Last year, in an article entitled, “A Shout Out to Unsung Black Teachers,” we saluted a group of Black women teachers who had guided the writer through Rosedale Negro High School. This week, we extend that list of heroines to include a group who lived and told their stories with courage, dignity, and pride to hundreds of Black students at Jackson State College. Undoubtedly, similar lists can be developed for Alcorn, Mississippi Valley, Tougaloo, Rust, and other Black colleges in other times and other places. Those, too, we salute. Perhaps they will be similarly recognized and saluted.
We feel that these tributes are important because many, too many, teachers go unsung and unappreciated. It was particularly the case during the days of rank Jim Crow policies and practices. Those who did not experience baptism in that environment, may feel that the current attack on “critical race theory” and “woke-ism” is new. The truth is, Jim Crow was so powerful in those days until all students, Black and white, were thoroughly mis-educated, unless they were fortunate enough to have fallen under the tutelage of some of the Black heroines such as we will discuss herein.
Major operating principles were clear at the time included: (1) the myth that Black students did not have the intellectual capacity to master high curricula and the resulting conclusion that it would be a waste of money to fund Black schools to the same degree as white schools; (2) there was the opposite conclusion that Black students should not be provided the same educational opportunities since that might generate too much competition vis a vis white students once they graduate; (3) the historical truths of racial oppression, especially in the south, were not to be taught; and (4) there was to be no toleration of students nor teachers publicly violating segregation and other examples of Jim Crow practices.
In the early days, almost no Black high schools offered the kind of curriculum that was college preparatory. White leaders frowned upon and did not fund such. Many Black educators bought into the myth. One Black high school principal often repeated to his school that, “when it comes to integration, Negroes ain’t ready.”
That, however, was not the attitude of the heroines about whom we speak today. They boldly sought to weaken and destroy each of the four principles. One of the heroines, Dr. Jane Ellen McAllister, felt that Black students had as much academic ability as anybody and used her own life as an example. Because she had come from a school that had not been well-endowed, college admissions officers were reluctant to extend regular admissions to her. She demanded of them, “Give me the test.” She went on to earn bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander, Mrs. Katherine Mosley, and Dr. Rose E. McCoy also held that same belief. Consequently, they held fast to strict standards so much so until many students dreaded their classes. Yet, they turned out hundreds of accomplished students. These students came to realize that not only did they have the ability to succeed. They also realized that they were going to be encouraged rather than disparaged, treated fairly, and assisted in their pursuits.
These Black women attacked the educational resources by securing grants and otherwise developing what they needed. Dr. McAllister, for an example, was able to secure reading machines that helped many students from deprived schools dramatically increase their reading speed and comprehension. Along with Dr. Alexander and others, she contracted to have noted scholars at other universities to teach their students through “tele-lectures.”
They were teachers with a mission. They taught with a dedication and passion that was unmatched. A classic in terms of scholarship was the Reconstruction lecture delivered by Dr. Alexander to her humanities students. The lecture was not only top-flight in terms of its undergirded research. It was delivered with such passion that literally every student in the 100+ auditorium was inspired to remember and to feel the truth of the message. Other of these heroines, such as Mrs. Katherine Mosley and Mrs. Aurelia Young, were capable of the same.
For these women, especially those in the humanities and the social sciences, through their teaching were the telling of their own stories. They often walked the walk as well as talked the talk. For example, when Dr. McCoy was making her mark in the classroom, she was more than mirroring her husband, who was at the same time, president of the local NAACP. She talked about the problem of race, without biting her tongue, which was highly unusual in those days. Equally as impressive for the young students was the fact that Dr. McAllister not only refused to give up her seat on the Trailways Bus from Vicksburg to any white person, she bought enough stock in the company until from the point of the drivers trying to move her, they had to let her ride up front and be able to get off the bus at the corner of Lynch and Dalton streets, Jackson State’s campus, rather than at the downtown bus station. These were examples of Black women of courage teaching by example as well as by precept.
Similarly, rather than limiting what the Black students were taught, Dr. Alexander, Dr. Gloria Evans, and others admonished the students to read widely, in order to go beyond the ordinary. McAllister emphasized to her students that scholars must “read themselves full and then write themselves empty.” In those days, these women provided lists of classics which students needed to read, among them were “THE MISEDUCATION OF THE NEGRO,” “THE NEGRO CARAVAN,” and “BLACK LIKE ME.” These were often books that had been unheard of in many Black high schools. Many of them would be banned by today’s far-right politicians. They, on the other hand, helped awaken hundreds of their students in their days.
Dr. Alexander was a leading force in Jackson State’s humanities program, which was so inclusive as to be global in time and space. These kinds of experiences led many of the fortunate students to become more open-minded and more willing to stand for justice and principles of human rights. In order to expand and perpetuate such excellence, Dr. Alexander moved to institutionalize much of this in what is today rightly named the Margaret Walker Center.
Fortunately, in addition to the Margaret Walker Center, there is on the JSU campus, the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium, the McAllister-Whiteside Residence Center, the Dollye Robinson Liberal Arts Building, Alexander Hall, the Willie Dobbs Language Arts Building, and the Lottie Thornton Early Childhood Center, to help perpetuate the memory of those Black heroines. Until there are other facilities so named, let us, their students, sing their praises at every opportunity.