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PURSUING ‘LIBERTY:’
THE STRUGGLE FOR INTEGRATION IN MINGO COUNTY SCHOOLS

John Price

School desegregation in United States was a long and tumultuous battle, and the Brown v. Board of Education decision certainly did not end this struggle.  In the 1950s, school segregation had been the long-established status quo, and it would take a great deal of effort to change it. Orlando Patterson comments on what he calls the “paradoxes of desegregation:” though desegregation affords African Americans greater opportunities, it merges the two races together in a way that can breed ethnic conflict.1 It involved African Americans taking a step toward equality while simultaneously stepping into racism’s line of fire. As was the case with Emancipation, it was an achievement that blacks struggled for and won for themselves. As far back as 1947, Earl Conrad called any notion that “Negroes” are passive about their civil rights a “myth.”2 It took the toils of millions of everyday people, a few of whom are included in this analysis.

Knowing integration to be a prerequisite for true equality, African Americans in Mingo County fought a twelve year battle for its implementation against repeated attempts by county officials at delay and gradualism. In outlining this struggle, this analysis will paint a picture of how Mingo County’s integration played out and its impact on the blacks in the county, culminating with Liberty’s closure in 1966. In discussing these events, there is heavy emphasis on the oral history in order to gauge the effects of integration on this community. This battle for equality would ultimately result in the loss of black schools which were important parts of the community. Given the absence of examples of physical violence or other events that would “make the headlines,” it is not surprising that many describe the integration process as peaceful, but this analysis will prove the error of this perception to totally dismiss the racism and intimidation undergone by blacks in the county.  

The Road to Integration

The integration story of Mingo County’s schools is one that must be understood within the framework of integration nationwide and statewide. Before the Brown decision, there was a wide variance of public opinion in West Virginia on how people felt about school integration.3 West Virginia had elements of both the North and the South when it came to segregation policy and race relations in general. School segregation was actually mandated in the state constitution, which seemed to echo its mother state Virginia. On the other hand, one does not hear quite the same narrative of race relations as one would expect in Alabama, Mississippi, or even Virginia. This may be a result of West Virginia’s unique history dating back to its tumultuous birth in the Civil War. Joe Trotter’s Coal, Class, and Color offers another explanation, highlighting the unique development of the black and white working class in the coal mines, which has particularly strong resonance in the Mingo County area.4

When the Brown decision came down in 1954, West Virginia’s governmental response was passive. A 1954 UP article released just before the decision indicated that the greatest worry of school officials was a shortage of buildings and an over abundance of teachers.  Then-State Superintendent W. W. Trent reportedly foresaw no major problems in instituting integration, as long as it was applied gradually.5 Some citizens of the state, though, were not as complacent in their opinions. Letters written to Trent by some citizens indicate a venomously opposing view:  “I do not think a parent is a parent who will stand still and not try to do something to keep colored children out of our schools…Mr. Trent you are over our schools please in the name of our God don’t force our children to go school with the colored.”6 Another citizen wrote a letter that was less overtly racist, calling for a referendum by the people of West Virginia on whether or not its schools should be segregated and citing fears of lingering racial animosity.7 Protests and legal issues erupted in various places throughout the state, including Seth and Madison in Boone County.8 There were also highly publicized conflicts in neighboring Logan County involving a lawsuit brought on by the NAACP, challenging its highly “gradual” integration plan.9       Though it met with several roadblocks on the way, integration in West Virginia was gradually put into place in the years following Brown.  With the tepid support of Governor William C. Marland, State Superintendent Trent, and to a certain degree the state legislature, progress was slowly made. As of February 17, 1956, eighteen counties had partially integrated, fourteen had fully integrated, and the NAACP was successfully winning lawsuits against county boards of education who did not comply. The NAACP compared this progress favorably to that of other states.10

Narrowing the focus to Mingo County, leaders of the black community were staunch supporters of integration from the onset of the Brown decision. In August of 1954, the black religious group, the Tug Valley Baptist Association, passed resolutions claiming they “heartily endorse[d] the decision of the Supreme Court” and pledging their “fullest co-operation…in carrying out the letter and spirit of the Supreme Court’s decision.”11 County officials, on the other hand, were not quite so exuberant. The county board of education’s delay in instituting an integration policy caught the eye of the NAACP.  The concern was raised by then-Williamson Branch President Rev. Robert J. M. Strother in February of 1956.  In response, T. G. Nutter president of the West Virginia NAACP indicated that Mingo and Logan Counties were the only southern counties not to have adopted an integration policy, so Mingo could be a target of an NAACP lawsuit.12 In response, Mingo County passed a policy integrating its schools “voluntarily” in April 1956.13

