It was the monthly meeting of the Barbour County Education Retirees group. On paper at least, I was to be their speaker. But considering that my audience was a small group of all female, all black, former education employees, I saw no need to let the opportunity go to waste.
So instead of someone from Montgomery telling them about the quagmire that passes for public education policy and leadership these days, I spent nearly an hour asking questions and listening intently. Alabama’s history has long been a Gordian Knot when it comes to race relations. And in spite of the best intentions of some, this is not likely to change much for many years to come, whether we will admit it or not.
I graduated from high school in 1961 and therefore, grew up in a white world. Integration had not come to south Alabama at that time.
But on this Tuesday, all sitting around the table with me had a much different perspective on a time that once was and I wanted to learn about it.
How did they end up working in education? What prompted them to pursue education beyond high school? Where are their children today? Have they all fled Barbour County?
One lady, about to celebrate her 89th birthday, grew up just across the county line in the small Bullock County community of Aberfoil, a hop, skip and a jump from Smut Eye. Like all the others, she credited her parents for preaching the value of education, even though they had none themselves.
She has four children, all college graduates. Two in Atlanta, two in Nashville. And she told us excitedly with a twinkle in her eye that her children have planned a celebration of her soon-to-be birthday in New Orleans.
Our meeting place this day was the central office for Barbour County schools on the west side of Clayton. Many years ago this was the home of Barbour County Training School. It sits on a red, clay knob.
One talked about going to school there and said her only desire was “to get off this red hill.” She did and spent 30 years in Akron, OH raising a family. Then her mother got in poor health and she came back to care for her. And before long, she was working in the lunchroom of the school she graduated from. “And I was right back on that same red hill,” she said with a smile.
Another recounted when she was in the 10th grade in the late 60’s and moved to the “white” school in Clayton. It was not a good experience. “It was rough,” she remembered. “There would be an empty row of desks in the classroom between white and black students and I was expected to ride in the back of the bus.”
After one year she returned to Barbour County Training school.
Another recalled the day she heard a white teacher say about her black students, “I don’t care if they learn or not.” She still winches at the memory.
They worry today about the lack of jobs in Barbour County, they worry about the breakdown of families and the increase in drug use and violence. They are troubled that the education system they invested so much energy and effort into seems to be constantly under attack from folks who know so little about what schools are really all about.
And they drove home the simple fact that all education begins at home.
These good ladies have all been part of history, one much different from my own. I deeply appreciate them sharing some of it with me.