Investigative Interviewer Michelle Purdy published a profound new view of Westminster. We flip the script and get an open look at her. With Corliss Denman ‘73.
“The institutional changes are always the most difficult, right? You're literally trying to change culture. You're trying to change people's mindsets. You're trying to change people's language.” – M. Purdy
Two years after the publication of Dr. Michelle Purdy’s breakthrough book about desegregation and Westminster titled Transforming the Elite, we turned the tables on Dr. Purdy by having her former interviewees interview her.
Purdy’s book triggered a multi-year whirlwind tour featuring stops at the University of Washington, Yale, Stanford, Grinnell College, and Teachers College-Columbia University of NY. Along the way, Purdy spoke to and worked with students and faculty at the Dalton School, Virginia Episcopal, and Westminster, three of the nation’s most prominent private schools. Additionally, of course, numerous bookstores in various cities hosted her in more intimate settings, frequently including family, sorors, lifelong friends or schoolmates, and colleagues. She spoke with this wide array of audiences about the content of the book, the making of the book, and its major themes and implications for Diversity, as a presenter, panelist with esteemed colleagues, and virtual visiting faculty member -- while tending to family matters and maintaining her multifaceted work in academia, public policy and urban studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
WAM connected with her over Zoom just before New Year’s Day 2021, with alumni Corliss Denman ‘73 and Malcolm Ryder, ‘72, hosted by Michael Slade ‘73. Dr. Purdy’s book has had a very big impact on the general awareness of culture in educational life. We wanted to learn how the feedback is affecting her and what her thinking is now.
Corliss: Shall we kick off with this first question? We just want to know what your life has been like since the book came out. I know you've been involved with Westminster and they've had you come back several times to do some sessions and that kind of thing. So if you could weave that into your answer, that'd be great.
Michelle: Yeah. The publication date, unbeknownst to you and the University of North Carolina Press, was my birthday. It was my 40th birthday. The publication date on Amazon was listed as September 24th, 2018. And since then, things have been… especially school year '18,-'19... just so full, amazing reception to the book, in my opinion, for my colleagues and for many others. I have done a series of discussions, some in living rooms, some on college campuses to small and large groups, as well as at independent schools and bookstores.
So with modeling after some other colleagues' books who came out in recent years and with the support of Gerry Everding at Wash U, the public affairs education specialist at Wash U. Through his efforts and my efforts, we were able to cover a lot of ground with the book.
Corliss: So Michelle has the feedback... and I mean, this has just been a whirlwind and it's been so much… has the feedback always been positive?
Michelle: Feedback has been good. There are a couple of reviews on Amazon. One guy was like, you know, “it reads like a revised dissertation.” I said, well, that's what it is!
The scholarly reviews of the book have also been very positive. There was one done by a colleague who included it among an essay review of different books around urban history. I do focus some on Atlanta, but I wouldn't classify my book as an urban history book. Right? I think some of what he said was a little off base and my editor agreed. But yeah, for the most part, people have been positive.
I've learned a lot. With every talk I receive lots of different questions depending on who's in the audience, whether it's a student, whether it's a scholar, whether it's an educational scholar or a historian. I spoke to a team of administrators in August at the Gill St. Bernard School in New Jersey. There seems to be an interest in this history and what we can learn from this history about diversity, equity, and inclusion today.
BACK TO WESTMINSTER
Somewhere in the middle of October I had gone to Westminster for a day, a day and a half.…
So who was the audience when they had you speak then? Was it a board, was it faculty? Was it students?
Michelle: Faculty. I didn't speak to any students in October. I think this was just a chance to begin the conversation. If I remember correctly, it was to begin the conversation about what something would look like in the spring. I met with the different heads of the units and associate heads of the units, the folks who were working on diversity, equity and inclusion. I also met with Jim Justice.
Corliss: I do know that name. He coordinated our visit. Yeah.