Integration Put in Place

With this policy’s enactment, Williamson’s schools were technically “integrated,” as students could no longer be barred from attending either school based on race, yet Liberty remained open until 1966. During this interim of “voluntary integration,” students within the city of Williamson chose which school they would attend.14 Some Liberty students took advantage of this, opting to attend Williamson High School instead. Several interviewees commented that some black athletes from Liberty were particularly courted by Williamson, but other students went as well. In any case, Williamson’s schools maintained a form of de facto segregation until Liberty was finally closed in 1966.

This does not mean that there was no integration in Williamson. While the majority of black children who lived on Vinson Street continued to attend Liberty Elementary School and Liberty High School, some blacks who lived in other areas did transfer to traditionally white schools nearby. Two such students were sisters Mary Willene Hairston Moore and Sue Hairston Jones, who left Liberty Elementary and attended East Williamson Grade.  With their parents’ being civic-minded members of the NAACP, the primary reasons for their change were the search for a better opportunity and a sense of progress for their race.15 While they knew it would not be the easiest road, they believed it to be a necessary step in the climb to equality.

The story of their switch is an illuminating insight into the divide between the white and black schools in Williamson at the time. Moore and Jones point out that when they arrived at East Williamson Grade, they were far from under-prepared, which may be what one would expect of students from under-funded black schools coming into white schools. They attribute this both to exceptional teachers at Liberty and to their own study habits. Though they may have excelled as students, they still point out that their incorporation into the social fabric of the school took some time and adjustment.  “It’s tough to get over older ideas,” Moore pointed out, “it was something we all had to adjust to.”16 Some teachers and students had a more difficult time adjusting than others; however, they made friends with whom they would maintain long-term relationships through graduation and beyond. 

Another critical aspect of their story was the inequality of the schools themselves. The lunches were a particularly strong memory of Mrs. Jones, who recalled that they were served pinto beans “almost every day” at Liberty, while lunches at East Williamson were more like the lunches in schools today.  Also, like in most black schools, teachers were forced to use second-hand materials. While this is a testament to the high caliber of Liberty’s teachers, it also shows the inequality of black schools to their white counterparts. This was undoubtedly the case in most places throughout the nation, but the racism of the status quo must be acknowledged in this analysis in order to fairly chronicle the impact of these events.17

Schools outside Williamson also integrated around this time. The story of Chattaroy’s integration is an example of the relatively uneventful nature of day-to-day transitions against the backdrop of silent, psychological intimidation. The black children who lived in the small community of Chattaroy prior to integration attended a black school called Sunnyview.18 Mrs. Jada Hunter attended that school until the 8th grade, when it was closed and integrated into Chattaroy High School.  Mrs. Hunter recalls the integration experience as going mostly smoothly, as far as student relations. However, on the first day of school, a group of white people surrounded the wall that circled the school. Nothing was said to any of the black children who walked into the school that day, but Mrs. Hunter recalled that her parents told her much later that there had been a great deal of tension in the community over integration. On that first day, the principal called all students into the gym and told everyone that he expected them to be respectful toward one another and to ensure that the integration process went smoothly. She went on to recount that there were no further issues throughout the remainder of her time in school, as she told stories of the white and black students bonding over the “hand-dancing” fad that was going on at the time.19

Another story of the early integration of Mingo County schools is that of schools in the Matewan/Red Jacket area. Again, the desegregation process was mostly uneventful. John Fullen attended a small black school in Red Jacket, which existed even after the beginning of integration. “There were always good black-and-white relations, especially for that time,” Fullen said, though he did recall an incident where he experienced segregation at a restaurant in Williamson when he was there playing a ball game in junior high school. He was not allowed to eat inside a restaurant with his teammates.20 His testimony shows that while desegregation was uneventful, this does not excuse Mingo County from the injustices of the time.

