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Last Sunday I had the pleasure of attending a reception and program at Bethel AME Church in Malvern recognizing Mrs. Nancy Ross Green, a 1935 graduate of Malvern Colored School who later taught there.

The school, built in 1929, was originally known as Malvern Rosenwald School since it was funded in part by the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Later it became Tuggle Elementary School when a public secondary school was constructed.

Tuggle School, as it is known locally, has been unoccupied for several years. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Today it's in disrepair, resulting in being named by Preserve Arkansas earlier this year as among the 10 most endangered historic sites in the state.

The good news is that a non-profit organization dedicated to saving the school has been put in place. Tax-exempt status has been obtained and fund-raising is in the early stages.

White Arkansans, and all too many blacks, fail to recognize the incredible role played by black teachers for a century following the Civil War in bringing education to an oppressed minority. These were dedicated people, and the black community gave them respect and support.

Imagine our educational situation in Arkansas at the end of the Civil War in 1865. We never had much of a school system prior to the rebellion, and what little infrastructure that existed suffered at the hands of both armies. Professor Michael B. Dougan of Arkansas State University summarized the situation: "Before the War, Arkansas education possessed neither system nor much capital outlay; at the end of the War, both were gone."

On top of this, 120,000 ex-slaves--"freedmen"--lacked basic literacy. This is where history can encourage us: From 1865-1900, black literacy grew from practically zero to 60 percent. This is amazing enough, but consider the fact that black literacy was accomplished in a school system that provided a mere pittance in tax funding to black institutions--sometimes in the face of active white opposition.

This educational revolution was accomplished by black students, parents, teachers, administrators, and tax payers. During and for some years after the Civil War, northern philanthropies and religious bodies played an important part in jump-starting the black school system.

For example, the Quakers founded an orphanage in Helena during the War, which later evolved into Southland College and survived until 1924. But this school was a rare exception to the rule, and most black Arkansans managed to become literate by attending chronically under-funded public schools.

Anna P. Strong, daughter of a Quaker convert, was perhaps the most prominent of the graduates of Southland College. Anna was destined for the classroom. She took her first teaching job at Trenton, near Marvell, at 14--early even for that time when children often entered the workforce at a tender age.

Fortunately, she continued to study at Southland during these teaching stints. Later, she furthered her education at Tuskegee Institute and Columbia University. For many years she was principal of Robert F. Moton High School in Marianna. She was a demanding educator and administrator and could be awfully strict by today's standards.

Strong's leadership at Moton helped propel her to the presidency of the Arkansas Teachers Association in 1929, the second female to hold that post. In her inaugural address, Strong urged black teachers to become active in the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, a group she helped establish in 1926.

She also urged teachers to give more attention to the health of each child in the classroom and urged teachers to take college extension courses. In 1942 she shared a stage with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Arkansas' black educational history is filled with tales of miraculous teachers who were also known for setting good examples for their charges. My mind immediately goes to perhaps the most amazing black teacher--if not of any race--in Arkansas history, Charlotte Andrews Stephens of Little Rock.

She was born a few years before the Civil War to an educated free man of color, Wallace Andrews, a Methodist minister. In 1863, as soon as the Confederates were driven from Little Rock, Andrews started a school for black children. When Little Rock established a public school system in 1868 during Reconstruction, Andrews' school was taken into the city system.

Charlotte was a mere student of 15 in 1869 when her teacher became ill, and the precocious daughter of Rev. Andrews stepped from her bench to the teacher's chair. She spent the next 70 years in the schools--mostly as a teacher, but also as a librarian. Today, when the average beginning teacher remains in the classroom for only a few years, Charlotte Andrews Stephens takes on mythical proportions.

After a year of teaching, Charlotte entered Oberlin College in Ohio, where she reveled in studying everything from Latin through mathematics and the sciences to music. When interviewed by the WPA in the late 1930s for their Ex-Slave Narratives, Mrs. Stephens recalled, "I finished at Oberlin in 1873. I extended my work through courses at Normal schools and Teacher's Institutes. I have taken lecture courses in many colleges, notably the University of California in 1922. I have taught all grades from the first to the 12th. My principal work, for the last 35 years, however, has been high school Latin and English and Science."

Later in the interview she mentioned, almost as an aside, that she and her husband had raised six children, all of whom went to college.

She finished her career as the librarian at Dunbar School and Junior College, one of the better black institutions of learning, which still has an alumni association.

In 1910, well before her retirement, the Little Rock School Board named a school after Mrs. Stephens. She lived to see the old school building replaced with a modern building in 1950. During her entire teaching career her salary was always substantially lower than those of white teachers.

Among her students were William Grant Still and Florence Smith Price, the leading male and female black American composers of the 20th century.

Long a widow, Charlotte Stephens died in 1951 at the age of 97. Within a few years the Brown vs. Topeka decision, coupled with the Little Rock integration crisis, would bring an end to segregated education in the capital city.

Charlotte Stephens might be atypical in the longevity of her career, but the black schools of the state--particularly in Little Rock--were fortunate to recruit the best of the educated black population for teaching, one of the few professions open to blacks, especially black women.

Whenever I think of Tuggle and other abandoned black school buildings in Arkansas, I am hopeful that we can save them as a monument to Nancy Ross Green, Anna P. Strong, Charlotte Stephens, and thousands of other teachers who held aloft the light of learning even in the most difficult of times.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

Editorial on 08/11/2019

Print Headline: In honor of dedicated educators

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