In-Depth

Houston Private School Alumni Demand Anti-Racist Policies And Curriculum

As the nation faces a reckoning on racism, alumni at some elite Houston-area private schools are bringing attention to their alma maters’ segregationist beginnings. They also say the culture and curriculum need significant changes.

When Donato Clay was in 11th grade at St. Thomas Episcopal school, he learned from a friend that the school’s founder had published segregationist writings in the 1950s and 60s.

But he said he never learned about those writings while in class.

"Was there malintent behind it? Probably not," Clay said. "But it definitely set the tone for what was acceptable, and what was welcomed, and what was encouraged."

Clay went to St. Thomas Episcopal from 1990 until 2003. Now, he's a healthcare executive and serves as a reservist attorney for the Army National Guard. He said for 12 out of his 13 years at St. Thomas Episcopal, he was the only Black male in his class.

In recent weeks, alumni like Clay have been publicly sharing what they've learned about St. Thomas Episcopal’s history, and what they experienced at school — things like the segregationist writings of the school's founder, the band playing "Dixie" even into the early 2000s, and photos in the 2014 yearbook that show two students in blackface for a theater production.

Clay is also among alumni from private schools around Houston sending open letters demanding schools make amends for the past, and enact anti-racist policies and curriculum moving forward.

The open letter to St. Thomas Episcopal administrators that Clay drafted is patterned after a similar one from alumni of another prestigious private Houston K-12 school: St. John's.

"The reality is that from the very beginning of this American project, Black people have been fighting for equality and the recognition of our humanity," reads the letter from Black St. John's School alumni. "We acknowledge the consistent racism–both covert and overt–that Black students at St. John's experience from members of the St. John's community and that has continued to define our experience from generation to generation."

More than 100 Black alumni have signed the St. John's letter, and another few hundred non-Black former students have signed onto a second letter of support.

View the full letter: https://sjsalums.org/

The alumni letters came after a statement from St. John's School regarding the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

"In these turbulent and unsettling times, we as a leadership team and faculty stand resolute in our commitment to uphold the values and principles embedded in both the SJS Mission and SJS Statement on Community and Inclusion," reads the note from St. John’s School headmaster Mark Desjardins. "We will continue our important work of building a learning community that seeks to raise important questions and address difficult and uncomfortable topics in a truly safe, supportive, and inclusive environment."

Both the letters from St. John's and St. Thomas Episcopal alumni demand "a deeper investigation into the blind spots that have gone unchecked for decades."

More than 100 alumni have signed the St. Thomas Episcopal letter, some from as far back as the class of ‘76. And over the last week, more and more former students have posted on social media to tell their stories about racism, and also what they felt was sexism and homophobia.

Many southern private schools were created — at least in part — to avoid desegregation in the 1950s, according to Raymond Pierce, president of the Southern Education Foundation, a non-profit advocacy group for equitable education policies.

"You can’t run from that history," said Pierce. "Don’t even try to run from that history. Don’t even try to deny that history. It is what is. It happened."

He said schools like St. Thomas Episcopal and St. John's need to listen to their alumni and current students.

On June 7, St. Thomas Episcopal issued a statement condemning racism and rejecting the segregationist writings from the founder. Another statement came a few days later acknowledging the stories of discrimination shared by many alumni.

We have heard from many alumni regarding the history of STE and the writings of our founding rector. We acknowledge our need to address this part of our history and commit to make much needed changes.

Posted by Saint Thomas' Episcopal School on Sunday, June 7, 2020

"Growth sometimes can be very painful," said Reverend David Browder, Rector and president of the St. Thomas Episcopal school board. "You need to have the courage to experience the pain in order to have growth, and that’s what I’m committed to. That’s what we’re committed to."

Browder said the school will have an independent review looking into its culture, and that administrators are working through the open letter and meeting with alumni.

Auden Chang Houseworth attended St. Thomas Episcopal from 1st through 12th grade and graduated in 2018. She'll start nursing school in the fall.

She said she had some amazing teachers, but some were insensitive.

"I know that those good people [at St. Thomas Episcopal] are so good that they’re more than capable of making such a positive impact on kids," Houseworth said. "But I also know just how damaging some of the not good faculty can be."

Houseworth said sometimes it was small things.

She's half Chinese and, "the faculty used certain terminology like Oriental with me," Houseworth said. "While it’s not necessarily a racial slur like the n-word or anything, I would try to let them know I’m not comfortable with that, that's a little bit outdated."

On social media, some former students have come to St. Thomas Episcopal's defense, saying they did not experience or witness racism or discrimination. Others say keep the past in the past.

"This is systematic and it’s not something that happened in history," said Catherine Lee Clarke.

She graduated from St. Thomas Episcopal in 2004, and has signed the open letter to administrators. Clarke said she doesn't recall ever having a non-white teacher during her 13 years at the school.

She said the school's history, such as the segregationist writings from the school founder, has impacted the current culture.

"It’s very much still who we are today," Clarke said, "and it’s going to be active daily work to make it more inclusive for students in the future."

The school and alumni are working together on at least one change moving forward: the band uniforms. St. Thomas Episcopal school is home to a Scottish Arts program with a pipe band and Highland dancers.

Donato Clay was a member of the band while he was a student. He said during his time at St. Thomas Episcopal, he heard a rumor that the colors of the plaid tartan used to make the kilts were chosen to reflect the colors of the Confederacy.

When Clay heard the school was open to changing the uniforms, but that funding might be an issue, he started a fundraiser. In less than a week, it's raised more than $13,000.

But Clay – along with Catherine Lee Clarke and Auden Chang Houseworth – said the school has to do more than just change colors on the kilt.

They, along with others who have signed the open letter, said creating a more inclusive school culture that rejects racism will take rigorous and continual work on the part of every teacher, faculty member and administrator.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated what percentage of St. Thomas Episcopal school’s student body are students of color. Students of color make up 51% of the student body, according to a school official.

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Kyra Buckley

Kyra Buckley

Energy Reporter

Kyra Buckley is an Energy Reporter with Houston Public Media. Before joining the News 88.7 team she was the Morning Edition Host and a reporter at KUNC in Northern Colorado. She started in public radio in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon where she hosted Weekend Edition and reported for KLCC....

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