Hereʼs to the unsung Black women public school teachers

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Teacher Marva Collins has her arm around a student at her inner-city Westside Preparatory School, where "problem children", kicked out of other schools, are reading Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. The television movie The Marva Collins Story starring Cicely Tyson was based on her life and work. (Source: Bettmann / Getty)

By Ivory Phillips

JA Contributing Editor

As we begin Women’s History Month, we felt it particularly important to recognize the women teachers who gave us our start down the road of education. As a result, the writer hereby salutes 15 Black women – his teachers from 1948 – 1960.

We begin with our very first teacher, MRS. ANNIE WHITE RANDALL, who lived in the heart of town and taught everything that children entering school were expected to learn. She was a strict disciplinarian, but competent educator. 

MRS. BLANCH INGRAM WADE, was the principal’s wife, but that did not deter her from being compassionate and thorough. She was one of the first teachers that students heard talk frankly about white America’s racist and superiority complex. She taught second and eighth grade.

MS. IRMA LEE REID also lived in the town and was the church secretary where many of the teachers and children attended. Like Mrs. Randall and many others, she walked to school each day.

MRS. BERTHA WATSON drove five miles from Beulah each day and was one of the kindest and best-dressed teachers in the area. 

MRS. NELLIE BURKE was the fourth-grade teacher whose husband pastored his own church.

MS. GEORGIA LEE PHILLIPS was one of the first teachers hired who was not from Bolivar County. She was from Jackson and taught fifth-grade. She had a loved for and was very competent in history and geography.

MRS. FREDRICKA R. TAYLOR was a native of Rosedale, being a part of a family of teachers, including her mother, sister and aunt.

MS. LAURA LEE FRANKLIN taught sixth grade and came to the school as a student teacher. She was always happy to tell her class about her hometown, Arcola.

MRS. SALLIE GRIFFIN – the regular sixth-grade teacher was from Mound Bayou.

MRS. M.B. HOLMES taught seventh grade and was the wife of the Black superintendent. These elementary teachers were close, community people who not only lived in the community, but were significantly involved therein. They knew the children and their parents and generally remained lifelong residents.

At the high school level there was MRS. MABLE JOHNSON MOORE, who lived in Beulah and Mound Bayou before moving to Rosedale to teach social studies. She had attended Mississippi Vocational College, now MVSU. She demanded a great deal from the students and in turn gave a great deal. Like many of the other teachers, she walked to school each day. 

MRS. LILLIE MAE DAILEY SMITH came to town after having graduated from Rust College. She taught English and Literature. She was also in charge of the school newspaper and dramatic presentations. Her husband, who taught in Gunnison, dropped her off at school each day. Like Mrs. Moore, she was very competent but demanding.

MRS. O.P. LOWE came out of retirement in order to teach choir, music appreciation, and music composition. She drove from Mound Bayou each day.

MS. JANE ELLEN STOCKARD came to Rosedale after graduating from Knoxville College. She was hired as school secretary and Business Education teacher. She was also homeroom teacher and sponsor of the senior class.

MS. LILLIE CRUSOE served as a student teacher in Business Education. Hailing from Charleston, Mississippi, she attended Tennessee State University. Like all of the other high school teachers, except Mrs. Lowe, she rented a room from a local homeowner.

Most of the high school teachers came as first year teachers and moved on after several years. They, nevertheless, left their marks as dedicated and competent teachers. They were the final links between Bolivar County and the students’ adult world, be that college, gainful employment, or the military.

Many of the elementary teachers had started teaching after graduating from the eighth grade. They took high school and/or college classes during the summers until they graduated. This practice was permitted until the Spring of 1964. The junior and senior high school teachers had already graduated from college and taught specialized subjects as junior or senior high school teachers. All, nevertheless, were very dedicated and thorough in what they taught.

These women deserve the praise and a salute because not only were they dedicated, they were people who worked for far less than what their training deserved. They were generally charged with teaching overly large classes. They had meager resources with which to work. They were counselors and extracurricular advisors as well as teachers. They, thus, provided whatever was needed by their students.

Here are a few snapshots that may give one an idea of how heroic these women proved to have been.

(1) Mrs. Annie White Randall, for years, taught three grades in one room. This included what was called pre-primer, primer, and first grade. These were children who ranged in age from 6 to 13 years old. No kidding, there were two brothers in one room, who were 11 and 13 years old. There were usually between 30 and 40 children in the class-room day in and day out.

(2) By the time the Class of 1960 reached ninth grade, because high school students came from 8 other local communities, they went from one class to the next, 72 students strong! This meant that some of them had to carry chairs for one room to the next all day. It also meant that each teacher in turn had to try and teach 72 high school students at a time.

(3) Other than old hand-me-down textbooks from the segregated white school, there was very little equipment or materials in the classrooms. Teachers wrote out their notes, instructions, and examinations on the chalk boards. Students copied everything in their note-books or tablets.

(4) There was no lunchroom. Students ate wherever they de-sired; some ate under the pecan trees in the Fall.

(5) There was no choir or band room because there was no choir or music teacher until 1959, and no band until the early 1960s.

(6) There was an outdoor toilet that had two stools and a face bowl for females and two stools and a face bowl for males. These facilities were for the students and teachers.

(7) The school library consisted of a book shelf with two sets of encyclopedias, a dictionary, and several magazines.

(8) There was no gymnasium. Basketball was played on the ground between the school and the toilets. Softball was played further west on the campus, next to the levee that held back the Mississippi River.

(9) There was no rostrum in the auditorium, no movie projector, or other audio-visual equipment.

(10) The biology room had one Bunsen burner, one water faucet, and a partial skeleton that some of the boys retrieved from across the levee. The chemistry room, which was also the biology room, had one small set of chemicals bought from Sears Roebuck and Company.

(11) No other discipline had any special equipment. Students even practiced plays and other dramatic productions in their homerooms.

In addition to having little equipment or facilities with which to work, the teachers taught eight hours a day, the only break being at lunch time where-in they ate in their homerooms. The principal and secretary ate in the office. Most of the teachers were paid so little until many did not own a car; they walked to and from school. Those who were from out of town rented rooms from local home-owners during the school year. Many of the women teachers, especially those who taught in the elementary grades, often worked in the cotton fields during the time that school was out. These teachers were truly sacrificial, working in meager and racially-restrictive environments.

Looking back on those days, the writer feels badly about the environment in which these women had to work. On the other hand, he is extremely grateful for the competency and dedication which these teachers showed. Most of what is described here references women because there was only one male teacher in the elementary school and never more than four in the high school, including the principal and coaches. The school was truly a women’s operation.

The writer feels particularly indebted to Mrs. Lillie Mae Dailey Smith who gave him the foundation for appreciating literature as well as valuable lessons on composition. She, along with Mrs. Mabel Johnson Moore, also greatly influenced his decision to go to college after graduation. Mrs. Georgia Phillips and Mrs. Johnson
are largely responsible for his love of history and the social sciences. That is why he chose that major when he went to college. In the early years, Mrs. Wade, Watson and Burke were most encouraging of his academic ability. They were the backbones for his success in elementary school. To all of those women, thank you seems so inadequate, even though it is from the bottom of his heart. We realize that many others can offer the same kind of praise and thanks for the teachers who taught them. In the absence of their being in a position to do so at this time, on their behalf, the writer extends the same thank you to all of those other unsung Black women teachers.

For them, we thank God. We thank them and we thank their families. May they ever be always remembered and held up as examples of the miracles that love and dedication can and has rendered.