Michelle: Exactly, yeah. So Jim is Dean of Academics and Curriculum. That's where the conversation started about what it would look like if I was able to come back in the spring several times or one time kind of like as a visiting faculty member.
Then, I visited Westminster in mid-March. It was funny because I don't think Jim quite told me how many different groups I was going to be speaking with. So I get there and it's like, you're speaking with the fifth graders and you're going to speak with three or four sections of seventh grade U.S. history.
There was a lunchtime book talk with faculty, a bigger group of faculty and staff that time than [earlier] in October. I had done a talk at Wash U in February for the Humanities Center. And that's when I began to really tweak the beginning of the talk cause they were like, "don't do something you've already done".
I used to start the talk with school desegregation and familiar images of public school desegregation. The Humanities Center event was February, 2019 which also marked 400 years of enslavement in the United States. So I said, okay, I'm going to go all the way back to 1619 to begin my talk. The beginning of the talk that I did at Westminster originated with that change at the Center for Humanities faculty book celebration at Wash U.
I don't think I knew how many different students I was going to speak with. So I was kind of working on the fly, but the fifth graders… No shade to the seventh graders or the seniors that I met with, but the fifth graders were my favorite. What's happening in the lower school is tremendous. I didn't go into all the details I might've gone into with the seventh or the 12th graders, but the essence of what they got was that they understood what it could have been like to have been different at Westminster in the '60s and the '70s, They got that.
You could tell that their minds were clicking. Like, we get that these Black kids [at Westminster], some of whom were not much older than us, could have been treated badly, because we understand that Black people in the ‘50s and ‘60s were treated badly.
They fundamentally got that. I'm not saying the seventh and 12th graders didn't get it. But the fifth graders were the first group that I spoke with. And I spoke with I think the whole grade, or at least half the grade at one time in the library. And they fundamentally got that.
I was just blown away by how well they got that. I have to attribute it to the curriculum. I have to attribute it to what's going on in the social studies curriculum, in the lower grades at Westminster. I don't know if the head of the lower school that I met is still there. He appeared to be a relatively young, African-American gentleman who was head of the lower school in March of 2019, or maybe middle age, I don't know, but he didn't appear to be an older gentleman.
Corliss: Thank you for that.
Michael: I wonder if that says that this change in curriculum is very new, because if it had been going on for more than two years, you might've gotten that reaction in the seventh grade as well.
Michelle: I also worked with middle schoolers for two years here at home, in between completing my master’s degree at Wash U and starting my PhD at Emory. I was associate head of the middle school, which is fifth through eighth grade.
Fifth graders still love you. Right? On any given day, just about, fifth graders will talk to you. They love to interact with you as an adult, even if you are the authority figure. In terms of my responsibilities, I didn't interact a whole lot with the fifth and sixth graders. I worked more closely with our seventh and eighth grade student council, I was an eighth grade advisor. But my fifth and sixth graders, for the most part, you know, they were brought to me at recess. They knew I love football. Mike Espy's son, who I knew, was a star wide receiver at University of Mississippi. And that's when Eli Manning was big at University of Mississippi. And they were like, did you see the game this weekend, Miss Purdy? They're still young and in some ways fun and they want to kind of please adults.
I don't attribute the seventh graders as not knowing. I attribute them to being seventh graders. Right? Who sometimes are like, you know, I'm too cool to interact with guest speakers. And I don't want my friends looking at me like this way, if I say too much. So I'm not saying they didn't get it, but their level and kind of interaction and engagement with me was different than those fifth graders.
And then you get to seniors who were in a special class or seminar on civil rights. They communicated, they were fine.
There was a young lady who came up to me the night of the talk. And I can't remember now the order of things -- actually I think I spoke to the seniors the next day after the big talk that evening. But she came up to me that same evening, or maybe I had spoken to her and she kind of quietly was like, "Thank you so much for writing the book. They needed to know." Meaning 'they,' the administration and our teachers needed to know that these experiences happened at Westminster and still happen. She wasn't that vocal in class per se, but there was this quiet exchange that we had after the fact.
