Academy Commemorates Martin Luther King Jr. Day
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, January 20, Mercersburg Academy students and faculty took time over the course of several days to participate in activities and conversations related to history and identity. This year’s commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day takes place as Mercersburg explores the theme of diversity, equity, and inclusion and celebrates three milestones in the school’s history: 55 years of black student integration, 50 years of coeducation, and 30 years since the founding of the Black Student Union.
Activities began Friday, January 17, when Kristy Higby, who along with her husband Mark Flowers retired from the art department at Mercersburg in 2014 after 23 years, shared her film Cornie, which she produced in 2007 while working at the Academy.
Cornie chronicles local Mercersburg resident Robert L. Watson (affectionately known as “Cornie”) and his journey through the 20th century and beyond, bringing lessons from the past to the present. The film paints a vivid picture of the life of an African-American in the 20th century. Born at the dawn of the first World War, he was a veteran of the second, where despite his service to his country, he was disparaged as a second-class citizen. Sadly, this was nothing new: during his youth in Mercersburg, PA, he endured segregation and prejudice that severely limited his options. In the face of such imbalance, Watson discovered that not everyone wished to shut him out, and he gained a quiet dignity that gave even unabashed racists pause.
Higby answered questions following Friday’s school meeting at a brown bag lunch in the Irvine Lecture Hall. “It was beautiful to be back on campus for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day events and to share Cornie’s stories with currently enrolled students,” Higby says. “Robert L. Watson (Cornie) was a next-door neighbor to the Academy. His powerful recollections of growing up in the town of Mercersburg during segregation were told (at the age of 91) with grace, heart, and impressive detail. Hopefully, his generosity and pure charm will continue to bring the two Mercersburgs closer together. There are more ‘Cornies’ out there; people just waiting for someone to say, ‘Got any stories?’”
Following lunch on Monday, January 20, students paused in their regular routine to devote time and attention to the documentary The Prep School Negro and small-group discussions surrounding the realities addressed in the film. The Prep School Negro explores the impact that attending an elite prep school had on its director, André Robert Lee. Lee, a young black man who came from a lower-income background, was selected to attend Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia in the 1980s on a full academic scholarship. Through the film, Lee shares his own journey of identity exploration and challenges viewers to explore the complexity of their own identities, how those identities change over time, the power of perception in shaping how individuals understand themselves and others, a teenager’s very strong desire to belong, and the profound effect that access to education can have on an individual’s life.
At the conclusion of the documentary, students broke into small groups to explore the themes addressed in the film, specifically how race, privilege, and power shape our school systems and affect the experience of individuals within them.
“Today we sought to honor the legacy of Dr. King by intentionally working on building community,” says Selas Douglas, Mercersburg’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. “One of our primary aims of the day was to create dialogue about bias and how unconscious bias can impact the experience of those around us. Through our screening of The Prep School Negro, we got to hear the story of someone who felt othered at times by his prep school community, and also at times by his community at home. It will be important for all of us to consider the place we might occupy in such a story, and that we take this as an opportunity to reflect on what we can do individually to create and support authentically inclusive spaces. I think we were successful in beginning some of that work today.”
Events related to Martin Luther King Jr. Day concluded Monday night. For students who wished to learn more about what the Academy was like in the 1960s when Tom Leslie ’66, Mercersburg’s first black graduate, attended the school, they had the opportunity to participate in a dinner that evening with Charlie Guy ’65. Guy overlapped with Leslie and has dedicated the last several months to celebrating Leslie’s legacy by gathering classmates’ memories to create a fuller picture of Leslie’s time at Mercersburg.
“Our two classes have been so honored and excited to be able to work with Springboard students in this shared nostalgia project to provide our experiences from this most important time in the Academy’s history,” says Guy. “We wish to share how our early friendships and experiences, especially with our fellow football teammate and classmate, Tom Leslie ’66, created lifelong impacts upon our lives and has led us to this most essential shared understanding: The success of the initial racial integration struggles by any school should never be judged by just how the lives of our new fellow black classmates were improved, but rather how all our lives were and will continue to be enhanced by their inclusion!”