I recently made a trip to Malvern, Arkansas (pop. 10, 318), as part of a public history project on which I have been working for the last three years. I grew up in the New York metropolitan area and–despite regular visits to see family in Laurel, Delaware (pop. 3, 708) and Darlington, South Carolina (pop. 6, 289)–I have developed some not-so-fair assumptions about small-town Black, southern communities. During my weekend in Malvern, the graduates of that city’s segregated high schools (the district integrated in 1968) were having their triennial all-class reunion. These reunions draw graduates from the local area as well as from all across the country, and everything I saw about the local area graduates and their children and grandchildren upended every stereotype I’d previous held about small-town Black folks. The young people were sophisticated and stylish, but also very welcoming and kind to those of us who were visiting from outside. In addition, the adults in attendance–the aging men and women who graduated from high school when the “colored” schools were quite separate from the white schools in the city–were enthusiastic ambassadors for their community. While many might believe that Black people remain in small towns only when they have no other opportunities, the segregation-era graduates who have remained in Malvern have done so by choice.
The young man in this drawing, a grandson of a 1950s-era graduate of the city’s “colored” high school, impressed me with his thoughtful analysis of what made Malvern great. Here’s what he said:
This is where your roots are deep–deep in terms of family, in terms of friendships, in terms of your church family. There are families who are living a house where their great-grandparents once had their first house, going to the same church the great-grandparents went to, and making friends with the sons and daughters of the people who were their grandparents’ and parents’ friends. You move away, you lose all of that. And that’s who you are. Why would anyone want to lose whose they are?
PS: The shadow in this drawing contains a partial map of the city of Malvern.