Liberty High School

While the coal mining town of Williamson may have followed the trend of the nation in many respects, the founding of its black school is an interesting study.  Though the state constitution originally required schools to be segregated, Thomas E. Posey claims that it was the intention of the law to offer the same educational opportunities to both races.21 In 1923, the Williamson Independent District founded DuBois High School, as the County Unit System of Schools had not yet been instituted in West Virginia. This occurred as part of a wave of black school establishment across the state.22 According to Mr. Eugene Thorn, president of the Liberty Alumni Association, the name was changed to “Liberty High School,” as there was already a school in McDowell County denoted “DuBois High School.”23 Liberty was built on Vinson Street, becoming the centerpiece of the African American community of the town on land provided by Wallace J. Williamson, for whom the town was named.24

Until its abrupt closure in 1966, Liberty High School was in many ways the center of Williamson’s black population. Though there were pockets of African Americans dispersed throughout Mingo County primarily in coal mining camps, Vinson Street was and continues to be the most concentrated black community in the county.  Liberty both grew from and contributed to the vibrancy of this close-knit community.  Former student and teacher Juanita Towles Hooks notes the distinctive family flavor of this school, describing it as a “good school,” as “everyone knew everyone.” She noted that because of this environment, teachers’ education at school was reinforced by the parents at home. Mrs. Hooks also highlights that the teachers at the school made sure students fully understood the material, though they may have been forced to use secondhand textbooks or otherwise unconventional methods, similar to those employed by Memphis Tennessee Garrison in neighboring McDowell County.25 Fellow former student and teacher Mrs. June Glover agrees with Mrs. Hooks’ assessment of the school and its quality of education despite its disadvantages.26 

Mrs. Hooks’ experience as a student at Liberty High School is another example of the racist practices that marked the status quo before integration. Mrs. Hooks grew up in nearby Aflex, Kentucky. Though she lived across state lines, the nearest black school was Liberty, so the Pike County, Kentucky board paid her tuition to cross the state line and attend there rather than transport her to Pikeville. However, transportation was not provided, so she walked the five miles to school every day. Sometimes she would walk to school only to find there was no heat that day and be forced to turn around and walk back home.27 This experience was hardly limited to Mrs. Hooks alone. Black children from small communities all over Mingo County were required to attend Liberty, as it was the only black high school in the county, though there were other black elementary schools. The fact that no riots or racial violence erupted does not erase the injustice of the day.

Though it always had a relatively small enrollment, peaking at 50 graduating seniors in (ironically) 1954, Liberty maintained high performance both academically and in athletics. It offered, in addition to the core classes, including a gym and a shop for woodwork.28 Students won awards in Hi-Y and Dramatic Oratory.29 Mrs. Glover, who taught at Liberty through its final years, noted that one distinction between Liberty and Williamson where she was reassigned after 1966 was that Liberty maintained a school “philosophy,” which outlined its primary objectives in individual subjects. That system was implemented at Williamson after Liberty’s closure. On the athletic field, the “Yellow Jackets” were also competitive, particularly on the basketball court, with runner-up showings in the regional finals in 1931 and 1938. This success peaked at the school’s end when, in 1966, they reached the state finals in class “A,” in a very successful season.30 Graduates went on to a number of professions; however, an overwhelming number of them went on to become teachers, which was, as Mr. Thorn indicates, the career goal of many black children. Many of these teachers would return to Mingo County in search of jobs, which would set the stage for 1966’s consolidation.31

Arguably more important than any of this was the social role the school played in the Vinson Street community, which is what many interviewees indicated was what was really lost in 1966 when the school was closed.  Events such as Homecomings and weekly socials were events that brought the community together and allowed black children to feel comfortable in a way that would have been impossible in the rest of segregated Williamson.32 It was to this community setting that the likes of Mr. Thorn, Mrs. Hooks, and Mrs. Glover refer when they speak of the great loss to the community. However, all three were quick to assert that blacks accepted Liberty’s closure as a necessary step. They “took it in [their] stride.”33 This loss is an often overlooked part of the Brown decision. When black schools like this one were closed, it left a hole in communities that would never be filled. This is not to suggest that it was not a tremendous civil rights victory and a necessary step on the path to equality, but it is important to realize that integration did not happen without great sacrifice.

