Nearly every high school can point toward a famous alumnus. But only one can say they taught one of the most prominent – and controversial – civil rights leaders of the 20th century.
It was 75 years ago when Malcolm X (known as Malcolm Little at the time) was expelled from Mason High School, where he spent his time from 1939 to 1941. Little was involved in sports, student government and was spoken highly of by classmates.
However, Little was in a tough situation, as he was living in the Ingham County Juvenile Home and dealing with degrading comments from his foster parents (his father had died and his mother was institutionalized at Kalamazoo State Hospital). Later, a conversation took place between Little and one of his teachers who used racial slurs when crushing the dreams of him wanting to become a lawyer – or so one might think.
Ryan McCullen teaches ninth-grade U.S. history at Mason High School, where he also learned about Malcolm X as a student. When he was in eighth grade, coincidentally the same grade Little was expelled, McCullen brought up the confrontation with his teacher.
The teacher was adamant that Malcolm X fabricated the account in his autobiography, saying his former colleague would never have acted that way.
“To me as a kid, I remember thinking, ‘I’m never going to get any clarity on that one,’” McCullen said.
As a teacher now, McCullen covers both sides when discussing the topic with his class: what Malcolm X says in his autobiography, and what community members say about the former teacher. Looking at the historical context, it may not have been too unlikely.
“I can imagine a White teacher in an all-White district saying something that they don’t even perceive to be racist,” McCullen added. “But then saying it to this kid, seemingly, derailed him.”
Today, Malcolm X lives on at Mason High School through its curriculum. In an email, principal Lance Delbridge wrote: “I think our students are surprised that Malcolm X went to school in Mason, but I do not hear much conversation among students about Malcolm X.”
McCullen echoed this sentiment, saying that students “perk up” when he first mentions Malcolm X as one of the school’s alumni. Part of the reason he includes a lesson on Malcolm X is to make sure all students are aware of the school’s history, particularly after reading about a Mason High graduate who learned about the alumnus only after going to college. The student, Raquel Lis, called for a mural to be placed in the school in a letter to the principal.
Shortly after finishing Mason High in 2001, Lis was taking an African-American literature course at Western Michigan University when she found out about Malcolm X’s history with her high school. It was her first time hearing the fact and left her embarrassed in front of classmates.
“He was such a big part of history,” Lis said, now the principal of Leman Academy of Excellence in Arizona. ”He changed the course of the world, and I didn’t know he went to my high school.”
Lis is unable to recall any memories of learning about Malcolm X as a student of Mason High (She admits, “Maybe I just missed out on that lesson.”) and wanted to make sure future students don’t feel the same way.
“I had a top-notch education,” Lis stressed. “I just think diversity wasn’t as celebrated.”
After writing the letter to principal Delbridge, she was happy to hear his response in supporting the mural. Lis was impressed with the “progressive move” he approved.
In 2003, the mural was painted and then dedicated to a retiring teacher. Jennifer Harrington, an art teacher at the school, was commissioned to create the mural over a week and a half.
“His time here was so short and fragmented,” Harrington said. “And I believe the piece represents that.” She added that the teacher to whom the mural was dedicated was one who had promoted the understanding of Malcolm X’s time at the school.
Lis had the chance to visit the mural when her niece graduated from the school. Lis was filled with emotion, as it was her first time seeing it in-person.
“I felt like we were paying tribute that needed to be acknowledged,” Lis said. “Mason has come a long way in acknowledging that.”
Beyond the mural and classwork, Malcolm X hasn’t received further recognition at his alma mater. Class yearbooks from his period as a student are missing from collections, which McCullen said is due to paper rations taking place during World War II. The Mason Area Historical Society has what may be the only surviving photo of Malcolm X during that time: him in the back row of the school’s football team picture.
Going forward, McCullen would like to reconsider what can be done by asking, “How could we make this a more meaningful inclusion in our curriculum?” The discussion would be led by himself and other history teachers at Mason High School.
“It’s almost like a trivia fact,” McCullen said. “There’s not a lot of digging into what his life was like while he was here.”