Home Virginia Politics A Tribute to Staunton-Augusta County Segregation Era Teachers

A Tribute to Staunton-Augusta County Segregation Era Teachers

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Two of the striking things during yesterday’s event to honor some former Staunton teachers: first, millennials were under-represented; next, the press did not cover it. Those deficiencies will affect politics for the next decade. These heroes of the segregation era and the struggle before equality may become forgotten relics.

“We must remember where we came from.” – Sister Patsye Robinson

This was the second celebration of Staunton’s teachers from that era: the first was for those who taught in the high school; this one focused on elementary teachers. Some of the honorees crossed through both based upon the needs of the segregated school district. The Staunton-Augusta African American Research Committee (many members are former students of the teachers) organized the efforts to remember them. Looking around the filled church hall at Mount Zion Baptist Church on North Augusta, the relevance of those times seems to only speak to those who lived them and most have or are approaching social security eligibility. That in itself is amazing because to us as students, being that age seemed so very far away when segregation was contemporary. In fact, there were days themselves that seemed like years when the fight for equality was as hot as the Viet Nam War.

“What is the cost of knowing our past? And what is the cost of not?” – Wright Thompson reflecting upon the enrollment of James Meredith at Ole Miss

To paraphrase Steve Allen, tragedy plus time equals humor. A lot of good humor was shared as these former teachers and an administrator passed the mike in turn. That reveals that there was tragedy in bushels to go around during those days but these educators persevered. It only follows that the oldest honoree (recently turned 90) made the most of the fun. How they have all matured with such grace and so little bitterness confounds. But their toil has been rewarded over the years in the pride of watching the children they helped shape grow into adulthood and by the admiring love of their former pupils.  

Hardly pining for a return to that era, one has to wonder about the lessons being lost from a time that appears irrelevant to millennials and unprofitable for the media. The two generations most represented at this event are handing over the reins to one that would rather neglect history, followed by one that is choosing to ignore it. That is easier done when social and cultural turmoil is not as intense as that which seared those who can today sit back and ponder how this whole democratic experiment did not blow up in all our faces back then.

These teachers spoke of how they came to be in Staunton by birth, circumstance, or design. They told of Superintendents that led them to success and the peers who supported them. Some came, left, and returned. More than a couple began teaching before and during the Depression. One recalled a one-room schoolhouse. And some addressed the watershed year of desegregation. One gentleman discussed the trepidation students had entering the new curriculum in the merged district; fear that they would not be able to keep up with their white peers.

I remember clearly at the end of one school year in my segregated Arkansas junior high sitting in the science classroom as we turned in our texts. Books went through a four or five year use cycle, as I recall, and we were penalized for excessive wear based upon the age of the book. At the end of the cycle, new texts were purchased. As we were handing in our worn books, one of my classmates who struggled to learn decided to unceremoniously deface his. It was the only time I ever remember the teacher, Mr. Garner, a former Marine who kept his high and tight, go high and right, shouting at the boy to stop. “These books are going to the Negro students!” he yelled. At that moment, there was a silent realization by the entire class of the privilege we enjoyed over others. We didn’t know about such secret accommodations. Mr. Garner proceeded to gather the books as the treasure they represented.

All that to explain the types of obstacles overcome by this breed of teacher represented in the church hall yesterday. We listened to a teacher tell of the students he had to reassure when Staunton schools were finally integrated; they would later come to him and tell him he had been right after all, despite the conditions in the segregated schools. That must have been a wonderful relief because he had to have wondered deep down if he was being honest, but dared not shatter what confidence they had. They could not have then appreciated what had been achieved by this group of educators. But it was clear yesterday that they do now.

“What is the cost of not knowing? … Ignorance.” – Wright Thompson