Miss Dodson, Miss Amos, Mrs. Baker, Mrs. Wilkerson, Miss White, Mrs. Frazier and Mrs. Holland were my teachers when I attended segregated elementary schools in Virginia. They influenced my life in so many positive ways that I remember them vividly; if I shut my eyes, I can see their faces. Their most lasting gift was the sense of self that they gave every student by teaching us that we were the inheritors of an enviable legacy. In sum, they taught us the achievements of Black Americans.
When I entered first grade, there was no Black History Month, but I would not have missed it because we learned about ourselves every day. After Miss Dodson taught my class the National Anthem, she taught us Lift Every Voice and Sing, which is known as the Negro National Anthem. During morning devotions, we sang it after the National Anthem or "America the Beautiful."It was also sung in our churches, at Black colleges and during solemn Black events.
Black history lessons were a regular part of our elementary school education. When I was 10 years old, my fifth grade class took a trip to Washington, D.C. Miss White extolled the accomplishments of Benjamin Banneker, a brilliant scientist credited with the design of Washington, D.C. Banneker, who served on the planning commission at the request of Thomas Jefferson, reproduced the layout for the nation's capital from memory after Pierre L'Enfant quit, sailed back to France and took the blueprints with him. Miss White also boasted that the U.S. Capitol was built with the sweat and toil of Black slaves.
Mrs. Frazier, my sixth grade teacher was the most outspoken about racial matters. She demanded excellence and lectured us about never using racism as an excuse for poor work; she counseled us to lift our heads high and to be proud of what our people had achieved despite seemingly insurmountable odds. To this day, I cherish my memories of her shutting our classroom door before saying softly, "Don't ever let anyone make you believe that our people were happy slaves; we wanted to be free." Her music lessons included songs such "Steal Away to Jesus," a spiritual that is believed to have been a code for slaves plotting their escape.
I was introduced to American literature in the seventh grade. Mrs. Holland taught us the works of Longfellow and Emerson, but she also included poems by Phillis Wheatley, a slave, and James Weldon Johnson, a black writer and poet.
I did not realize that my teachers were breaking the rules until I attended an all-white high school and learned that the history of Black people was excluded from my school district's curriculum. Were it not for the fortification my Black grade school teachers imbued in me, I would have been completely demoralized in 1964 when a white teacher justified the Black Codes that were passed to strip Black people of their liberty after the Civil War. But, I knew better. When my American Literature teacher skipped the chapter on Black writers, it was then that I realized how courageous my previous teachers were because they had taught it anyway!
Black History Month is the time to remember the heroes who risked everything to stand up for racial justice and the dignity of all. My teachers didn't just tell us a story about our ancestry; they gave us proof of our ability to achieve as well as any other race of people. Racial discrimination is now banned, but it thrives in laws that unfairly affect Blacks and other minority groups disproportionally. The next generation deserves a world that respects all races and we must commit ourselves to making this ideal a reality.
This blog post is one of several personal testimonials written by ACLU staff members to commemorate Black History Month.
Do you know who’s pictured in our Celebrate Black History logo? Top row, from left to right: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Bottom row, from left to right: Thurgood Marshall, Hiram Rhodes Revels and Sojourner Truth.