So I'm not saying the seventh and 12th graders did not fundamentally get the point of the book or understand what it was like for, you know, you two and the other Fearless Firsts to be treated in the ways that you were, or the politics behind this decision and all that. But the way those fifth graders interacted with me was so special. Just, just beautiful.
Corliss: Michelle, you know with everything that happened last summer or this past summer, and you know, all of the sessions that they did at the school, there were other things going on around diversity, equity and inclusion, the town halls. I've been asked to serve on a Black alumni steering committee or council and I've got multiple alumni classes involved in that kind of thing. But, I've been a little, I guess, disappointed in the progress that we seem to be making.
Michelle: Well, let me say one thing… The other powerful piece about the Westminster visit obviously was being on stage with Corliss and with Wanda. That was the first time you all have ever talked about your experiences. I mean, it was 300 plus people. I think I signed over 80 books or something that night. People were lined up patiently waiting for me to sign these books, so that let me know that people want to know. There was a yearning then before this latest phase of our reckoning with racial justice in this country that folks want to understand the complicated paths of this country. They want to understand Black student experiences.
What happened this summer in my opinion justified the book. On the heels of George Floyd being killed, the protests began.
On Twitter, two Black women professors start “Black in the Ivory” and everybody is talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion. They were like, well, we're going to tell you all what it's like to be Black in the Academy.
Parallel to that are all these Instagram accounts from Black kids and kids of all backgrounds in some accounts talking about the racism, the sexism and homophobia, the xenophobia happening at these elite private schools. I'm on Instagram, but I did not know about these accounts. It was a young white alum from Lovett who emailed me to say, Professor Purdy, I've heard about your book. Do you know about these “Black at ____” accounts with Black students from Westminster, Lovett, Pace, Andover, Exeter, Choate, and the list goes on. Shortly after, maybe the same day, I received an email from the young Black alumni at Westminster, who asked if I could them get in touch with some of the alumni that I interviewed.
It was really interesting to me that it was a white alum from Lovett, who initially reached out to me to say, this is what's going on. Then I went and looked at the Westminster Schools African-American Student and Alumni page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/BlackatWestminster) on Facebook. And that's where I learned more about what was happening specifically at Westminster.
As I was reading these accounts, I mean, literally it is some of the same issues. Teachers not knowing Black students apart, which goes to Michael's political cartoon that I included in the book. The use of the N word in classes without any context, not explaining why the word 'nigger' is included in this text or that text or why students may feel uncomfortable reading excerpts. The hair issue with Black girls in particular. In PE classes and swimming in particular like teachers not understanding that when it's a requirement, that's going to require more time for Black girls to get ready to go swimming. And it's going to require more time after for them to look a certain way. And then just the issue with the natural Black hair. The list goes on and on, like the similarities that were either directly related to what you all experienced at Westminster or what I had read about for other Black kids in independent schools in the '60s, in the '70s.
This is why my students asked me, well, how far have we come, Professor Purdy?
You know I've been dealing with that question since Ferguson. I've been dealing with that question since 2014, in particular when Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, 20 minutes from Wash U campus.
What a difference 12 years makes. I first started doing interviews in '08. Some folks didn't know who I was. So they were reluctant to talk with me. And, you know, some people told me more than once it took you calling in three and four times for me to feel like, okay, comfortable with going there -- because some of the things they experienced were so painful. It's been really interesting how the young people now just made it plain.
WALKING THE WALK
And Westminster quickly jumped on it. Unlike some other schools, Westminster's response was like this [finger snap]. We're going to put $5 million behind diversity, equity, and inclusion now, and we are going to start this board. And we are going to start this council. And we're going to do this, and we're gonna do that. We're going to report to y'all every so often. They responded very quickly to these calls.
