The film opens with Henry Michaux, Class of ’48, reciting “The Palmer Creed”: “I have to live with myself and so/ I want to be fit for myself to know/ I want to be able as days go by/ Always to look myself in the eye/ I don’t want to stand with the setting sun/ And hate myself for the things I’ve done.”
Graying, mustachioed and solemn, the retired 15-term NC House member from Durham and first black US attorney in the South since Reconstruction, recites it effortlessly.
Michaux, now 88, is seated near the front of Kimball Hall — previously the dining hall — on the campus of Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia for the premiere of The Correct Thing: Palmer Memorial Institute on Aug.17, looking much the same: solemn, intently focused, missing nothing.
The title of the film comes from a book written by the school’s founder, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, who provided a roadmap for three generations African-American teenagers through the middle of the 20th Century. The meaning of the title on the little manual for black excellence and success is succinct and unmistakable: The Correct Thing: To Do — To Say — To Wear.
As the top African-American college-prep boarding school in the United States, Palmer Memorial played an indispensable role in a racist and segregated society: equipping the upper echelon of black society with the knowledge, etiquette and confidence to take their place in a world that would subject them to intense scrutiny and magnify any flaw.
The distinguished African-American prep school in rural Guilford County enhanced the prestige of black Greensboro, but it was also a world apart. It drew black students from across the United States and even from other countries, although some, like Michaux and Kay Brandon — a retired healthcare worker and northeast Greensboro community leader, came from North Carolina. Several of the alumni in the great hall for the premiere attest that they rarely left campus.
One of the rare exceptions, according to the alumni — onscreen and in person — was chaperoned trips to Greensboro to go shopping and attend the movies. But even the movie outings involved special screenings to protect the students from the indignity of segregated facilities and second-class seating.
As one of the alumni in the film recounts, the Palmer students were not completely insulated from the world-shifting history unfolding in Greensboro. Witnessing a civil rights march in downtown Greensboro from their bus in the early 1960s, many of the high school students naturally wanted to join the demonstration. But as the alum recounts, their chaperone told them: “There’s a time and place for everything, and this is not the time and place.”
During the question-and-answer session, an African-American woman who says she attended public schools in Greensboro in the 1960s, asks the director about the class background of the Palmer students. She says her parents were sharecroppers, noting that the “not the time and place” comment in the film struck a nerve. Implicit in her question, which goes unanswered, is why the struggle against segregation wasn’t also the struggle of the Palmer students. (To give credit where it’s due, The Correct Thing does note that at least one alum cited her experience being treated as a full person at Palmer with her decision to get involved in the sit-in movement during her college years because she couldn’t adjust to being treated as a second-class.)
The woman in the next seat asks about colorism — whether the lighter skinned students were treated differently than their darker skinned peers.
“No,” says director Eric Winston. “There was none of that.”
Winston, a Palmer alum himself and retired vice president for institutional advancement at Columbia College Chicago, says he wanted to make a different kind of documentary. Not an investigative exercise that shines a light on an unsavory target, but a film that celebrates its subject. Though respectful, the predominantly African-American audience shows signs of looking for cracks in the façade as the question-and-answer session progresses. One woman asks why the film contains so little information about the faculty.
Winston responds that no documentary can tell the entire story.
A man who has been taking photographs during the event rises and declaims that there’s a fantastic story about Palmer Memorial Institute that remains untold, referencing founder Charlotte Hawkins Brown’s friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, naming a teacher who established a phenomenal arts program at Palmer, and highlighting a visit by poet Langston Hughes to the school.
Jamie Jones, the site manager of the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum, interrupts before Winston can respond. All that information is included in the free tours of the museum, which is owned and operated by the NC Division of State Historic Sites and Properties, she says.
The Palmer Memorial Institute produced generations of excellence up to its final decade, and then it abruptly closed. A devastating fire in 1971 exposed the school’s precarious financial state. The blow came just at the moment when federal court orders were forcing public schools to meaningfully integrate, reducing the demand to fund an all-black prep school. Palmer Memorial Institute’s fate was sealed.
Winston’s film is primarily about the alumni and the founder. Charlotte Hawkins Brown was born in Henderson, NC in 1883 and moved with her family to Cambridge, Mass. Alice Freeman Palmer, the president of Wellesley College, spotted Brown pushing a baby stroller in her role as a nanny for a prominent Cambridge family while holding a copy of Virgil in the other hand, and Palmer decided on the spot to fund Brown’s education. Later, in 1901, Brown returned to her native North Carolina to teach at a mission school in McLeansville. The school closed, but the following year Palmer reorganized it and reopened it, drawing on her New England educational experience and raising funds from contacts in Massachusetts. Brown, who was just 19 years old at the time, named the school after her original benefactor, Alice Freeman Palmer. It’s a magnificent story.