DOTHAN, Ala. >> On a humid summer day in 1972, Hillary Rodham walked into this town’s new private academy, a couple of cinder-block classrooms erected hurriedly amid fields of farmland, and pretended to be someone else.
Playing down her flat Chicago accent, she told the school’s guidance counselor that her husband had just taken a job in Dothan, that they were a churchgoing family and that they were looking for a school for their son.
The future Clinton, then a 24-year-old law student, was working for Marian Wright Edelman, the civil rights activist and prominent advocate for children. Edelman had sent her to Alabama to help prove that the Nixon administration was not enforcing the legal ban on granting tax-exempt status to so-called segregation academies, the estimated 200 private academies that sprang up in the South to cater to white families after a 1969 Supreme Court decision forced public schools to integrate.
Her mission was simple: Establish whether the Dothan school was discriminating based on race.
“It was dangerous, being outsiders in these rural areas, talking about segregation academies,” said Cynthia G. Brown, a longtime education advocate who did work similar to Clinton’s.
She added, “We thought we were part of the civil rights struggle, definitely.”
As issues of race and civil rights have dominated Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and as Black Lives Matter activists have demanded more from her, she has frequently talked about her work for Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund, making her advocacy for children the backbone of the biographical story she tells voters. But her experience going undercover in Dothan is a little-known aspect of that work, one she devoted just under 300 words to in her 562-page memoir, “Living History.”
A look at Clinton’s efforts that summer, through archives and interviews with more than 50 local officials, civil rights activists and people who knew her, reveals a summer job that was both out of character for the bookish law student and a moment of awakening.
Until her trip to Alabama, she had been relatively sheltered, her activism mostly confined to Ivy League debates and campus turmoil. Like many white activists from the North who traveled south to help on civil rights issues, Clinton confronted a different world in Dothan, separate and unequal, and a sting of injustice she had previously only read about.
“I went through my role-playing, asking questions about the curriculum and makeup of the student body,” Clinton wrote in “Living History.” “I was assured that no black students would be enrolled.”
In 1972, Edelman’s Washington Research Project, which later became the Children’s Defense Fund, and other groups published a seminal report, “It’s Not Over in the South: School Desegregation in 43 Southern Cities 18 Years After Brown.” That year, an estimated 535,000 students attended private schools in the South, compared with 25,000 in 1966.
Clinton was one of a handful of young researchers and interns who worked in Washington reviewing documents, looking into the schools that had been granted tax exemptions, and coordinating with activists and lawyers in the South who had been at the forefront of integration efforts.
After Clinton spent several weeks studying the issue and establishing relationships in Atlanta and Alabama, she and other researchers were sent to different parts of the South to gather data and report firsthand on the private schools. They delivered their findings to Edelman’s and other advocacy groups that were trying to pressure the Nixon administration.
Clinton declined requests for an interview about her efforts to investigate segregation academies. But historical documents, descriptions of her work from friends and from others engaged in the issue, and Clinton’s writings and public comments suggest that her trip to Dothan took her far out of her comfort zone.
In Dothan, Clinton most likely stayed at the Holiday Inn on Ross Clark Circle, since locally owned hotels might have been suspicious of a single woman with black acquaintances, several people who did the same work said. While Clinton favored corduroy bell-bottoms for casual wear, the dress code for the investigative work called for conservative blouses and skirts, her colleagues said.
She drove over the railroad tracks near downtown, east of Park Avenue, to the black part of town. There, she met local contacts who told her over a lunch of sweetened ice tea and burgers “that many of the school districts in the area were draining local public schools of books and equipment to send to the so-called academies, which they viewed as the alternatives for white students,” she wrote in “Living History.”
With a nuclear plant under construction on the nearby Chattahoochee River, along with the Army base at Fort Rucker, outsiders were moving to Dothan, a city of 37,000 then, named after Genesis 37:17: “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’”
The local real estate agents, the bankers, the Baptist pastors and even the elected officials encouraged new families — if they were white and Christian — to consider Houston Academy, the new private academy just outside town that was able to operate because the IRS granted the school tax-exempt status, according to several former students.
Clinton does not name the school in her book, but according to public records and tax filings, Houston Academy was the only private school founded in Dothan at the time that had requested and received a tax exemption. People who worked on the issue in Alabama then said the school would have been Houston Academy.
The summer Clinton was in Dothan, the pages of the local paper, The Dothan Eagle, erupted with editorials and angry letters from readers concerned about the effects of school integration. “The arbitrary, compulsory integration of black and white children in the classrooms in massive numbers simply does not work,” read an editorial titled “School Integration Becomes Intolerable.”
In order to receive a tax exemption, Houston Academy was required to place an ad in The Eagle publicizing its “open enrollment” policy. School officials told The Birmingham News in 1970, “No black students have been accepted because no black students applied.”
Bob Moore, the original headmaster at Houston Academy, described the school in a recent interview as “just three slabs of concrete and a couple side walls” when Clinton visited.
Moore and his wife, Dollie, who edited the school’s yearbook, The Cavalier, still live in their ranch-style home near Houston Academy, now an elite college preparatory school. “I’m not saying it didn’t happen,” Moore said of Clinton’s account. “But I am saying I know nothing about it.”
Marty Olliff, an associate professor of history and director of the Wiregrass Archives at Troy University’s Dothan campus, said he did not doubt Clinton’s story but suggested that the exchange at the school would have been less direct than what she has described in her book and on the campaign trail.
What would have kept black people out “would have been the tuition,” Olliff said. “Not ‘you’re black, you can’t come in.’ “
D. Taylor Flowers, the chairman of the board of Houston Academy, whose father was a founding board member, was in the ninth grade at the school (which locals call “HA,” jokingly saying it stands for “holy Anglo”) when Clinton visited. “I’ve heard the story, and I don’t think Hillary Clinton made it up,” he said over lunch in Dothan.
The school was founded to prepare students for college, not as a segregation academy, Flowers said. But, he added, “I would be disingenuous if I said integration didn’t have anything to do with” parents’ enrolling their children in Houston Academy. “Integration was a huge social change for us.”