Emory Report
August 31, 2009
Volume 62, Number 2


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August 31, 2009

Just Published
Paying homage to black educators

By Ann Hardie

The way she tells it, Vanessa Siddle Walker uses the tools of an ethnographer and historian. “My self-definition is that I am a story-teller,” says the Winship Distinguished Research Professor in Emory’s Division of Educational Studies.

Her latest story, chronicled in her fourth book, “Hello Professor,” published this month by the University of North Carolina Press, explores the leadership of black principals in the Jim Crow South through the lens of Ulysses Byas.

During segregation, Byas served as “professor” — a common title for a black principal — of Gainesville’s Fair Street High School, later rebuilt as E. E. Butler.

Despite intransigent racism, crumbling school buildings and outdated materials, Byas and his counterparts across the South fostered schools rich in professional development, parental involvement and student aspiration.

“This is the network that explains how black segregated schools were able to do what they did under oppressive circumstances,” Siddle Walker says.

In 2000, Siddle Walker won a Grawemeyer Award, one of education’s most prestigious honors, for “Their Highest Potential,” which examines a resilient and thriving black school in rural North Carolina during segregation. That book and now “Hello Professor” challenge widely held beliefs that black schools were poor educational institutions.

In fact, Siddle Walker contends that educators can improve today’s failing urban schools by examining how black schools taught and supported African American students during segregation.

“If I didn’t know the history, I would be more inclined to throw up my hands,” she says.

Her current work-in-progress, “The Death of Memory,” focuses on the advocacy of black educators, often working behind the scenes, and their fight for civil rights and school integration.

With a Spencer Foundation grant and help of educational studies graduate students, Siddle Walker has focused her research on the extensive files of the late Georgia State Sen. Horace Tate, an educator who headed up the Georgia Teachers and Education Association.
Siddle Walker met Byas in 1998 through his daughter and initially intended his story to be part of a collaborative volume showcasing black Southern principals. “It refused to behave, to be contained to 50 pages,” she says.
A high school dropout from a single-parent family who went on to earn his EdD, Byas insisted on a curriculum at his Gainesville school that actually exceeded white schools, Siddle Walker says.

In researching “Hello Professor,” Siddle Walker often met with Byas, now 85, at his home in Macon. She also had access to his personal and professional files, which Emory’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library acquired this year.

“When I used to call him, or visit him, he would say, ‘Hello, professor.’ It was as though he was inviting me into a different kind of status,” says Siddle Walker, who attended UNC Chapel Hill as an undergraduate before earning her Masters and EdD at Harvard. She now believes she owes a debt to Byas and others who paved her way.

“I am accountable to the African American community,” she says. “The goal is not just to be educated. The goal is to open doors so others can tread where you have gone.”