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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Pioneering Black Educators Help Set The Standard For Academic Excellence

By Aaron Allen
The Seattle Medium

Education pioneer Thelma Dewitty became Seattle Public Schools first Black Teacher in 1947. Dewitty, who taught for 14 years in Corpus Christi, Texas prior to coming to Seattle, began teaching in Seattle in 1947 after an intervention on her behalf by the Seattle Urban League, the NAACP, The Civic Unity Committee and the Christian Friends for Racial Equality.

Prior to Dewitty’s hiring, many Black women had to leave the state in order to teach because there were no jobs available in Seattle for Black teachers. It was Dewitty’s hiring that opened the door for Black educators in Seattle. These women not only broke the color barrier in education, but they also transformed the plight of education in Seattle, as they challenged the system and the community to accept the idea of the intellectual prowess and capabilities of African Americans.

Born in Beaumont, Texas, DeWitty graduated from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas and though she had taught in Texas for 14 years, segregation policies prevented her from continuing her studies in Texas, so the state of Texas paid her tuition and train fare to study at the University of Washington. Dewitty taught at Laurelhurst, Sand Point elementary schools as well as Meany Middle School. She went on to teach for 25 more years before retiring in 1972, and passing in 1977.

Peggy Johnson

Peggy Johnson was among the first group of educators to be hired by the Seattle Public Schools after Dewitty. Born and raised in Ellensburg, Washington, Johnson graduated from Ellensburg High School in 1938, and received her degree in education from Central Washington University in 1942. With her degree in hand and her dreams and future firmly planted in her heart, Johnson was determined to establish herself in providing quality education for young children.

For many African Americans finding work in the 1940s and 50s posed a challenge. Upon arriving in Seattle, Johnson, despite graduating near the top of her class, did not have the same fortune as her White classmates when it came to getting a job.

“I had graduated in the top ten percent of my class, but everybody else in my graduating class got jobs, [they] got teaching jobs in the state and the school administration didn’t do anything to try to help me get a job,” recalled Johnson.

To better her position, Johnson was urged to return to school to work on a graduate degree. With the help of a former French teacher Johnson enrolled at Hampton University in Virginia on a teaching fellowship so that she could pursue her Masters in education. During her trip to Virginia, Johnson experienced the segregation of Jim Crow era for the first time. While her train was stopped in Cleveland, Ohio she noticed a group of young Black kids as they headed towards the back of the train. She grabbed her small bag and decided to follow them. She found herself in what was called the Jim Crow car and although it represented the segregated mindset, fellowshipping with other young Black folks wound up being a very entertaining experience.

In the communications department of Hampton University Johnson taught two classes while studying towards her Masters.

After receiving her Masters in education and returning to Seattle, Johnson got a job working for the government as a secretary which lasted about two years before the office was closed and Johnson once again found herself searching for employment. She went to an employment agency to look for work. The staff at the agency was curious as to why a highly educated woman with a background in education was looking for a secretarial position.

“The man who interviewed me said, ‘why are you applying for a job as a secretary when all of your training is in education?’” explained Johnson.

“They won’t hire me in Seattle because they don’t hire Black teachers,” replied Johnson, who was unaware of Dewitty’s hiring at the time. “He said, “oh yes they do! Last year they hired a young, Black woman named Thelma Dewitty and she’s had a very successful year, so I am sure they might be interested in hiring you.”

After several interviews Johnson landed her first assignment at Hawthorne Elementary School. During her tenure Johnson also taught at Harrison and Seward Park elementary schools before retiring after a 36-year career.

While it was Dewitty who paved the way for many young, pioneering Black teachers and administrators in Seattle such as Johnson, Iva Tolliver, Inus Hall, Gladys Lee, Virginia Galloway, and T. Marie Floyd. This recruiting class of Black women not only broke Seattle’s color line in education, they helped raise the standards of education for all students in the district.

Iva Tolliver

Tolliver and her husband moved from Texas as well relocating to the Pacific Northwest in Bremerton, Washington. There Tolliver with a degree in elementary education from Texas College and a Masters in education from Seattle University became Kitsap County’s third Black teacher in their history and the only one at the time.

According to Tolliver, getting hired in Bremerton was not without its own set of difficulties.

