My family grew up in a small house on Park Circle in Buckhead, near the corner of Peachtree and Piedmont. I walked to R.L. Hope school, which is long since destroyed. My dad had a dry-cleaning plant on Lindbergh; it later became Carriage Cleaners, and there are still some Carriage Cleaners along Roswell Road and Piedmont.
Branch in 1967, age twenty; photograph courtesy of Taylor Branch
Going into Westminster was a turning point. [The school] did not give athletic scholarships. But a number of its scholarships tended to go to people who played sports. I played in the Buckhead Little League. We were in some big, fancy playoff one year, and Emmett Wright, who was a history teacher at Westminster, came up to my parents after the game, and wanted to know about my grades and would we be interested in going [there].
I couldn’t afford to go to Westminster, but Mom knew it was a really good school. My dad, who had grown up in Quitman, Georgia, was a very, very over-educated dry cleaner, with a law degree and a master’s degree in business from the University of Chicago. But he was still a dry cleaner from Quitman, and he thought Westminster was stuck up. As he put it, it was from the “finger bowl” section of Atlanta—it would destroy my character. So they had quite a tussle over whether they wanted to risk me and my homespun morals out there at Westminster. And my mom won.
I started there in the fall of 1959, in the eighth grade. [It] was a totally new environment for me. A lot of wealthy Atlanta kids, but an extremely rigorous academic program. I learned an awful lot. And even some of the rich kids who were bratty were very, very smart and had an advanced sense of humor.
Most of the civic leaders of Atlanta were parents of Westminster kids, or at least a lot of prominent ones were. And my upbringing and formative years coincided with the civil rights movement. Part of my education was to wonder why the civic leaders—who insisted that they were on top of the racial situation in Atlanta, and that we were in good shape, and very progressive—were so transparently frightened and flummoxed, uncomfortable, with the race issue. And the antennae at Westminster were so sharp on hypocrisy, and for humor; we were essentially an all-white school that insisted we were a Christian preparatory school and that it was only some sort of innocent accident that we were that way.
Anybody from our generation, when we get together, we’re still amused that the school could be so authoritative on everything and be absolutely tied in knots one year when somehow Bo Diddley came and played [at the school]. And all the students thought Bo Diddley was the greatest thing ever, and all the parents were afraid we were going to have a riot and burn down the campus. So he was the last black rock group that came, certainly when I was there.
But kids that I knew were hostile racially were the very ones that would sneak out and go hear Ray Charles at Herndon Stadium. Or go down to the Royal Peacock Club to hear Jackie Wilson. [A few of us] had a rock group that actually wound up down at “White Columns,” the WSB station. We were a takeoff on the Beatles; we dressed up with grease in our hair. Our name was the Larvae, which was the larval stage of the Beatles, we thought. And we played their songs in a kind of satirical tribute, though we did love the music.
My academic scholarship there only lasted a couple of years, and then for some reason, they said that it lapsed. It wasn’t going to be operative for my last three years. Which caused a family crisis, because we couldn’t afford it. So my dad worked out a deal—by then, he was converted to Westminster—in which I paid my tuition in trade by doing the laundry at our dry-cleaning plant for the athletic department. So every day, I would take all the dirty towels and socks and everything home in the car and swap cars with my dad the next day, and bring the clean ones back to school.
Everything my father feared about snobbery at Westminster was true to a distressing degree up at the girls’ school, it seemed to me, and the reason was because it didn’t have the leavening presence of sports. At the boys’ school, if you were an athlete, even a cross-country athlete, or any kind, to some degree it was a counterweight to the kids that had all the money and drove Thunderbirds and fancy cars. The girls’ parking lot was all full of Corvettes and really fancy cars, and all the girls seemed to know it, and had no other way to assert themselves. But at the boys’ school, the parking lot was full of jalopies and everything, and a lot of them were athletes. The athletes kind of felt accepted, whether they had any money or not.
We were a tiny little school, but [Westminster president and founder] Dr. Pressly thought we were better than everybody else, and also more moral and Christian. He insisted we play in, I think, AAA. We were playing Avondale Estates; they had 3,000 students. We had a tiny football team; everybody had to play offense and defense. Our tongues were always dragging on the ground, but we liked it anyway.
President Kennedy was killed in the fall of my senior year. I was with a football recruiter from West Point when Dr. Pressly’s secretary stuck her head in and said that the president had been shot in Dallas. And this recruiter stood up, and he saluted. He saluted the air. He didn’t seem to know what to do.
We were playing for the North Georgia championship that night, and the game was postponed. I separated my shoulder the next night, losing to Avondale in the championship, for about the sixth time that year. I had to keep playing, dislocating one shoulder, then the next, because I really needed to get an athletic scholarship. Well, I needed a scholarship, and an athletic scholarship was the only one on the horizon. I ultimately settled on Georgia Tech, and came within a few days of going there when the possibility of going to [the University of] North Carolina [on academic scholarship] came along.
When I think about Westminster, mostly I laugh. There were some sad things, and some outrageous things, but a lot of it was pretty funny. There were all those debutante clubs; I think the girls had, I don’t know, three parties each? It seemed like there was a party every night. Of course the only way they could get young boys to go was to let them drink. I think the governor one year had a party for his daughter, and there were all these drunk, underage kids wandering around. We needed a James Dickey or a Pat Conroy to write about it. In the absence of that, we just laughed about it ourselves and grew up the best we could, and were proud, in the end, that Atlanta was trying to go in the right direction.
—As told to Amanda Heckert
Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and author Taylor Branch is best known for his civil rights trilogy, America in the King Years. Branch resides in Baltimore, though his mother still lives at the home his family moved to in 1956, on Long Island Drive in Sandy Springs. His latest work is a Byliner.com e-book, The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA.