I have lived in California since 1959–which should now qualify me as a native. Before coming to California, though, I lived in a farming community in Mississippi, and was among the last group of Black students to attend segregated schools in the pre-Brown v. Board of Education era. Recently, I made the journey back to Prentiss, Mississippi for a school reunion.

Earlier this year, I received an invitation to the first ever Mt. Zion Community School reunion. I attended the school as a young boy during the 1950s. Nothing was impressive or noteworthy about the school, no one of social note went there, or for that matter, visited the structure behind the church at the top of Mt. Zion road.So why its interest now? What does it add to the already complex quilt work of societal anecdotes? Locally, such an event such as this would raise few eyebrows in or outside a small, agricultural township like Prentiss, Mississippi. But this event has a story to tell that is as relevant now as it was then.  It speaks to all Black families who, for many years, have lived and raised families in Prentiss and neighboring townships throughout Jefferson Davis County. Since the inception of the school in the late 1920s, it has been a source of information and knowledge, while educating students for over 40 years.

To understand the relationship this school had to this farming community we have to understand its background.  The Mt. Zion Community School, which is an out-growth of the MT. Zion Baptist Church, was founded for the principal purpose of providing some degree of education for the children of Prentiss Mississippi. During the 1920’s the policy of segregation cast a dark and unforgiving shadow on the state’s education system. Although there was to be a “separate but equal” policy in dealing out educational opportunity to the state’s young, only Whites could attend what was known as public schools. Blacks were left to separately develop make-shift quarters upon which to gather for schooling. While Whites enjoyed the advantages of public and government financing to shape educational curriculum, Blacks were left to their own devices to make constructive use of their time away from the fields and other chores.  White students were given the best of school books, study aids and materials while students of the community schools often received secondhand books and broken furniture that had been thrown away by establishment schools. Community schools made use of what they were given, and were thankful for the offering.  Dedicated teachers used what they could get their hands on.

The focus in community schools was to serve the immediate needs of a farm culture.  There were no grandiose dreams about higher learning. College was out of the question unless you were considered one of the really smart ones, and then you might be and allowed to attend “teacher college,” (i.e. a program of study that prepared one to return to the community school as a teacher).  But for most, further education was clearly out of reach. The hopes of most parents were that their children could learn enough to be helpful with the farming duties: to read well enough to make good choices when something needed to be purchased; to have an adequate sense of numbers for planting and to measure for cutting.

Although educational opportunity was bleak, what we learned proved helpful. The school terms were short to accommodate the planting and harvesting and often times teachers would make themselves available to the students in their homes or even on work sites.  We all understood and appreciated the commitment of these teachers.

While on the way to Prentiss I entered the junction at Highway 49 (just past the exit to Mendenhall,) took a right turn onto Highway 13, readying for a straight, 20 mile sprint into Prentiss. This drive gave me time to think about this trip.  Knowing that I was planning to meet immediate family at the motel, my thoughts turned to another subject, one that had been floating in and out of my mind ever since I’d started the journey.  Why was I here? What did I want to gain from the trip this time around? My parents, grand-parents and close cousins have died, left or if still around aren’t as connected to my past.  Since my closest cousin wasn’t coming I wasn’t sure I’d recognize anyone at the reunion. Since Kent (my cousin) and I represented the last class before integration (with the implementation of Brown vs. Board of Education) he and I, at 64, would be the youngest to remember the officially segregated schools.  As I approached Prentiss, my enthusiasm was thin.  I thought, I’ll have nothing to talk about and no one to talk to but my kids and nieces and nephews, and on and on and on I went…

Then I began to focus on the wind in my face as I drove at a brisk speed down Highway 13.  Flanked by large beautiful green pine trees, geometrically aligned but close together, only dark creases separated them. Vaguely I remembered one thing: I remembered community. How close we all were. There was security, support, understanding, and love in that community.

I remembered the harvest, when my Grandfather shared the crops with those who helped, and sent food to those unable to come and get their share.

I remembered those Friday nights when my Grandmom made cakes and pies for sale. She sold to White and Black alike. Every once and a while she would make one available to us… every once and a while.

I remembered the annual killing of the hog.  It was a festive event that brought the community together to help cut, cook and prepare pig meat for storage. Each person would leave that night with a portion of the hog, but tired from the days of work.

Lastly I remembered the courageous camaraderie I witnessed.  When something went wrong, when someone was hurt or threatened, neighbors, family and friends put their lives on the line to help. Then there were my memories of nights around the fireplace telling stories to the chorus of grasshoppers singing all night, and on and on and on….

It didn’t matter if I didn’t know many people by name.  I wanted to regain the feeling of community as I gathered with people with whom I once shared a sense of belonging.  To become soaked with the grace of southern hospitality simply by being offered a glass of sweet tea. That’s community.To share a moment in time with others just chatting about the insignificance of the day; the humor of the moment; and then to say nothing more. That’s community.

And that’s exactly what I did at the reunion. I helped the men with the event preparing the meal; serving ice tea and greeting 140 strangers I happened to have gone to the same school with. A blast.

I have always considered myself fortunate to have come to California in 1959. The state gave me a number of opportunities well beyond my expectations: graduation from the University of San Francisco and later the University of San Francisco Law School; for the past 18 years, the opportunity to work at one of the world’s pre-eminent transit agencies, BART. But I still miss those cakes and pies.