February 11, 2009 Volume 2 Issue 4
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Stella M. Pierce
As I reflect on the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, a day after what would have been Martin Luther King's 80th birthday and in the year that the NAACP celebrates its 100th birthday, my emotions range from ecstatic to somber when I think of my life's journey as an African American.
This journey began in Valdosta, Georgia, the southern town where I grew up despite the apartheid system in which segregation was a part of everyday life. My town in the 1950s and 1960s included sprawling block-long churches for whites downtown, and smaller black churches in residential areas on unpaved roads. I joined other "colored" children attending our underfunded schools while white children went to schools with many more resources. Neighborhoods were segregated with many black families living in substandard housing. At service stations, public buildings, medical offices, stores and most other places, I couldn't possibly miss the "Colored Only" and "Whites Only" signs designating separate seating areas, water fountains and bathrooms. It was an oppressive system in which I was taught that although our family was well-educated, had strong Christian values and owned property, we were measured first by race.
With tenacity, my family focused on my education and I was enrolled in the all-black, rural Mineola Elementary School. Mineola was about 10 miles from my home and I recall the long rides that seemed to take forever to get there. I questioned why I had to attend this school when there were others nearby.
My journey continued as I entered Lomax Junior High School, another segregated public school with all black students and teachers in my hometown in 1956. Although Brown vs. Board of Education was decided two years earlier and "separate schools" were found to be "inherently unequal," nothing changed in Valdosta.
During high school when I attended a summer program at Boggs Academy, an independent boarding school for blacks in Keysville, GA, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on our campus because white teachers worked and lived with us in the dorms. We heard cars and trucks outside our rooms and loud yelling. We were instructed to get on the floor and under our beds if possible. It was a long night, one that I had difficulty understanding.
Returning home to attend Pinevale, the black high school in Valdosta, was in some ways a reprieve--no cross burnings. The new building was beautiful, but inside the old segregated system continued through 1963 when I graduated, and it continued for several years thereafter.
That fall, when a few blacks were recruited for the first time, my parents refused to allow me to integrate Valdosta State College--they were worried I would fight back when the taunts and jeers came. They were probably right, knowing my sense of social justice. So instead, I entered Florida A& M University--an historically black university--the same year Dr. King gave his "I have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
When I graduated three years later, I took my first job as a speech therapist in three all white schools in my hometown. I hadn't applied for it; the superintendent contacted me. I didn't want the job. But something moved me in that direction and I became the first African American to teach at these schools.
That began my lifelong career in education. I have often felt responsible to advocate for marginalized students and those with disabilities. I have often been one of the few African Americans in the school or program or now, college, where I've taught, even when it was not always pleasant or easy. And I have often had to turn to the words of Scripture to remember the grace that transcends injustice. I am delighted at how far our country has come in our struggle to live and worship together, and to educate all students. But history has also taught me how much more we have to learn about loving our neighbors, and how much we should be concerned that the achievement gap persists for many students of color.
Now, only a few weeks after the country inaugurated its first African American president and in this month designated for African American history, I feel all the more compelled to reflect on, and to tell, my story. Most of my students can't relate to my experiences, some wonder how they can be true. Nonetheless, my journey as a student and educator chronicles the struggle for equal educational opportunity and success in America.
Dr. Stella M. Pierce is professor of education and chair of the education department at Gordon College. She and her husband live in Beverly, MA.