Liberty’s Closure

            Though it took place a full twelve years after Brown, Liberty’s 1966 closure was sudden and likely surprising. Though it was technically not a technical “integration” like other schools in the county ten years before, its 1966 closure marked the true consummation of the integration process of Mingo County. As with any element of social change particularly in these highly racially charged years, Liberty’s closure had both good and bad aspects. Though Liberty was an important piece of Williamson’s black community, it became a way for Mingo County to maintain a de facto segregation in the seat of its county government.

On August 17, 1966, the Daily News announced Liberty’s closure effective for the school term to begin in a mere matter of days.34  The article reported that the Board of Education had voted unanimously in a special meeting to take the drastic action.  Unfortunately, the records of this meeting have been lost or are unavailable.35 This makes tracking exactly what led to Liberty’s closure more difficult; however, other sources have shed more light on to how this turn of events unfolded so suddenly.

According to Jada Hunter, the story of Liberty’s closure began when she graduated from West Virginia State College (now a university) in 1961. Upon returning to Mingo County with an education degree to teach business and French, she was denied a teaching job as she was told, “these children here don’t need to learn French.”36 In the ten years since Mingo’s integration policy had been put in place, no African American teachers had been moved from the traditionally “colored schools” to the white schools. Here, again, is an example of racism that existed in the county without being overt enough to make headlines. Undoubtedly, this was an “easier” set-up in the eyes of both black and white teachers, but it was not a true “integration” as long as teachers were still segregated. By keeping traditionally black schools open though the Board could not legally bar students from either school, schools in Williamson remained largely segregated for years after the Brown decision.

This state of affairs came under challenge in 1965 after Hunter was denied a teaching position. She filed a complaint with the state’s Human Rights Commission that she and other teachers in Mingo County were being discriminated against for teaching and administrative positions. In the meantime, she took a job teaching at Piedmont High School in Mineral County (where she taught a young Henry Louis Gates, or “Skip” as she knew him).37 After the Commission won its lawsuit against the Board of Education, she was finally offered a position teaching in Mingo County, which she initially turned down for various reasons.  However, the lawsuit had broad consequences that extended beyond Hunter’s being offered a position. The court ordered the school system to close Liberty High School, which graduated a mere nine students in its final year, and to disperse black teachers to white schools all over the county.38

Like most civil rights cases involving the school system, Liberty’s closure and the true integration of Mingo County’s schools was achieved through legal action in the court system, which proved to be an ally to the Civil Rights Movement during this time period. As for Mrs. Hunter, her legal action drew ire from both the white and black communities. Anti-segregation whites opposed it for obvious reasons, and some blacks did not want to see their dear Liberty High close, as it was such an important part of their community. She recalled that her parents received a number of threatening phone calls while the litigation was going on, though they did not share this with her until later. Hunter would go on to receive many civil rights accolades for her actions, including the 2010 Governor’s Civil Rights Day Award, among many others.39

The results of this lawsuit were felt suddenly in Williamson and took even those closely affected by the decision by surprise. As late as in May 1966 near the end of the 1965-66 school year, ads were placed in the paper notifying parents in the area of their option to send their children to either Liberty or Williamson.40 It wasn’t until a special board meeting in mid-August 1966 that the board unanimously voted to consolidate Liberty and Williamson.41 Not only did this mean upheaval for the students of Liberty, it meant the reassignment of all of Liberty’s teachers throughout the county, just as the courts had ordered. Mrs. Hooks recalls finding out that she had been assigned to an all-white school in Kermit, West Virginia, from the same newspaper article that announced the closing of the school. When she found out she was assigned to Kermit, she was initially frightened about going to teach there. Nonetheless, after much reflection, she decided to take the job. “The Lord led me to go on down to Kermit, and I really couldn’t have been treated any better,” she said.42 Mrs. Hooks would go on to teach at Kermit for many years until its consolidation in 1987, and then taught at the consolidated Tug Valley High School until her retirement in 2000.43  

Despite the injustices of county officials, assimilation of Liberty’s students into Williamson High School occurred without many problems.  This is likely in part due to the fact that some black students were already attending Williamson. White and black students who were attending Williamson at the time remember the transition being peaceful and largely uneventful.44 Interestingly, Willene Moore and Sue Jones, who were attending Williamson prior to Liberty’s closure, largely agreed with this assessment, as did June Glover, who was transferred to Williamson as a teacher during that first year.45 “Kids are kids,” Glover said, “I don’t see the color of my kids.”46  While one may expect the white perspective and black perspective to differ on a matter such as this everyone interviewed basically had similar assessments of student relations.

