‘A Climate of Blackness’

By Patricia Ohmans — October 20, 1982 8 min read
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Keysville, Ga--Midway along William Tecumseh Sherman’s route from Atlanta to the sea, among watermelon and cotton fields and the weathered shacks of tenant farmers, are the solid brick buildings of Boggs Academy. Boggs is an anomaly among private prep schools--all of its students are black.

It is a complex irony that Boggs--the only black, private, coeducational, accredited boarding school in the country--sits in the heart of a territory where public-school integration was bitterly resisted. Founded in 1906, Boggs has afforded black high-school students the option of a private education through years when public schooling for blacks was often a discouraging charade.

Today, in Burke County, where less than 20 percent of white and black public-school students make it past high school, Boggs is sending better than 95 percent of its graduates on to college.

But despite those figures and Boggs’s reputation for consistently high academic standards, fewer and fewer students are choosing the school’s brand of exclusive education.

Rigorous and Traditional

In 1976, The New York Times described Boggs’s curriculum as rigorous and traditional and remarked on a “subdued feeling of pride, of ‘specialness’ that is almost patrician among Boggs students and alumni.” That year, enrollment was near capacity at 168 students from the 8th through the 12th grade.

But this fall, enrollment was only half that, and though the school’s administrators and students alike still speak with pride and optimism of the Boggs program, a severe shortage of funds is evidenced in locked and unused classrooms and half-empty dormitories.

Declining enrollment may reflect a feeling that the predominantly black learning environment Boggs offers is somehow obsolete, admits the Rev. Joseph Donchez, Boggs’s director of development, who is white. “Once there were 128 private black academies like ours in the country. Now Boggs is the only one left.”

A year ago, Mr. Donchez launched a four-year, $4-million fundraising effort, a marketing campaign he viewed as a last-ditch attempt to preserve the school. Now nearly a quarter of the way to his goal, he is cautiously hopeful, but he acknowledges the difficulty of raising money for education in recessionary times. The fact that Boggs caters to black students presents additional public\relations problems, he suggests, in an era of affirmative action. Boggs’s goals seem somehow out of sync.

Has the all-black school outlasted its usefulness? “No,” says Adele Q. Ervin of the National Association of Independent Schools. “Just as there is a place for the single-sex institution, there is a place for the all-black institution, even in an integrated society.”

Boggs is not strictly all-black. In addition to Mr. Donchez, several teachers are white, and in the past 10 years there have been three white students. But the emphasis, says the school’s president, the Rev. John Ellis, definitely “is on providing an alternative to public school for black children. We pay special attention to encouraging good study habits and to giving kids the kind of background they may not have gotten in public school.”

Boggs supporters maintain that black students thrive both academically and socially in “a climate of blackness,” and that coping with adolescence and college-prep work are difficult enough without the additional pressure of being a minority student.

Boggs students interviewed six years ago cited a feeling of black camaraderie as a major factor in their decision to attend the academy. “I wanted to be with my people, [to] see my brothers and sisters succeed,” the president of the 1976 student body told a New York Times reporter. But this year’s students tend to downplay race as a factor in their decision to attend Boggs.

“I went to a white boarding school last summer,” says Chris Gibbs, an 8th grader from Brooklyn. “It was all right, but I like to study French, and I found out that they offer French here, so I wanted to come.”

Chris was encouraged to enroll by his grandparents, who had heard about Boggs through their Presbyterian church. Such family connections are responsible for a good deal of the school’s “recruitment.” Boggs has never had money for a consistent marketing campaign, and many students are the relatives of alumni.

The campus’s physical isolation is both good and bad, say students. About 25 miles from Augusta and two hours from Atlanta, students are within walking distance only of Keysville, population 300. Outings to movies and parties in the school’s Olympic-sized pool are weekly diversions, but there is plenty of time left over to hit the books.

Classes are small, with a student-teacher ratio of about 10 to one, another attraction cited by Tia Dixon, a 9th grader. “My goal is to become a medical doctor. The schools in Savannah, where I’m from, were not giving me the kind of education I needed to become what I want to become. The teachers didn’t care whether you passed or not. You could sit in the classroom and not do anything. They wouldn’t force you to learn.”

Surprisingly, there is little emphasis on black studies in the Boggs curriculum. Graduation requirements are heavy on English and foreign languages, and only a one-semester course in Afro-American history is offered.

