Former Claremont Superintendent Reflects On Racial Tensions: 'I Was Absolutely Unaware'

Aug 29, 2018

It's been a year since an incident in Claremont involving the near-hanging of a young, biracial boy made national news. This week, NHPR is looking at how that event impacted local residents, including the then-superintedent of schools, Middleton McGoodwin. As he tells it, the incident forced him to reflect uncomfortably on his own history with race.

Editor's Note: We highly recommend listening to this story. 

McGoodwin grew up in a wealthy, white family on the coast of Massachusetts. He remembers his childhood fondly - rowing out to sea with his buddies to catch lobsters, and swimming away the afternoons. It was carefree, but isolated.

His only exposure to people of color was on school field trips into Boston, when his class would drive through the city’s black neighborhoods. “I remember we were sort of in awe,” he said, “looking at the number of black people.”

This was the late 1950s, early 1960s, and though McGoodwin may have been insulated from racial tensions behind school bus windows, those tensions were becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

In the spring of 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, McGoodwin was a student at Boston University.

“The next day, students of color would march from class to class as a group,” he said, “like a football team marching into the stadium. And they wanted no interaction with any people who were not black.”

McGoodwin read anger on the students’ faces, but he didn’t understand why, he said. He didn’t understand why their anger seemed to be directed at him, at whites across the board. After all, he thought, it was just one man who had pulled the trigger.

A couple years went by, and McGoodwin became a teacher. He got his first job in a town outside of Boston, just as court-ordered busing began in the city. Protest and violence broke out, but this, too, McGoodwin watched from a distance.

“I only knew what was going on in Boston by what would be on television,” he said.

White families were starting to move into McGoodwin’s district to avoid integration.  He knew this, he said. He watched it happen, taught their kids. But he still didn’t feel that racial conflict had anything to do with him, and it definitely wasn’t talked about in his school.

“Absolutely no awareness about it, and no discussion about it,” he said. “We knew that there were certain words that were wrong, but there was no discussion about race.”

He eventually became a principal. Decades went by, and he continued to move up in his career. Then, in 2011, he became superintendent of schools in Claremont, New Hampshire.

It was late August of last year, McGoodwin’s sixth year on the job, when he first heard that a young biracial boy in town had been attacked by teenagers, hanged by a rope.

“I was confused,” he said. “Children can be mean to other children. Sometimes, just joking can lead into injury. But I initially started thinking, it’s just bullying. It’s just being mean to someone else.”

He was surprised, for that reason, by all the media coverage. And he initially had no idea how to address the issue, how to move forward.

But he started hearing from colleagues, including high school social studies teacher Nancy Lewis, who is also white. They decided to meet, to discuss a plan.

“I said, in many ways, I think the best thing we can do is acknowledge that we don’t know what we’re doing,” she said. “And he agreed entirely.”

For McGoodwin, a man who’d spent nearly 50 years working in education, this was the first time he was being asked to think critically about how race was affecting his students and their families.

He started reading articles on the history of race in America, joined a community "racial healing" group, and he and Lewis gathered about 10 school colleagues for a reading and discussion series.

“I was absolutely isolated. I was absolutely unaware,” he said. “And when you’re unaware and uninformed, and have no contact, you base your decisions or judgements on a very, very small window of knowledge.”

He started to reflect on the anger he saw on the black students’ facies in 1968, started to understand that it was rooted in far more than the singular killing of one black man. And he started to appreciate the symbolism of a group of white children hanging a black child by a rope.

McGoodwin now sees educating young people about race as critical, especially in predominantly white areas.

“Part of the responsibility in public education is to prepare our students not only to be able to read and write, but also to be able to help our culture and society grow and be a better place,” he said.

The experiences kids have in school, as they’re growing up, are powerful. If districts don’t take this seriously, he said, they’ll end up graduating more students who live their lives unaware, like him.

But while McGoodwin and a small group of colleagues were able to start educating themselves, they didn’t get much farther than that. The school administration didn’t plan formal trainings to reach the full staff, and no changes were made to curriculum. These are steps other districts have taken after similar events.

And now, McGoodwin’s chance to shape school policy is over. He was ousted as superintendent several months ago after a bitter budget fight. The local school board chair said the district is committed to addressing issues of race moving forward. But, according to the new interim superintendent, there are no concrete plans on the books.