It was Oct 31, 2018. A gloriously bright and mild day. The day I decided summer had finally given up its too-long grip on all of Dixie. My car window was down as I passed sights seen many times before.
I was on U.S. 80 heading west from Montgomery. Destination: the withering little community of Uniontown in Perry County. Smack dab in the middle of the Black Belt. Long ago, before the Civil War and civil rights marches, this region was an integral part of Alabama’s economy. The county seat of Marion was seen by some as the “Athens of the South.” A place that birthed several institutions of higher education.
And ironically, Perry County is where Nicola Marschall, a teacher at Marion Female Academy who designed the Stars and Bars flag of the Confederate Army and Corretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. both lived.
The rich, black prairie land drew would be cotton barons 200 years ago like honey draws bees. They gathered thousands of slaves to work the fields and turned the prairies into a land of haves and have-nots. To a large degree, this legacy lives on today. And poverty greets the visitor around every turn of the road.
I was going to speak to a group of Perry County retired educators. Coming into town I passed a feed mill, a catfish processing plant and a stockyard. I saw antebellum homes struggling to keep their dignity, modest brick homes and crumbling walls where a middle school once stood.
There were 31,783 people in Perry County in 1900; in 2010 there were 10,591. It’s easy to understand this outmigration. Twenty years ago there were six public schools with 2,355 students. Now there are only two public schools in the county and 1,317 students. None of whom are white.
My audience that day mirrored the school population, all black. Some were older than me, many were not. But for the most part we all had one thing in common. We grew up in a segregated world. Through 12 years of elementary and high school I never had a black classmate. It was a time when our leaders tried to get people to believe the lie about “separate but equal.” But schools for different races were nothing like that.
In 1907 Wilcox County, a few miles south of Perry, spent $10.50 on a white student and only 37 cents for a black one. Lowndes County spent $33.40 per white student in 1912 for every $1 spent on a black student.
As I spoke to this very attentive audience I kept wondering what stories they could share. What was their school world like? How often did they have to get by on too few supplies, too old textbooks and other things me and my white classmates took for granted? How good were their teachers? How much training had they had?
As we wring our hands today and fret about the lack of performance of high-poverty students I dare say too few people grasp just how much the past in the Black Belt still invades the present–and future. Do we too often just pay lip service to those in real need while Montgomery conjures up another strategic plan? Why do we pass legislation like the Alabama Accountability Act that labels schools as “failing.” but doesn’t do a damn thing to help them escape their predicament?
Where are the Good Samaritans the Black Belt so desperately needs? The same ones they have waited on for generations.
You met Allie Marques last September when we told about her service project that is part of the program required of students in the Black Belt Teaching Corps.
She’s about big as a minute with a perpetual grin. One of those personalities who just lights up any room she is in. And soon, a very fortunate roomful of students will come under her care. I know her type. Nothing left to chance. They spend hours and hours each summer readying their classroom as if she were about to host a royal wedding.
Allie was the student who surprised me last week by presenting me with the gift from the first BBTC class.
And true to form, I got the following email note from her today:
The invitation said it was a reception in honor of Black Belt Teacher Corps Scholars Class of 2017-18. So, I immediately noted May 3rd on my calendar and made plans to be at Brock Hall on the campus of the University of West Alabama in Livingston on that date.
After all, deep inside I felt as if each one of these 11 seniors were “mine” in some sense.
I have written about the Black Belt Teacher Corps a number of times. In a nutshell, it is an attempt to grow your own teachers for a region that has a difficult time recruiting top talent for its classrooms. Truth is that if you grew up in Huntsville or Birmingham or Atlanta and went to college to become a teacher, it’s highly unlikely that that your expectations were to end up with a job in Gilbertown, Linden, Camden, York, Aliceville or one of the many other small communities dotting west Alabama.
So, the concept put in place by the good folks at UWA is to find top-notch local talent, young people who may have grown up in Gilbertown, Linden, Camden, York or Aliceville, help them get their education and then keep them at home to work in local schools.
There has been a similar program in the Missouri Ozarks for a number of years. And somewhere in my ramblings and readings I learned of it. That’s when I met Gary Funk, who then ran the Ozark Community Foundation, and who played a vital role in starting the Missouri program.
Why couldn’t we do the same thing in west Alabama I wondered. So, several years ago, I lured Funk, who today directs the Rural School Collaborative out of Cambridge, WI, to Livingston where we met with Ken Tucker, president of UWA, and Jan Miller, dean of the college of education.
They were sold on the idea and wanted to give it a go. All we needed was some money to get everything up and running.
That’s when fate, to a large degree, smiled on our plans.
Because of my involvement with education around the state, I’ve long been friends with Senator Arthur Orr of Decatur and Representative Bill Poole of Tuscaloosa who chair the education funding committees in the senate and house.
They are both good guys and good friends. In addition, Bill Poole grew up in Marengo County in the Black Belt.
Almost by accident I found some money in the Education Trust Fund that was not going to be needed for its intended purpose and approached Orr and Poole with the idea of the Black Belt Teacher Corps at UWA.
They recognized the need and signed off on the idea. We also enlisted the supported of Senator Bobby Singleton who represents a large swath of Black Belt territory.
Students selected for the program get specialized training to better help them as teachers in this region, as well as $5,000 scholarships for both their junior and senior years.
And so on May 3rd I was among graduating seniors, proud mamas and daddies, faculty and others to celebrate the journey we had all made together.
Haley Richardson of Reform, AL (Pickens County) spoke for her classmates about what the experience meant to her. I was sitting beside her mother who was beaming from ear to ear. And her smile got even bigger when Haley said that she was graduating “debt free” because of the BBTC scholarship.
Then another senior, Allie Marquis, took the floor for a presentation.
Honest, I was very surprised when she called my name and presented me with a framed photo of the entire class, along with their hand-written notes to me.
That’s when I told the group that “I am almost at a loss for words.” Which brought a hardy laugh from my dear friend Ken Tucker.
Truly, this recognition was unexpected. But very, very, very special. So much so that I took it around Montgomery the next day to show a number of friends.
As I write this, Macy Bush, Levi Dorsett, Paige Gandy, Devante Giles, Mellisa Grayson, Allyson Jacobs, Allie Marquis, Haley Richardson, Haley Sager, Elizabeth Waddell and Brittany Williams are now college graduates.
For them, one journey has ended and another is about to begin.
I am so proud of each of them and so glad that lady luck allowed me to play a very tiny role in both journeys.
Each year the national organization, Rural Schools Collaborative runs a small grant program for rural teachers. (I serve on their board.) And it’s time for teachers to make application.
We have awarded 15 grants in the last few years. While they are usually not larger than $1,000, I have visited a number of the recipients and been quite impressed with how they used their funding. Projects have ranged from outdoor gardens to archeological digs to community histories.
RSC has forged a close relationship with the good folks at the University of West Alabama and their Black Belt Teacher Corps effort and this year grants will be restricted to teachers primarily in the Black Belt region.
The following counties are eligible: Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Crenshaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Montgomery, Perry, Pickens, Pike, Russell, Sumter and Wilcox.
Recipients will be expected to attend one day of the University of West Alabama’s Digging into Rural Traditions Conference Sept. 17-18. RSC will work with school systems on substitute teacher fees in needed.
For more info on this program and directions as to how to apply, go here.