“We are training students to compete in the real world, and they really need to concentrate on subjects that will allow them to do that,” says Dean Ida Wells, who, like Mr. Donchez, is an ordained minister. “We have a pre-engineering program, for example, and we try to steer our students toward taking as much science and math as they can handle. They read black authors in literature classes, of course, but I wouldn’t like to see any more black studies disrupting the work they need to do to get into college.”

Boggs graduates tend to go on to mostly black schools like Morehouse College or Spelman College in Atlanta. “Boggs students have a strong academic background and a good sense of responsibility,” says Denese Mack, an admissions officer at Spel-man. “They’re used to living away from home already, and they usually do well here.”

Few end up at Harvard or Princeton. “We are trying to get students prepared for the more Ivy League schools, but most of them would not be able to go to those colleges anyway, if they had to pay full tuition,” says Ms. Wells.

The cost of attending Boggs is $3,500 a year, including room and board, but 80 percent of this year’s students receive financial aid from the school. Because Boggs was founded by a black Presbyterian minister (who, the story goes, held his first classes outdoors under an arbor), the school was supported by the Presbyterian Church for 67 years. But hard times forced the church to phase out its underwriting, and Boggs has been struggling to pay its own way since 1973.

Church donations still provide as much as one-fifth of the school’s $900,000 annual budget, but despite that subsidy and a work program that requires students to help with campus maintenance, many buildings are in disrepair. Weeds grow tall around the campus gravesite of the founder, John Lawrence Phelps.

Michael Purdue, a sophomore from Erie, Pa., leads a visitor down the echoing corridors of the boys’ dormitory, pausing at an open door where several students are huddled over an electronic video game, then passing a darkened common room where bare mattresses are piled high. “This is a study room, or it is when the lights are on in it, which they aren’t right now,” he says apologetically.

Discipline Praised

Michael hastens to praise the stiff academic discipline that turned him from a failing freshman in a public school into a 10th grader whose marks are now above average. “My guidance counselor in Pennsylvania told me about this place,” he said. “I just wasn’t being pushed to do anything in public school. There, you could make up any excuse about my homework, like, ‘my little sister ripped it up’ or ‘the dog chewed on it.’ Here, they don’t take that kind of excuse. And anyway, you have so much time on your hands, that you kinda hafta work.”

No art classes have been held this year because a volunteer has not been found to replace the art teacher who retired last year. But necessity has prompted some innovations in the curriculum. This year, Michael Purdue will help care for a herd of goats, the first acquisition of Boggs’s newly formed 4-H Club. “The school owns 1,200 acres of land, and we’re not really using it,” says Walter Chestnutt, a chemistry professor who leads the club. “In the next couple of years, we should be able to bring in some cattle, have a dairy operation, plant a vegetable garden to provide food for the school, and teach the kids about animal husbandry at the same time.”

Traditionally, private schools are buoyed by contributions from alumni, but this is another luxury denied Boggs. “The alumni do give to Boggs, but all the giving has been rather recent,” says Cal Thornton, the energetic former president who retired in 1976 after his fund-raising responsibility rocketed from $12,000 a year to $175,000, in the wake of the Presbyterian church’s decision to cut its support for the school.

“Many private-school alumni don’t give money until they are 45 years old or older,” he adds. “Boggs graduates who are that old are not likely to be professionals making a lot of money. Most of them would have become teachers. Other fields simply were not open to blacks 30 years ago. In the next 10 or 20 years, the younger alumni who have become doctors and lawyers will start giving, too.”

Corporate and foundation grants, which bailed Boggs out in Mr. Thornton’s day, are harder to come by now, says Mr. Donchez. “We’re focusing our efforts on individual Presbyterian churches around the country, on alumni, and on simply doing better marketing of Boggs to increase our enrollment. We don’t receive any state or federal aid, of course, and tuition tax credits--if they pass--will be so small they really won’t be that much use to the parents of our students.”

Mr. Donchez adds: “Closing the doors is always a possibility, but we’ve come through more than 75 years now, and we won’t give up easily.’'

A spirit of optimism prevails at Boggs, along with a closeness that is almost familial. As Ms. Wells walks across the carpeted inner aisle between classrooms in the main class building, a couple of girls run up to her. One throws an arm around Wells’s waist and rubs a cheek against her shoulder. Another twirls a strand of hair at the nape of Ms. Wells’s neck. “Get back to your classes, girls,” the dean says gently. “I’m sure you have work to do.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 1982 edition of Education Week as ‘A Climate of Blackness’


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