Even though Liberty’s students assimilated into Williamson without violence, the school’s closure was a loss to the black community. The fear lingered that the loss of Liberty would mean a great social loss to students, as well as members of the Vinson Street community at large. According to Mrs. Hooks, this fear was certainly realized. For instance, proms at Williamson High School were typically held at places in town where blacks were not allowed.47 Whether or not this was intentional, it does show an element of latent racism that existed in Williamson much like what existed in towns like it all over the region and the nation. Few would argue that integration was a necessary step for civil rights, but the loss of these community centerpieces needs to be acknowledged.

Conclusion

This analysis revealed a clear pattern. It is undeniable that there was racism and injustice in the Mingo County school system, and in both cases discussed, the Board’s reluctance drew a threat of a lawsuit and later an actual lawsuit to complete its Brown mandate. On the front of student relations, the process went relatively well, as students and teachers of both races attested. As a senior writer for the Williamson Daily News asserts, “there never was any local racial violence associated with integration in this community.”48  On the other hand, it is important to note the gravity of what took place. Not only was the county board notably resistant to integration, requiring members of the black community to file lawsuits to enforce Brown, they also underwent injustices that certainly affected them on some level, ranging from the lunches at Liberty Elementary to the silent protest mob at Chattaroy to the simple fact that a sizable number of the population did not want them in “white schools,” as evidenced by the letters to the state superintendent. Comparing the relative “uneventful” nature of these integration stories to others around the state or around the nation and calling it “smooth” on those grounds is an easy trap to fall into in an analysis such as this. In terms of student relations, the transition was mostly peaceful, but this is overshadowed by the racial attitudes of county officials.   

In terms of its impact on the education system, integration throughout the United States including Mingo County, was merely the first step in the betterment of education for blacks.49 During this period, though there were many examples of racial tension in America, the situation improved somewhat. This was not just the case in Mingo County; the slow process of racial reconciliation took forms all over America. In a study of white attitudes in fifteen cities across America from the year 1964 and 1970, Angus Campbell concluded that we still had a long way to go in 1970 in terms of white acceptance of black equality.50 This remains the case even today. In Mingo County, as well as the nation at large, true integration is a process that is still ongoing. “Churches are still segregated,” pointed out long-time educator Frances Hickman Perry.51 There is still much progress to be made. In Harlon L. Dalton’s Racial Healing, he describes his vision of a “Promised Land” based on the biracial Salt and Pepper Choir, where no one’s cultural identity was lost; they were truly integrated in a way in which differences accented each other.52 That is a lesson blacks and whites continue to learn, in Williamson and all over the nation.

1 Orlando Patterson, The Ordeal of Integration Progress and Resentment in America's "Racial" Crisis, (Washington, D.C.: Civitas/Counterpoint, 1998), 51.

2Earl Conrad, Jim Crow America, (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947), 199.

3 Dan Donahue, “State’s Reactions are Mixed On School Segregation Case,” The Charleston Gazette, December 21, 1952.

4 Joe William Trotter, Coal, Class, and Color: Blacks in Southern West Virginia, 1915-32, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990).

5 “Officials of State Will Seek Gradual Integration: Officials Fear Reaction in W.Va. as Supreme Court Lowers Segregation Bars,” Williamson Daily News, May 17, 1954, Williamson Public Library.

6 Letter to W. W. Trent, Sept. 1, 1955, West Virginia Archives and History.

7 Letter to W. W. Trent, Sept. 11, 1954, West Virginia Archives and History.

8 “Protests Staged in West Virginia,” The Times-Picayune, September 21, 1954, Course Online Collection.

9 “NAACP Suit Asks Logan Integration,” The Charleston Gazette, March 11, 1956, Online Course Collection.

10 Willard L. Brown, “Report to Southern Conference of NAACP on the State of West Virginia in Connection With Integration of the Schools,” February 17, 1956, Course Online Collection.

