A career forged in the crucible of civil rights

Franklin McCallie allows that being raised on the grounds of the all-white, all-male McCallie School was adolescence in a "cocoon."

His great-grandfather, a minister, donated his land west of Chattanooga, Tenn., to establish the prep school in 1905. Headed by a McCallie continuously until 1999, it grew steadily and is today one of the leading private schools in the South.

In all, 13 McCallies have run private schools. Franklin is the only member of the clan who devoted himself to public schools. He's about to retire after 22 years as principal of Kirkwood High School, and after decades of advocating for African-American students who on the surface didn't seem destined to succeed.

McCallie's journey from a segregated private school in the South to the principal's office in suburban St. Louis is a tale of personal transformation, forged in the heat of America's civil rights awakening.

Growing up on the McCallie School's 50-acre campus in the 1940s and '50s - with its 400 students, beautiful lake, farm animals, and playing fields - was equally idyllic and illusory. Discipline, duty, honor, and religious adherence prevailed, while elitism and segregation made it a world apart.

That McCallie comes from a long line of preachers is evident in his emotive, booming voice and storytelling acumen. His hands move like a conductor's, and his cadence is charismatic. His aspect is that of a minister, too: white-haired and bearded without a mustache.

But he's no holy man. Religion was wrung out of him years ago by a church that preached love, justice, fairness, equality, and truth, but in practice - in his opinion - excluded an entire race from God's grace.

Growing up, the only black people he knew were the family maid and her son, whom Franklin was forbidden to play with when they both turned 6.

He graduated from McCallie School in 1958 and, armed with a Gibraltar-like set of beliefs, spent a year at the University of Arizona before transferring to Southwestern College in Memphis, Tenn. He had his own road-to-Damascus experience there when a fraternity brother insisted he come to a "dialogue" with students at neighboring LeMoyne College, a school for African-Americans (now LeMoyne-Owen).

It was a Saturday afternoon, and they broke into small mixed-race discussion groups. "My father told me that the black troops in World War II didn't fight very well, so I just threw that out there," McCallie recalls. "One of the black kids said, 'Franklin, did your people fight in the war?' I told him I had an uncle who was at Pearl Harbor. He said, 'I had some uncles in the war, too. What were your uncles fighting for?' I said, 'What do you mean? Freedom! justice! liberty! country!' He said, 'That's what my uncles were fighting for.' "

The black student continued by contrasting his and McCallie's everyday lives. When he went shopping downtown, he pointed out, he couldn't have lunch at the Woolworth's counter where McCallie would typically eat. He had to walk back to "Colored Town" two miles away to have a meal or even go to the bathroom. "So do my uncles who fought in the war," he concluded.

In a conference room at Kirkwood High, 40 years later, McCallie breaks down as he recounts the conversation. "I went back to my college room and cried and cried and cried. I said to myself: I didn't know this, what they were telling me.... I learned from a young age that 'you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.' "

The new truth he was learning freed McCallie all right, but it also turned his world on its head. He dropped out of college within a few weeks and joined the Navy. After his hitch, he married his high school sweetheart and enrolled at Towson University near Baltimore. All his life he had wanted to be a missionary and educator. His missionary zeal had faded, but never the desire to be a teacher.

He taught at a local high school for two years, earned his master's degree in education at Harvard, and took a job at Chattanooga's all-black Howard High School.

That's when the fireworks began. It was 1968, a period when McCallie railed continuously about the white-black divide and racism. Sunday dinner would include long arguments with his father about desegregation.

Racial tension suffused the city. One evening when McCallie and his wife, Teresa, were hosting black and white civil rights workers in their home, there was a tremendous explosion outside. McCallie ran out to find a deep crater in his neighbor's front walk. Everyone, including the police, assumed the perpetrators intended the bomb for McCallie.

Soon after, a judge decreed that all the white schools in town would have black assistant principals, and all the black schools would have white assistant principals, one of whom would be McCallie.

It was a time when long-simmering grievances boiled over. One spring night when a popular black singer failed to show up for a concert, disappointed concertgoers took to the streets, breaking windows. Overzealous police went into black neighborhoods, arresting people who hadn't even been at the concert site. At a meeting in a church the next evening, McCallie was the only white person in a crowd he estimates at 300 to 400.

The older black ministers tried to calm the gathering, but young African-Americans were seething about the random arrests. Suddenly, an alcoholic man ambled toward the stage, and one of the ministers cruelly denounced him and his bottle. Along with perceived persecution by whites, such mistreatment by fellow African-Americans was too much for some of the young people to take.

They streamed into the street. Some threw bricks at white people in passing cars. McCallie was assisted to his car and made it home safely.

Chattanooga went through four days of riots. Every night there was a curfew. The students at McCallie's high school were among the rioters. "Kids were roaming around the building. We all sat down and just talked and listened. Mostly we listened. I was sympathetic. They asked me if I was going out with them that night. I said I couldn't do that, I couldn't go out and burn, but I'd go to the mayor."

On the fourth day, there was a knock on his office window. "We're ready to stop," the young black man said, "if the mayor will give us a few things." McCallie and a black community leader appealed to the mayor, who agreed to negotiate. The riots ended that day.

After attending the University of Chicago on a Ford Fellowship, McCallie accepted an assistant-principal job at a predominantly black high school in University City, just west of downtown St. Louis. Four years later, he was hired as principal at Kirkwood High to help solve lingering racial issues.

His affinity for the kids is evident as he walks the halls. He calls most by name, usually exchanging a word or two with each, and occasionally throws an arm around a student and offers a private comment in a lowered voice.

McCallie's concern has carried into his personal life. One evening in 1990, he came upon a cheerleader stranded at school after a game. Nicole, an African-American, was part of a voluntary program that brings kids from St. Louis to Kirkwood. McCallie drove her home.

A year later, Nicole showed up in his office, dejected beyond words. Her family had been evicted and was planning to move. Her brother had found a place to live so he could stay, but she hadn't. McCallie called his wife, and they agreed Nicole could stay with them.

She went from a 2.1 grade-point average to a 3.8, earned a full scholarship to college, and is now a writer with a family of her own.

"You work with kids, you tutor them," says McCallie. "You work with them some more. You love them. We haven't been able to grab everybody. But it can be done. It can be done."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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