James Meredith's Black Boys' and Men's Library School lands in San Diego

Enrollees "from ages 1 to 100" are welcome

— Rosalie Martin knows the vicissitudes of raising black boys, having seen two sons through college and graduate school and into corporate careers and now with a grandson in her care. So when her old friend James Meredith, the man who integrated the University of Mississippi at Oxford in 1962, told Martin about his plans for a school tailored specifically for black boys and men, the Golden Triangle financial seminar coordinator signed on. That is how San Diego came to be the first city outside Meredith's home state of Mississippi to host his newest educational project, the Black Boys' and Men's Library School. It's due to open in February.

Despite the segregationist overtones of the school's name, Meredith says no one will be excluded. All races -- and women as well as men -- are welcome to participate, but only black males can be official enrollees. Meredith made that distinction deliberately, he explained last week from his home in Jackson, Mississippi.

"The average black male falls behind by the time he's nine years old; therefore, he's not able to participate in a full manner. The average black man in America, regardless of age, reads below the third-grade level. That's basically illiterate, that's not functional," Meredith said.

Meredith determined that the groups who have built successful lives out of adverse beginnings had one common experience: extensive exposure to public libraries. "It is part of the melting pot ideology. For everyone, all the new Americans who came from Europe between 1870 and 1920, it was the library that acculturated them into the American system. The black male is the only group in America that doesn't use the library."

Acting on that insight, two years ago, Meredith set off on a "black man's march to the library, 225 miles from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi," he recalled. At each town he came to, Meredith was joined by local residents for a visit to the library. "That basically was to introduce the black male to the library, to let him know he would have to go there, that the library is the place of knowledge."

That same year, 1995, Rosalie Martin, who first met Meredith in 1987, invited Meredith to San Diego for a speaking and book tour, making it the first city outside Mississippi to give an outlet to his library club idea. Meredith's books were stocked at campus bookstores, including the one at UCSD, and he was issued more invitations to speak than he had time to honor.

Martin is a member of the Ruth Gleaners, a women's organization of the Linda Vista Second Baptist Church. The Gleaners, a group of 24 named after the Biblical character Ruth, who gleaned the fields for overlooked food, formed the core of the effort to spread Meredith's ideas. They then enlisted Linda Vista's sizable congregation, Martin said, which runs to over 500 people.

"Everybody had grandkids, or if they didn't, they knew somebody in the church," she recalled. "When people want young kids to play ball, they take them to the baseball field or they go out and throw the football. What James was saying was the fathers or big brothers or neighbors should take the young males to the library. You don't have to tell them what to read, but if you take them once a week, they'll find something eventually."

Now Meredith is launching the next step, library schools, with classes on weekends and during after-school hours. They will operate under the auspices of his newly formed Meredith Institute, a nonprofit, tax-exempt charitable foundation. To date, Meredith has funded the operation out of his own pocket. Now he is asking for donations to establish a scholarship fund.

After achieving fame for integrating the University of Mississippi ("Ole Miss") in 1962 under the guardianship of federal troops dispatched by President John F. Kennedy, Meredith continued to work in the Civil Rights movement. In 1966, he was shot in the back during a Civil Rights march, an event that was photographed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning wire-service photo. Meredith recovered from his wounds but withdrew from the mainstream Civil Rights movement. Over the years, he earned a reputation as a somewhat eccentric outsider, prone to making unpredictable -- some said irrational -- pronouncements, often with a conservative bent. At one point Meredith aligned himself with conservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms -- to gain access to the Library of Congress, Meredith said -- and onetime Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke -- to challenge the establishment, Meredith explained at the time.

Now, however, Meredith says he hopes to avoid controversy. He declined to comment on questions such as vouchers, bilingual education, home schooling, and the recent flap over ebonics, the Oakland public schools' proposed black English curriculum.

"I don't generally have any fight with our public education system. I wouldn't want it to come under attack," he said. "To me it was never meant to do anything more than produce a qualified workforce for the agricultural and industrial needs of the nation."

Nevertheless, Meredith has rejected the standard public school model. Instead, the 64-year-old self-employed lecturer, author, farmer, publisher, and financial consultant turned to his experiences more than 50 years ago as a student in a segregated, one-room schoolhouse in the Mississippi hills.

