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Last Sunday I had the pleasure of attending a reception and program at Bethel AME Church in Malvern recognizing Nancy Ross Green, a 1935 graduate of Malvern Colored School who later taught at the school. The Malvern Colored School was built in 1929 and was originally known as Malvern Rosenwald School since it was funded in part by the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Still later it became Tuggle Elementary School when a public secondary school was constructed.

Tuggle School, as it is generally known locally, has been unoccupied for several years. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Alas, today the school is in an advancing state of disrepair, resulting in the structure 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 nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the school has been put in place, tax-exempt status obtained, and fund raising is in the early stages.

White Arkansans, and all too many Arkansans of color too, 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 its respect and support to teachers.

Imagine our educational situation in Arkansas at the end of the Civil War in 1865. We had never had much of a school system prior to the rebellion, and what little infrastructure that existed suffered greatly 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, or "freedmen" as they were called, lacked even basic literacy. This is where history can encourage us: During the period 1865-1900, a period of 35 years, black literacy grew from practically zero to 60%. This statistic 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 -- and, sometimes, in the face of active white opposition.

This educational revolution was, on the whole, 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 underfunded public schools.

Anna P. Strong, the 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 the age of 14 -- an early age even for that time when children often entered the workforce at a tender age. Fortunately, she continued to study at Southland during these early 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 she could be awfully strict by today's standards.

Strong's leadership at Moton High School 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. Stressing the need to make more educational progress, she urged teachers to take college extension courses. In 1942 she shared the stage with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Arkansas black educational history is literally filled with tales of miraculous teachers who were not only superb educators but were also known for consciously 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.

Charlotte 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 his own school for black children. When Little Rock established a public school system in 1868, during Reconstruction, Andrew's school was taken into the city system.

Charlotte was a student of just 15 in 1869 when her teacher became ill, and the precocious daughter of the Rev. Andrews stepped across the classroom 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 only 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 Works Progress Administration 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 twelfth. 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 a family of 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. That school and junior college 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 twentieth century.

Charlotte Stephens, long a widow, 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 -- and especially 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 -- if for nothing else as a monument to Nancy Ross Green, Anna P. Strong, Charlotte Stephens, and the 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 [email protected]

NAN Profiles on 08/11/2019

Print Headline: Monuments to education


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