So I was telling Michael and Malcolm, I've gotten a lot of different questions ‘cause I always have time for Q and A, but two of the ones that have been asked the most are: Where did you all [the Fearless Firsts] send your kids to school? Did you send your kids to public or private school? And I think I remembered for the most part. And then, how your parents were involved, how Black parents were involved in the school after the initial decision to allow you to go to the school, which I really did not ask you all about or the Black parents I interviewed. I focused more on how they even made the decision for students to go to the school.
Corliss: Curiously, when you said that question about where they are sending their children, I guess that was about us at the time. That's a question that I have posed as a member of this council. I'm going to say there were about 15 alumni that are a part of this council and then about five administrators from the school. But there was only one who was sending his daughter to Westminster, and, I was going to ask you about some of the parental stuff, because I want to ask the question later about who you wish you had spoken with and that kind of thing.
Malcolm you're up.
Malcolm: Well, you know what, Michelle, you said a couple of things in the last five minutes that are kind of about this -- that maybe compared to the other schools that you knew about, Westminster really jumped on this issue quickly and forcefully, which is terrific news.
Michelle: You mean in the '60s?
Malcolm: No, just responding to the summer. And you know, we've had a chance to, to connect with Keith [Evans] a few times recently because we've started the magazine and he's been pretty supportive… the fact that Westminster responded quickly and relatively forcefully makes me ask you about your perception of the leadership there.
There are the grownups who were supposed to do something about it, but then, there are young people who maybe for the first time have achieved kind of a critical mass so that they are like the grassroots level or, you know, influence pushing upward. We can follow that new generation of people... they're going to take over. They're going to become the upperclassmen. They're going to go to college. Their norms should become the institutional norms, but of course they couldn't do it on their own. I'm interested in your view of how the adult leadership is, you know, paving the way for these improvements, and how the younger generation is kind of forcing them to happen.
Michelle: And you are the second, most wealthy independent school in the South and the 14th, most wealthy in the nation. So you're going to jump on it. And the young people had galvanized in ways that probably the school had never seen before. There had probably been some pushes along the way.
And you know, there was a huge issue in the nineties around not having Jewish faculty members and Jewish board of trustee members, non-Christian folk that reached all the way to the New York Times. Right? And in this climate, and especially this summer where every Institution of any significance in business and other sectors, was putting out all these statements about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Westminster wanted to be a leader and, and just by virtue of what Westminster is, it is a leader in the independent school world.
Michelle: That always becomes the question though, for folks on the ground.
You know, I'm the student leader who began as a student activist at Wash U. So I'm the person who first met the Chancellor when the Black students were protesting my first year as we were revisiting the Black Manifesto, but who ultimately sits at the table with the Chancellor as a student body president at Wash U. Right?
These students are going to have to hold the administration accountable -- because institutions also know that you can have these flare ups from students who will ultimately graduate, and you could have flare ups of some alumni who get real excited in the moment. But then the moment may pass or the intensity lessens, and life resumes in some shape or form, and the pressure decreases and institutions know that. They can outlast a lot of things.
Michelle: The last thing I'll say... What I learned also when I was at Westminster in October 2019 was that there was very little time and limited coordination among the units of the school about diversity, equity, and inclusion. So when I spoke to the group at lunch, that was like the first time that all the DEI interested teachers and staff members had met together. Like maybe that semester!
Michelle: Because the three, units are on three different schedules, it is very hard for those teachers and those admin who want to work on DEI at Westminster to even talk. Now that was in '19, maybe that has changed. And what with virtual life now I'm sure that has changed, but they were finding it hard just to even talk among the lower, middle, and upper school.
Corliss: And I'm going to ask about that at my next meeting.
Michael: My observation is, and you can tell me if this occurs at other schools besides Westminster. My impression is that the people who are working on integrating Black students or minority students look at their job as how to make those students fit within the school, rather than saying, you know what, the whole school needs to adjust its attitude, to accommodate people, to accommodate everybody.
Michael: And that's a much harder thing because it's not how to make these kids more like the kids that are already there, but how to make the community itself a welcoming environment. Is that a focus you see?