"The present system is a group-teaching system," Meredith explained. "Everybody starts off together in kindergarten and goes through together. Anybody falling behind at any point doesn't benefit."

In his childhood school, "the teacher had eight grades in one room, where she would teach a little from each grade. Then the students would teach the other kids what they had learned. When they closed that one-room schoolhouse [and sent Meredith to a regular public school], they wanted to put me in the fourth grade, though I was only seven."

Meredith hopes to replicate that experience. "Basically what the concept is is to make every home a one-room schoolhouse, where anybody in the house that can perform above the third-grade level can teach the entire course of material."

Enrollees "from ages 1 to 100" are welcome, he said. "I'm as concerned about the 80-year-old black male as I am about the 8-year-old. I'd be most happy for an 80-year-old to come to my class, and in six weeks they become literate. Everybody they talk to will sign up." And if an infant is exposed to rigorous schooling in the presence of a mentor starting at age one, "he'll never fall behind."

Meredith has made his schools male-only because "black males will not compete with black females because they will always lose." He claims black women will be the ultimate beneficiaries. "For every black male who gets a college degree, 26 females do; we're not helping the black female when we're graduating the 26 females for every black male. Who are those other 25 going to spend their life with or marry?"

Women and nonblacks will participate in his schools, but only as sponsors. Each student must have a sponsor 12 years of age or older, who must attend every session. In San Diego, the library club sponsors were as enthusiastic as the students, Martin said. "James was going after the young kids. Well, the sponsors decided they wanted to enroll, and their average age was around 40."

Meredith's primary goal is to teach how to read, write, and speak standard English. "I don't see nothing wrong with black English," he said with a chuckle. "It's a strong, powerful language. What most people don't realize, though, is that black English is a foreign language.

"Black males, particularly the bright males, usually at nine years old, they decide they're not going to learn anything. Most black males who are illiterate are illiterate by decision. I have one cousin who's a millionaire, and he can't read and write, but he's so smart he can get anyone to do what he needs."

Meredith intends to boost his students' language skills to the point where they can "educate themselves."

To do so, he has written a primer, The First Book of Reading. "This book is designed to teach proper English to persons who speak black English as a first language," the subtitle reads in a stark statement of pedagogical intent. (Most educational messages are couched in less value-charged terms.)

Meredith has published the 128-page primer himself. It is his version of the 1838 McGuffey Reader, widely used by itinerant teachers and families living beyond the reach of any formal schooling for much of the middle to late 19th Century. He colored in the children's faces so they would appear black. (The copyright on the McGuffey, he pointed out, has long since lapsed.) From "ax" to "zebra," words are used to illustrate the letters of the alphabet, which are accompanied by 1838 woodcuts. A series of gradually more challenging reading lessons follows. They tell homilies about wooden huts, cows, chickens, and good and bad little girls and boys, illustrated with antebellum drawings.

In addition to studying their primers, students will take part in spelling bees, oratorical contests, essay-writing contests, and other traditional pursuits. And, of course, they will make regular trips to the library, spending at least three hours there a week.

Meredith intends schooling to supplant ordinary weekend leisure activities. "We don't want people to do anything that day they would normally do, like watch television. To be a super basketball star, they know that they have to spend hours and hours every day on the basketball court. We want them to know they have to spend hours and hours a day with the books if they want to become an intellectual giant."

Meredith said he chose San Diego as his first non-Mississippi site because of the enthusiastic response Martin and her church had to the library clubs. "They must have sold $10,000 of my books," Meredith said. They used Meredith's books and a lecture series he gave as fundraisers for the church, Martin said.

"We're building a new church because we've outgrown the one we're in," she said. Even with two services, it's standing- room-only on Sundays. In addition to the library club, the church runs a soup kitchen once a month and otherwise helps out the needy. Linda Vista also supports five different choirs and sponsors youth soccer and track teams.

"In essence, we do really educate ourselves," Martin said. "You go to school and listen to your teacher, but you come home and do your research. But everybody doesn't have encyclopedias in their homes; everybody doesn't have computers, so what James wants to do is show people you can do this on your own; you can learn at your own pace."

In his home state of Mississippi, Meredith reports, librarians have been enthusiastic about his project. Here in San Diego, public library official Lynn Whitehouse, whose responsibilities include outreach programs, said last week that she hadn't heard of Meredith's library schools. But, she added, "I hope he does come; it fits right in."

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