In keeping with Carter G. Woodson’s vision, the 2016-2017 Norfolk Public Library (NPL) Multicultural Committee honored eight Hampton Roads trailblazers. The third annual NPL presentation was hosted by Jessica Harvey, the manager of the Horace C. Downing Branch Library.
Welcome was given by Sonal Rastogi, who is the Director of the Norfolk Public Library. Chrystall Elliott-Smith accompanied by Frank T. Elliott treated the audience to two uplifting songs: “I Will Lift Up My Eyes Unto the Hills,” and “Lord I Am Available to You.”
This was followed by the keynote address. or as the program stated, “A TALK” by Arnold Avant, valedictorian of the Booker T. class of 1961 who earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and is President and CEO of Adsystech, Inc. He was introduced by his childhood friend and neighbor Roland Hayes (BTW class of 1966).
Avant based his talk on the National Theme, “Crisis in Black Education,” selected by the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. Mr. Avant described the crisis we face today as “the Devolution of Education because the crisis, especially in Norfolk, was not there always.”
Avant offered a couple of anecdotes to support his assertion. First, after finding out that Arnold had graduated from Booker T., “The Factory,” a young classmate at Catholic University, who became a professor at MIT, wanted to know what was in the water at THAT SCHOOL because he had met several Booker T. graduates who impressed him.
Next was the high level of teaching offered by the likes of Aline Black Hicks and John Perry (chemistry and physics); Jimmy Johnson (trigonometry and solid geometry); and Celestyne Diggs Porter (education and law). In addition to those named, there were other outstanding teachers and administrators at Booker T. Washington High School.
Arnold, although acknowledging that we have serious problems, questioned whether our crisis in education is a symptom or a problem. He said we cannot allow others or ourselves to believe propaganda that defines us by the worst of our conditions; that systemic problems should not be a focus for Blacks only but for the entire nation.
In ending his speech, Avant stated that we need practical initiatives such as The Saturday School which is a “nonprofit that partners with the Montgomery County, Maryland Public School System designed to close performance gaps for underachieving students in grades 1-12 from lower socio economic backgrounds and programs that accelerate performance for other students.”
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Prior to being introduced and giving brief remarks, a video and interview was shown of each of the eight trailblazers.
The first person to be honored was educator, historian, and entrepreneur Dr. E. Curtis Alexander, who is a lifelong resident of the Bells Mills community of Norfolk County (now Chesapeake). This author of over 40 books, introduced by nephew Kelvin Hawkins, is curator of the Bells Mills Historical Research and Restoration Society, Inc. (BMHRRS) and OIC of the United States Colored Troops Descendants (USCTD).
The BMHRRS has been responsible for placing Historic Colored School Markers in Chesapeake and also having Historic Street Signs placed in Chesapeake.
Also honored was Mrs. Barbara Alexander (BTW class of 1962), wife of Curtis. She is an educator, African Folklorist and writer. This honoree was introduced by Reverend Gloria Johnson. During her 30 years of service, Barbara Alexander has been a college professor, professional Developer for Children’s Literacy Initiative and the principal of the Ruth Nelson Cooke Academy in Norfolk. She also wrote two books including “Papa’s Penny Party” that talks about the times she spent helping her grandfather in his grocery store on St. Julian Avenue.
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Dr. James R. Newby, II presented his sister, Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a history professor at Norfolk State University, director of the Joseph Jenkins Roberts Center for African Diaspora Studies and author of several Black History publications. She has an upcoming article on the life and activities of Vivian Carter Mason, the third president of the National Council of Negro Women.
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Before the presentations of the last honorees, Darius Nelson performed a musical selection. Ellen R. Perry Livas (BTW/1961) was introduced by 1961 classmate Kathleen Edwards. Cabaret-jazz vocalist “Becky” Livas has been sharing her beautiful voice with audiences for almost 25 years (that does not include school days) with songs from Tin Pan Alley to the late 20th century.
Before beginning her famed singing career with several artists including pianist Keith Nesbit and saxophonist Joey Placenti, she was the first African-American woman news reporter and later host of and producer of daily TV shows at WTAR-TV in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, Livas created and was host of WHRO-WHRV-FM Jazz Excursions. She also taught world history and geography in a middle school.
The last honorees were presented posthumously. They were Aline Black Hicks, Willie Mae Watson, Celestyne Diggs Porter and David Gilbert Jacox.
Honoree Aline Black Hicks taught chemistry at Booker T from the days of the Great Depression to the “Jim Crow” era through the civil rights movement.
In March 1939, Hicks fought for equal pay for equal work for African-American teachers. The plaintiff suit was filed by Thurgood Marshall. She was fired in retaliation in June 1939.
After her appeal was denied, a suit was filed under the name of Melvin Alston, and was settled by the United States Supreme Court in her favor. Significantly, Aline Hicks was rehired.
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Honoree Willie Mae Watson, a Norfolk native, was an educator and humanitarian. After having taught in one room schools, Virginia State College, and adult education at Piedmont Sanatorium in Burkeville, Virginia, she taught at two elementary schools in Norfolk – Douglass Park and Liberty Park.
Watson was also a “teaching-principal” at J H Smythe School and later became principal at Titustown and Diggs Park. In 1957, the Norfolk School Board named her Supervisor of Colored Elementary Schools.
She also served in the Peace Corps and became, in 1963, the Director of Elementary Education for the Free School Association for Prince Edward County, Va.
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Honoree Celestine Diggs Porter was the first Black Social Studies Coordinator in Norfolk. After 40 years of service to the Norfolk Public School System, Porter spent 25 years at Old Dominion University. Her first teaching assignment was in a one room school house in Lenexa (near Williamsburg).
Porter began teaching at Booker T. in 1933 and has been considered a trailblazer who “cared for and nurtured her students to reach their full potential.”
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The last educator to be honored was David Gilbert Jacox for whom D. G. Jacox Elementary School is named (formerly D. G. Jacox Junior High School). In addition to being an educator, Jacox was a minister, humanitarian and founder of Booker T. Washington High School.
Because of his vision and request, the John T. West School in 1914 was recognized by the Virginia State Board of Education, as “the first accredited high school for Negroes or Colored people in Virginia.”
In 1917, the high school was relocated from John T. West to Norfolk Mission School and renamed Booker T. Washington High School.
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Those of us who came through the Norfolk Public School System, during the days of segregation, especially Booker T. Washington High School which was fondly called “THE FACTORY,” are extremely grateful for the compassion, commitment and dedication that our teachers bestowed upon us.
They prepared us to be critical thinkers and for excellence. They would not allow us to be victims of what is called a “Crisis in Black Education.”
Thank each one of you that taught us.