Day 21: From the Segregated South to Secretary of State. A Peek at Condoleezza Rice.

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Condoleezza Rice grew up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s and 60s. Reared in a parallel universe with white people, Rice went to a segregated school and a segregated church. She ate at segregated restaurants and played in segregated places with kids who shared her skin color. She didn’t learn to swim until she was 25 years old, in great part because the Commissioner of Public Safety chose to shut down the city’s pools rather than allow black citizens to swim in them.

Her mother was and educator and her father an educator and minister. Both were well-respected leaders in the Birmingham community known as “Titusville.” Many of the children who grew up in this tight-knit neighborhood went on to become extraordinary influencers. Surrounded by a hostile world and the scrutinizing gaze of others, these kids inhabited a unique place and time in history. Rice said, Everyone had to be twice as good. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that Titusville kids went on to become everything from Pulitzer-prize winning journalists to college presidents.


Condoleezza’s education was unique, to say the least. When she finished kindergarten, she was not yet old enough to enter first grade even though she was performing well above grade level in all subjects. So her mother homeschooled her for a year and then enrolled her in the community’s segregated school. Along the way she excelled in classical piano, foreign languages, and all things academic. In 1967, her family moved to Denver, Colorado where she attended an all-girls Catholic school and graduated at the age of 16.

Rice was an only child and received the full measure of her parents’ devotion. But that doesn’t mean her upbringing was idyllic or that success was a sure thing. She recalls her father sitting on the front porch all night with a gun across his lap. She remembers the bombings in her community and the shameful ways they were treated outside the confines of their segregated world. But it’s clear that adversity only strengthened her spirit and molded her character.

Her accomplishments speak for themselves:

Condoleezza Rice has excelled as a diplomat, political scientist, and concert pianist.  Her achievements run the gamut from helping to oversee the collapse of communism in Europe and the decline of the Soviet Union, to working to protect the country in the aftermath of 9-11, to becoming only the second woman – and the first black woman ever — to serve as Secretary of State. {From the back of her book, Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family}


I was reluctant to include her in the series because I don’t want to imply that only the overachievers matter. Greatness is not the goal. I simply want to show how various educational paths have prepared people of influence. And in so doing, I hope we’re encouraged by all the ways we can do school. Our individual paths are part of our preparation.

I was also reluctant to include her because she’s a political figure and I don’t write about politics. But regardless of where you stand, she’s a picture of perseverance, poise, and professionalism. And like any high-profile leader, especially those who break glass ceilings, she has her many critics. But politics and the nuances of her performance aren’t the point of this post. The fact remains, she has achieved positions of influence, one after the other. Just fifty years ago, most Americans would have labeled such feats impossible for an African-American woman.

From Condoleezza Rice, a product of homeschool, segregated public school, and religious private school, we learn that success is not simply the outcome of natural smarts, which she definitely had. A loving family, academic diligence, supportive community, deep and abiding faith, courage and dignity in the face of adversity and prejudice — they all wove themselves into the tapestry of gracious excellence that is her life. We also learn that hardship can be fertile ground for a brighter future.

From her parents, we’re inspired to believe in the gifts of our children. And when the bullies come, when the culture that swirls around us is hostile to our identity and our values, we learn that there’s a way to stand firm with conviction and dignity.

Our kids are watching. And in the watching they are also learning and preparing.

Believe in them but don’t stop there. Give them an inheritance of grace and courage. The world will reap the benefits.


For all the posts in this 31-day series, go here.

I’m linking up with The Nester and her tribe of 31 Dayers.

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