gua: At all-black school - we all thrived

Published: Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 3:28 p.m.

Frequent news reports about academic and discipline problems in so many of our public schools make me think about my own school experiences under Jim Crow in Florida, when white and black students were legally separated.

Our black teachers were gods, and our campuses were virtual shrines, where we went to get on the path to "making something out of ourselves." Ours were quintessential, black-only neighborhood schools. Our teachers were black, all graduating from historically black colleges and universities.

The overwhelming majority of us thrived in school. Failure was the exception. It shamed the child. It shamed the family. I began ninth grade with 18 classmates. Four years later, all 19 of us graduated. Seventeen finished college. One who did not attend college established a small construction company, and the other joined the Army and became a career soldier.

Our parents earned their incomes as maids, fruit pickers, grove caretakers, fern cutters, pulpwood harvesters and carpenter's helpers. None earned more than minimum wage, none had attended college and few had graduated from high school.

How and why did so many of us succeed when Jim Crow actively repressed and rejected us? Three factors made the difference: Our parents placed nonnegotiable demands on us. Our parents had close relationships with our teachers and our principal. And our teachers were smart and tough.

Our parents trusted our teachers implicitly and forged a special partnership with them. Our principal was the "professor," an icon in black culture in that era. Our school's pedagogy - the principles and methods and art of instruction - was the guiding force.

I discovered this fact many years later after I had become a college teacher and journalist and after many talks with our principal and several of our teachers.

The school's pedagogy grew out of the principal's mission: "to give Negro girls and boys the best formal education possible." He hired teachers who vowed to carry out that mission.

De facto "separate but equal" school districts meant that we blacks were on our own. For that reason, our principal's goal was to teach us to be "self-reliant" while we were young children, thus empowering us for the rest of our lives.

We were shown the necessity of educating ourselves without expecting substantive help from whites.

Many contemporary scholars and educators have disparaged the effectiveness of memorization and other seat-time activities.

Perhaps they are right. I know, however, that those old methods and dedicated teachers helped us become self-reliant at young ages. We fell in love with learning, and we loved going to school. We still are benefiting from the power of order, obedience and respect we learned in our all-black schools.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail bmaxwell@sptimes.com

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