“At the time I applied to become a teacher in Bremerton I went to the district office and they said I did not qualify,” said Tolliver.

Tolliver and her husband drove to Olympia to speak with Superintendent about her qualifications.

“She looked at my credentials and she said indeed you do qualify and by the time you get back to Bremerton we will have your contract ready,” added Tolliver.

During the 1959-60 school year Tolliver’s husband got a job in Seattle and she had to transfer to Seattle. A school levy had failed but Tolliver still secured her first assignment at Seattle Public School’s Georgetown Elementary School as a 5th grade Special Education teacher which, according to Tolliver, turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“I had a 5th grade Special Ed class and it was wonderful to see how much progress those children made in that one year,” said Tolliver.

After that successful assignment, Tolliver went on to teach at several different schools including Horace Mann, Brighton (now Martin Luther King), Decatur and Dunlap.

After working at elementary schools throughout the Seattle area where there were very few Black children, Tolliver asked to be assigned to the Central Area where she could do more constructive and impactful work with children of color.

After her experience as a teacher Tolliver became an administrator, and served as a vice principal at John Muir Elementary.

“When they were hiring vice principals I took the job at John Muir, I was there for two years as vice principal and then they cut out vice principals at the elementary level,” explained Tolliver.

After Tolliver fulfilled her duties as a vice principal, she became the principal at Graham Hill Elementary School.

Over the course of their careers, the women had to deal with many issues.

At the time, Seattle Public Schools gave teachers contracts. According to Johnson, “one-year contracts were awarded to Black teacher, while White teachers were given long term assignments, the contracts were almost like substitute status just in case the experiment did work out and they [the District] could protect themselves.”

All of these ladies ushered in a new generation of Black educators in the Puget Sound area. Being the first or only Black teacher or administrator in the school they were assigned to brought struggles in the workplace that were characteristic of the time.

For example, some White parents were not enthusiastic about Black teachers teaching their children and tried to have their children removed from their classes. Fortunately, there we some administrators in the district that stood up for the Black teachers in their school.

“My principal had told me this later that a parent had asked to have her daughter removed from my class,” Johnson recalled on one such incident. “But I had a wonderful principal named Miss Needer, Miss Needer said the parents do not choose the class where their children attend.”

“So your daughter is going to have a nice year with Mrs. Johnson,” she recalled.

Tolliver, despite many successes, also had her share of difficulties.

“Some of those difficult times were caused by parents because the parents, I think, did not want their school brought down,” said Tolliver. “The parents didn’t really know what to think having a Black principal and having African American children brought into that school.”

Yet with the struggles also came positive and good experience overall. From their perspective neither Johnson or Tolliver would change a thing about their experiences working in Seattle Public Schools.

After many years as a teacher and principal, Tolliver ventured in to the district administration office as a Diagnostic Clinician co-authoring a teaching manual entitled, “Diagnostic and Prescriptive Procedures” with Stanley Kurahara and Nora Naiden which was used by teachers throughout the district.

After retirement both ladies continued to do work in education, volunteer work, mentoring, helping the younger generations of teachers, and continuing to play active roles in the community, in their churches, other organizations and in the lives of children.

Both Johnson and Tolliver recall how their fellow colleagues encouraged and supported each other throughout their experiences as teachers and administrators.

Tolliver shares, “women like Dr. Alice Houston, who I personally admired and respected, was not only my mentor but my friend and she helped me adjust to the administrative work of education which was a very different and more challenging job than teaching.”

This generation of educators was responsible for the education of generations of children for more than seventy years combined.

“What I really enjoyed the most was working with children,” said Tolliver. “I enjoyed being a principal. I learned so much about human beings and I still have, even though I may have had some difficulties, I still have the greatest feeling, positive feelings about my experience with the Seattle School district.”

“I had some very fine people who were very encouraging to me and who pushed and help me,” she continued

One thing that holds true for most of the Black teachers from this era was that they held the same standards of success for themselves that they held for their students. They did not give up on their dreams and they would not let their students give up on their dreams and aspirations either.

“One precept someone wrote in my yearbook, years ago, ‘no excuse that you can offer will answer for success’ and I thought about that so many times and its 100 percent accurate,” says Johnson. “We have to keep focus and we have to keep trying, we keep reaching and we will achieve our goals.”

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