Living Democracy

Gregory School educators persevered to see students prosper

Southern Black educators in the 1900s faced obstacles of racism and discrimination, yet many managed to forge a way through challenging situations.

Some of those brave teachers taught at the “Collinsville Colored School”, later renamed as the Gregory School. The school was believed to have been established in the early 1920s in Collinsville.

The racially segregated school, which averaged around 300 students in grades K-12, was one of two schools in the area until 1968, when Black administrators and students were left to integrate into the Collinsville School. It was located on Gregory Avenue where the soul food restaurant called L&B’s Restaurant now stands.

Teachers such as Sharpe Curtis, Ebenezer Curly, and John Johnson were a part of the web of caring adults who navigated students through their quest for knowledge.

Another teacher was Owen Ford, the last surviving educator who taught at Gregory more than 60 years ago. He still resides in Collinsville and vividly remembers rising above challenges while fighting for education during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era.

Ford recalled, "We received second-hand books from the school with pictures drawn in them, but we didn't worry about that. We focused on the bigger picture, which was educating our children. We received second-hand band equipment, but we made alterations so it could fit them accordingly. We were limited. It was not much we could do, but we made do with what we had."

In spite of racial tensions and disparities facing the African American community, most Black educators in Collinsville took it upon themselves to advocate for students and, most of all, established a support system. 

Ford said there were only 11 teachers at Gregory School out of the 700 in Dekalb County during the 1950s and 1960s. Instead of having designated instructors for various subjects, each teacher was responsible for teaching developmental courses such as carpentry, home economics and sewing, as well as core subjects. 

Gregory did not receive a lot of funding for supplies from the board, so administrators did whatever it took for their students to succeed.

"We had to bring personal supplies from home because we still felt that students needed certain life skills, especially the older ones," Ford said. "If we did not have it at home, we had to buy it, and it was a strain on us sometimes because we did not make much money, and we still had to take care of ourselves and our families, but we did it proudly."

According to an article published on aft.org, the monthly salary of Black teachers in the South during the Jim Crow Era was about 60 percent of the white average, $73 for blacks and $118 for whites.

The inability to interact and form relationships with their white counterparts in the community due to segregation was another challenge for these educators.

"We were often left out of the loop about what was going on concerning students in Collinsville because we could not meet with their white teachers. So, we had to form our associations, and we had to have our statewide teacher meetings in Birmingham and Montgomery," Ford said.

He added, "But we were all right. It was not fair, but we could not dwell on it. We just did what was in everyone's best interests, and honestly, it made us stronger."

But Black educators at Gregory received assistance from leadership as well.

Ford credits the help of Andrew Small, the principal at Gregory School from 1942 - 1968, for keeping teachers encouraged and aiding the community when needed.

Gwendolyn Small Johnson, daughter of Andrew Small, said, "Dad did everything because he wanted to, and he had to for Black teachers and students because they were all they had."

Johnson added, "During one of our band presentations, we did not have any uniforms. We did not have any money to buy any, and we had not received any from the white schools. So, the teachers, some people from the Black community, and my dad got together and sewed blue strips onto white attire, and that's how we presented ourselves."

Looking back, Ford said he admired the strength and resilience of the Gregory School educators from many decades ago in Collinsville. He said he feels honored that he was once a part of a community of educators during a historic period in education.

"When I think back before many things changed, it feels surreal to know that I was once a part of that bunch of die-hard teachers," Ford said. "Times were hard, but when we stepped into a classroom, we focused on what mattered. To know that we never gave up on Black kids in Collinsville, and kept them first, really warms my heart."

By Laney Mayfield
Last Updated: June 17, 2021