transition program included ABC scholarship recipients from across the country — students with varied backgrounds and religious beliefs or lack thereof. The program was designed to prepare students for the academic rigors and dorm life of preparatory boarding schools.
I was exposed to a whole new world that summer. I recall studying mathematics and discussing literature and poetry, particularly Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask.”
I traveled to New York City and Canada. I played soccer for the first time.
I also learned to swim. Before that time, the only swimming opportunities I had were the annual church bus excursions to Buckroe Beach in Hampton Roads. There were no pools or other facilities available to people of color near where I grew up, plus Jim Crow laws mandated racial segregation in public facilities.
A fence separating the races at Buckroe Beach is etched my memory, white folk on one side and black on the other. It turns out that what I recall as Buckroe Beach was Bayshore Beach — the white side of the beach was Buckroe Beach and the black side Bayshore Beach. It is now all Buckroe. All I remember is the fence. Virginia Beach and other beaches were segregated as well. Those childhood experiences colored my feelings about those beaches that remain with me today.
Now, back to my story…
My company (the band) was located right on the lake. The wind off the lake made for some chilly morning marches for breakfast.
I traveled to Culver by going through Chicago O’Hare International Airport (the world’s busiest at the time) and then by bus to Culver. I recall once taking a train from Richmond, Virginia to Culver. The ride seemed to last forever — the train appearing to stop every one-half hour. I was let off the train in a field and told to go down to the local barbershop to catch a bus to school. That was a harrowing experience, and I did not take the train again.
Life at Culver was a culture shock. After all, I had lived a segregated life to that point. I lived in a segregated neighborhood, attended segregated schools, and attended a segregated church. And, the civil rights movement and racial tensions were at their peak.
All I knew about other races and cultures was what I had been told or had seen on television. At Culver, I was one of eight black students in a school of eight hundred. My roommates were wealthy white boys. I was the only black kid in my company, the Band.
While I had lived a segregated life, my mother and father had not taught me to hate, and I harbored no ill-will toward other races or cultures. I did not feel inferior, and I thought I could compete academically with anyone.
Adjusting to the culture and lifestyle of Culver was not easy, but it was either assimilate or go home — and failure was not an option. Education was my means of escaping the socioeconomic conditions of my upbringing. After all, I could not run fast or jump high, and I was mechanically challenged.
The students were generally civil towards me. They viewed me as one of them who happened to be black — they did not know I was poor. While I was characterized as a bookworm at the segregated schools, the white kids thought I athletically gifted — which I was not.
Culver had a Code of Conduct that was strictly enforced. Moreover, the school had a vested interest in ensuring my success. I recall meeting regularly with a guidance counselor who provided the nurturing I had experienced at the segregated public schools. As I reflect, that nurturing combined with the core values instilled by my parents were critical to my success.
During my first three months, I, like other newbies, was subjected to Culver’s Plebe System, a form of indoctrination designed to turn civilians into cadets. I recall doing square corners in the barracks, flattening against the walls when upperclassmen approached, marching to meals, and rushing to open doors for upperclassmen.
The Culver experience was very structured, leaving very little free time for the idle mind. We woke to reveille every morning, were subjected to a room and personal inspections, and marched in formation to breakfast. Beds had to be made, clothes folded, and shoes aligned under the bed in prescribed manners.
Classes were between 8:15 A.M. and 3:15 P.M., after which we engaged in recreation activities. A mandatory formation and march to dinner were required at 6:00 P.M.
I am not sure of Culver’s religious affiliation, but we were required to attend evening prayer service every Wednesday — part of Culver’s mission to develop and nurture the whole individual. We also were required to attend church and participate in a parade every Sunday morning.
There was also a mandatory quiet study/time every weekday and Sunday between 7:30 P.M. and 9:30 P.M. Lights were out at 10:00 P.M. Saturdays were free time, and there was always a movie or play on Saturday evening. I remember seeing the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha and numerous James Bond movies.
I participated in intramural football (full gear), basketball, and varsity track. A major disappointment was not making the varsity basketball team.
Drawbacks to the Culver experience were isolation from family, national and world events, and the lack of a social life. I was about 800 miles from home which was too far for a family visit. My mother would periodically send care packages which I relished. Luckily, I had a girlfriend back home who sent me love letters, keeping me grounded and focused.
While the students were civil towards me, several incidents by faculty are cemented in my memory. During a physical education class, a coach pointed me out to the rest of the class telling the class that I was there on financial aid, while their parents had paid to send them to school. A French teacher who said he had to write an evaluation of me — I was making A in his class — said he was conflicted because I looked more like bronze than brains.
Culver had an excellent academic program. My math teacher was teaching from the book he had written. Culver also exposed my academic weaknesses, particularly my poor reading, vocabulary, and writing skills, which had not been cultivated in elementary and high schools. I had not put in the work to sharpen my skills in those areas.
This was an important life lesson, as I went from being a top student to a good student. There were a lot of students at Culver who were as or more academically gifted than I — students who had attended the best schools all their life. I could no longer rely on my God-given abilities to be successful academically. I had to put in the work, “Drill, drill, drill for skill,” as Mr. Parker from my Virginia Randolph High School days would say.
Nevertheless, the structure and rigorous academic program provided at Culver prepared me well for college and life. I was accepted into the engineering programs by both the University of Virginia (UVA) and Duke University. Duke was my school of choice because I knew several other students who had attended, and it was coeducational. UVA’s first year of full coeducation was in 1970, my freshman year. And, I did not want to attend another all-male school. My girlfriend at the time did not want me to go to Duke because she was afraid of what might happen if I attended a coeducational school — her concerns proved to be legitimate.
In retrospect, my two years at Culver was time well spent, containing many life lessons. The benefit of stepping outside my comfort zone and taking risks was an early lesson. I learned to view challenges as opportunities rather than obstacles. Taking advantage of and not blocking or letting someone else block my blessings was another lesson. I learned that I was tough, resilient, determined, and could handle adverse situations. I learned how to comfortably navigate in two distinct cultures, one black and one white while remaining true to my own culture.
As I was finishing this article, I received an invitation to attend my 50th Class Reunion. Because of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, the reunion was postponed, and the organizers are planning a “Zoom” meeting.
What’s Next: “Equal but Separate — College Days”