The integration of Mississippi’s public schools was always going to be complicated and possibly violent. But in some places, the community leadership was strong enough to stave off any activity that could slow or stop the process ordered by the federal courts.
That was the case in McComb in the fall of 1965 when four students, Bernell Eubanks, Thelma Eubanks, Barbara Lee and Marionette Travis, became the first blacks to attend and later graduate from previously all-white McComb High School. Their arrival came one year after the city had suffered through a racial civil war during Mississippi’s notorious “Long, Hot Summer” of 1964.
Led by veteran school administrator Julian D. Prince, the McComb integration project faced many trials when it started. In less than six years, however, total K-12 integration of the district was realized without major upheaval.
“Our school community had the history of the past to overcome,” Prince wrote in his recent book, “Balancing the Scales: A Turbulent Age of Mississippi History During School Integration.”
“Quite frankly, I was pleased and a little surprised with how quickly the many changes and adjustments to integration were made,” he wrote.
Imagine that at the 1965-66 school year’s first assembly, six seats in the auditorium were reserved for the four black seniors and two underclassmen, Theodore Eubanks and Willie Reed. Imagine that they were late arrivals and a city policeman had to escort them in past their new white classmates to the front row. Imagine the fear they had as to acceptance in the school — not to mention what the white people seated next to them were thinking.
In the pantheon of unsung heroes who made such treks possible for those who followed, these trailblazers had the courage and desire “to have a good education so that they could get a job and earn a living … to participate in government and society … to be respected and appreciated as the human beings they were, regardless of the color of their skin,” Warren H. “Skip” Wild Jr. told his 1965-66 classmates by email.
Wild, a retired Nashville lawyer born of a prominent McComb family, recently learned that Bernell Eubanks had died on June 19 of this year.
Wild had taken it upon himself several years ago to seek out Eubanks because he had gotten to know him better than the other three black seniors. They had classes together and Eubanks had wished Wild well with a candid, humorous comment in their school yearbook.
“As you slide down the bannister of life, I hope you don’t get a splinter in your career,” wrote Eubanks, later a Jackson State University graduate and Vietnam veteran who spent his entire working career with one Mississippi company.
When the Eubankses, Lee and Travis failed to attend a 50th class reunion in 2016, Wild decided to reconnect with Eubanks and visited him and his wife Gladys at their Copiah County home.
“Bernell was standing in the driveway waiting for me,” Wild wrote. “He was tall, thin and looked much like I had remembered him. He greeted me warmly with a big smile and a firm hug.”
Eubanks seemed to be beating the odds against throat cancer until this spring when it viciously returned, his wife of 47 years told Wild.
Wild also reported that Thelma Eubanks lives in McComb and recently lost a son. Barbara Lee became a nurse and worked at the regional hospital in McComb until her death. Marionette Travis lives in California.
It is these preternatural stories that are usually forgotten in the ongoing struggle for equality in education and other matters in Mississippi and in America — these largely untold accounts of individuals who bravely sought to beat whatever odds that life had presented them.
It often requires the dogged determination of a Skip Wild to ferret out their stories to share with the world.
Mac Gordon is a part-time resident of McComb. He is a retired newspaperman. He can be reached at macmarygordon @gmail.com.