Michelle: I do. I mean the institutional changes are always the most difficult, right? You're literally trying to change culture. You're trying to change people's mindsets. You're trying to change people's language.
FRAMES OF MIND
Michelle: But I feel like young people are dealing with the social realities of identity issues much, much earlier. And perhaps, especially for middle and upper class kids, earlier in life than what we have previously known.
They are questioning more. They are questioning well, how can you support somebody who talks about Mexicans the way he does [referring to former President Trump]? Or how can you support somebody who talks about women the way he does just because you like his economic policies? Or how do you not understand that Democrats don't actually want to take your guns away? They just want some sensible gun laws. They are having these conversations and I think in some sophisticated ways and sophisticated understanding, but you have this President who divides people along social identity markers. And it's very derogatory, but yet you have people who clearly voted for him in droves. Young people are wrestling with that. They don't understand.
Malcolm: If we get that upward push, you know, from the younger generation, it's gonna, except for the fact that...
Michelle: And we got it with this election. We got it with this election, the question is, will they continue?
Malcolm: Yeah. Because it's a collision, right? It's not like, you know, there's open road ahead of them. They’ve got to push a lot of stuff out of the way. Because it's very unlikely that they're going to change lots of minds of people who are 15, 20, 25 years older than they are.
Michelle: So there are people their own age who are all about supporting a particular type of conservatism now.
And politically, this is probably the most polarized the US has been in a very long time. There was a stat on Meet the Press a couple of years ago where if you looked at, I think it was the House, you could see there might have been Republicans, Democrats, but where they met more in the middle. And now that number is so small in terms of the middle. We're very much polarized now. And our young people are wrestling with that in such significant ways, both on the left and the right.
It raises questions for institutions around free speech. So where do you draw the line in the sand when it comes to free speech, what is free speech? What is not free speech? What is hate speech? How do you allow everybody to have a voice?
How do you allow everybody to feel included? Not just your quote unquote liberal or progressive students, but also your conservative students? They might be conservative because they are pro-life. Or they are conservative because they don't want the government to have as much influence on economic policy? They agree with leaving everything up to the States. But yet, by taking that position how do you make a distinction between that person and the person who supports the derogatory comments coming from the right?
So they are feeling it, our young people, I see it at Wash U. I hear it in the conversations I have with other colleagues across the country.
And ultimately I do think social media has a big, a big influence... I mean they just have more information. We [in the past] had to go to the library to get some, and now, you know, it's on this [indicates smart phone]. They can just, they can just look it up and then they have this whole world outside of school on Instagram, on Snapchat. I mean many don't even use Facebook anymore.
TRANSFORMING THE ELITE
Malcolm: I had asked the school on the tail end of one of those town halls in the summer, what they would say [publicly] as a response to my question, which I had reworded a few times until I got it as small as I could. I asked them, what does it mean for an exclusive school to talk about inclusivity? How do they work that out?
And, I think there's a parallel question. It's not the opposite. It's just the flip side of the coin. I'll preface it just by pointing out that I wasn't born and raised in Atlanta. And I haven't been to Atlanta for any reason other than business in about 35 years. Also, [at Westminster] there are no dorms anymore. There are no dorm students there anymore. So Westminster is very definitely an Atlanta school. It exists for Atlanta. I asked myself, which Atlanta does that school exist for?
From this distance it may be easy, from one point of view, to say, well look, there are more Black people in Atlanta than there are almost anywhere. And a lot of Black people that are making a lot of money in Atlanta. So if they really wanted their own school free of a lot of these issues, why don't they just start their own school? I pose that as a hypothetical, just to contrast with what's Westminster still to be about? Who is it for?
Michelle: I think that's part of what a lot of institutions are reckoning with, how they care about inclusivity.
Now, you know, the independent school world writ large does a lot around talking around diversity, equity and inclusion. You all were the trailblazers. In many ways. independent schools nationally were reckoning with their place in U.S. society in the mid-20th century.