11 Tug Valley Baptist Association Correspondence signed by Rev. J. W. Stoudenmire and Drue E. Culumns, August 25, 1954, West Virginia Archives and History.

12 Letter from T.G. Nutter to Rev. Strother, Feburary 8, 1956, Course Online Collection.

13 Letter from T.G. Nutter to Dr. Gloster B. Current. April 1956, Course Online Collection; The Mingo County Board of Education was contacted in an attempt to look at meeting minutes from this period, but they reported that the records had been lost as the board moved to a different location.

14 “Plan of Desegregation for Mingo County Schools,” Williamson Daily News, May 10, 1966, Williamson Public Library.

15 Sue H. Jones and Willene Moore, (former students at Liberty Elem., East Williamson Grade, and Williamson High), Interview with the author, March 2010.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 “Biography of Jada C. Hunter,” Program Insert from NAACP/Southern WV Community and Technical College Reception Honoring Jada C. Hunter for Outstanding Community Service, Collection of Jada C. Hunter.

19 Jada C. Hunter (former student, former teacher, current principal in Mingo County), Interview with the author, March 2011.

20 John Fullen (former student), Interview with the author, March 2011.

21 Thomas E. Posey, "Chapter VII: The Education of the Negro in West Virginia," in The Negro citizen of West Virginia , (Institute, W. Va.: Press of West Virginia State College, 1934), 98.

22 “Liberty High School,” LHS 2005 Reunion Program, Collection of Eugene Thorn.

23 Eugene Thorn (former student at Liberty), Interview with the author, January 2011.

24 Liberty High School Reunion Program.

25 Juanita Towles Hooks (former student and teacher at Liberty), Interview with the author, March 2011.; Memphis Tennessee Garrison, et. al., Memphis Tennessee Garrison: The Remarkable Story of a Black Appalachian Woman. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001).

26 June Glover (former teacher at Liberty and Williamson), Interview with the author, March 2011.

27 Hooks Interview.

28 Hooks Interview.

29 L.H.S. Reunion Program.

30 Sammy Hindman, “7 Cagers Averaging more than 20 Points,”Williamson Daily News,January 1966, Williamson Public Library; “Hambrick and Woods Shine; Win is 8th,”  Williamson Daily News, January 1966, Williamson Public Library; L.H.S. Reunion Program.

31 Thorn Interview.

32 L.H.S. Reunion Program.; Thorn Interview; Hooks Interview; Glover Interview.

33 Hooks Interview.

34 “Libery High School Consolidated with Williamson: Upper Four Grades are Transferred,” Williamson Daily News, August 17, 1966, Williamson Public Library.

35 Again, the Board of Education was contacted, but the records were lost.

36 Hunter biography.; Hunter Interview.

37 Hunter Interview.

38 Hunter biography.

39 Bulletin from Program and Reception Honoring Jada Hunter in Recognition of Outstanding Community Service Sponsored by Williamson Branch NAACP & Southern WV Community and  Technical College, September 19, 2010, Collection of Jada Hunter.; Michael Browning, “Burch Principal to be Honored for Civil Rights Work,” Williamson Daily News, February 24, 2010, Collection of Jada Hunter.

40 “Plan of Desegregation for Mingo County Schools,” Williamson Daily News, May 10, 1966, Williamson Public Library.

41 “Liberty Consolidated With Williamson: Upper Four Grades Are Transferred,” Williamson Daily News, August 7, 1966, Williamson Public Library.

42 Hooks Interview.

43 “Coach Hooks Honored,” Williamson Daily News, February 19, 2011, Williamson Public Library Collection

44 Due to the sensitive nature of the material, the names of some interviewees will remain anonymous.

45Jones and Moore Interviews.

46Glover Interview.

47 Hooks Interview.

48 Charlotte Sanders, “In Black and White,” Williamson Daily News, January 20, 2009.

49 Lawrence A. Fink, “Teachers,” In Black and White Perspectives on American Race Relations, Eds. Peter I. Rose, Stanley Rothman, and William J. Wilson, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 291.

50 Campbell, Angus, White Attitudes Toward Black People, (Ann Arbor: Litho Crafters, 1971) 162.

51 Frances Perry, Interview with the author,  April 2011.

52 Harlon L. Dalton, Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites, (New York: Anchor books, 1995), 233.

 

 
 

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