First of all, in the forties and fifties as the US public high school becomes more commonplace... Just as the public high school becomes more common as more students go to the public high school and graduate. Over the course of the 20th century, we go from about 6% public high school graduation rate in 1900 to probably about 50 to 60% by the mid 20th century.
You have more and more kids, young people in the United States going to public high school, and graduating from public high school. So these elite private schools are trying to figure out, well, what's going to be our identity in this changing educational landscape?
Then what's going to be our identity as the United States reckons with race. And what's going to be our identity when all these other schools are popping up so that white kids don't have to go to desegregated public schools with Black kids. We don't want to be like some of those schools that start as segregationist academies, because we don't think they had the same academic rigor as we do.
So, I mean, Dr. Presley literally testifies before Congress in '72 or '73 saying you all need to end segregationist academies. And this was on the heels of the United States government saying, if you have discriminatory admissions policies, you're going to lose your tax exemption status.
These schools both at the K through 12 level and in higher ed have been wrestling with questions of identity in very fundamental ways and from multiple angles since the mid 20th century. Whether it's about just the numbers of folks going to school, or the civil rights movement and the pushes for more Black students, then ultimately more Hispanic students and Native American students in these places that were built by them but not built with them in mind. Then women at some of these schools, let alone Black women. I mean, Wanda was one of the first women period to go to Princeton.
Michelle: The institutions that have been considered the most elite in our nation have been wrestling with all of this stuff in particular over the last 70 years or so. And I think they are still in the midst of trying to figure out, who are we for?
Corliss: Through my work on the Black Alumni Council, I received a copy of Dr. Pressly's book, “The Formative Years”. I don't know if you've ever read it, Michelle, but there's a couple of things in there.
One says, and is a William Presley quote, "The wealthiest minds do not always come from the wealthiest homes." So that's one quote. But then when he talks about Westminster one of the things that he said, and they still, I think subscribed to this is it's a school of Atlanta for Atlanta. We've been talking about that in our meetings because just as Malcolm was alluding to, with the, you know, dissolution of the dorms and all that, we think that they've lost so much in the diversity and inclusiveness because you know, if you keep drawing from the same well, you're going to get the same water. So anyway, I haven't finished the book, I just got the book, so I'm going to finish it to see what else was on Presley's mind.
Michelle: Yes, I have read it and the reason that Westminster was this important case study was that Presley was one of the few Southern independent school leaders to be involved and at the table with these national conversations. He occupied a very interesting place. And I never talked with him, because he was deceased when I was working on the project, and I never talked to his family. But he occupied a very interesting place. He helped to create a school in the South that's still very much adhered to the old South in many ways, but he knew what was happening at these other schools, as they were trying to recruit more Black students or to have Black students for the first time. He was a founding member of the National Association of Independent Schools, board of trustees.
Dr. William Dandridge remembers many conversations with him. Dandridge was the first director of minority affairs, and he discussed how so many independent school leaders throughout the South worked under Presley. So Westminster does occupy this very interesting place. And it has to ask itself, who is it for in Atlanta?
Now they draw from a large number of zip codes in the Atlanta metropolitan area. I'm told that number is shrinking in large part because of ATL traffic.
* SWATS, The S.W.A.T.S. or S.W.A.T.S. ("Southwest Atlanta, too strong") is, in street, hip-hop, or local contexts, Southwest Atlanta, plus territory extending into the adjacent cities of College Park and East Point.
Editors’ Note: We want to thank Dr. Purdy for her availability and supportive advice in the startup of Wildcat Alumni Magazine, as well as for her ongoing close involvement with the Westminster community. The insights on how Atlanta and Westminster respond to each other and grow together are an ongoing source of conversations that we hope the Alumni community will have and share with the magazine for encouraging broad participation by problem solvers across the country.
Malcolm Ryder (West ‘72) Contributor
Corliss Denman (West '73) Contributor
Michael Slade (West '73) Contributor