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Mobile Public Library Local History & Genealogy Library

The Local History and Genealogy Library is dedicated to collecting, preserving, and providing access to the history of Mobile, and the greater Gulf Coast region.

Willie Pearl Lewis Interview Clips

Title

Willie Pearl Lewis Interview Clips

Description

Willie Pearl Lewis talks about being a teacher, moving from Mobile County Training School to Vigor High School, and being one of the first black teachers at a formerly all white school.
Willie Pearl Lewis talks about the effects of desegregation on education and literacy.

Creator

National African American Archives & Museum,
Museum of Mobile

Publisher

National African American Archives & Museum,
Museum of Mobile
Mobile Public Library, Local History & Genealogy

Date

2000

Language

English

Type

Oral history interview

Identifier

VOHP-WilliePearlLewis-Teaching

Interviewer

Kern Jackson

Interviewee

Willie Peal Lewis

Location

704 Rebecca Drive
Mobile, Alabama 36617

Transcription

Jackson: When you walked into your own classroom that first time, do you remember that day? Or do you remember that year or that time?

Lewis: Not my first classroom, I really don’t remember that. I tell you this, I know it wasn’t a frightening thing because I had been used to teaching. Before I finished college, before I finished high school, we used to, at Dunbar when your teachers would be out, you know they didn’t have sick leave like they have now, well they would get some of the students to hold their classes, and in the Spring when they would go to the association meeting in Montgomery, we would hold their classes and school work correcting papers, fixing the register report, I had done that when I was in the 4th and 5th grade for my mother. So it really you know wasn’t anything new in a way, but I loved teaching though.

Jackson: Really?

Lewis: I did until it got so rough. Now the first time experiencing a classroom that I can tell you that I can remember, was my first day at Vigor High School. I was sent over there from Mobile County Training School during the desegregation era. And I was the first Black one that went over there. First Black woman and Randolph Thrower came from Blount. So it was just the 2 of us and I didn’t want to go, and I went to Superintendent____, he said if you had any questions…. See school opened Tuesday, and I got a registered letter Friday, uh huh to go. Saturday evening at that.

Jackson: 4 days, 3 days.

Lewis: Uh huh, no school day because it was a holiday that Monday, so I went to Superintendent in his office that Monday morning, and I got there, there were about 20 people there. When I gave the secretary my name, she ushered me right on in. I say well now, this is strange you know. So Herb Pope was superintendent, assistant at that time. So he wanted to know what was my complaint, so I told him, I said, “ I have been teaching, I have an elementary certificate that certifies me to teach from grades 1 through 9 and I've been at Mobile County Training School and I been teaching 9th grade English for the last 11years and Vigor is a senior high school, grades 10 through the 12th.” He said, “Well if you can teach 9th grade English, you can teach 12th grade English or you can go home and sit up.” Then the interview was over. So I got in a house and a car so I got to, I can't go home. So I went to Vigor, and I had met I had you know, I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t think they knew what to expect either because out on the hall where we were, the first 3 days we were there, the three, four football coaches, two each, to a class. They control the halls, all day. So the 4th day I went down to get my manuals, my books and they weren't there, they didn’t come that day you know in the hall so they were giving out books. So I ask them, I say, “where were you today, I missed you, I didn’t see you?” “Well we thought you knew what you were doing, we didn’t need to come down there.” Those were the kind of things that you met you know. But I say this, the kids were nice, they were really nice, most of them with the exception, to me of one or two. Now there might have been more, I knew there were more but, to me.

Jackson: No more difficult children than you would normally have.

Lewis: No, um umm. But you handle them in a different way. Now they acted you know, quiet at first you know, I guess they were weighing me out and I'm weighing them out, so I told them in the beginning you know, I didn’t know what they thought. But I hadn’t asked to come over there and I'm sure they hadn’t sent for, but we are here together and I'm going to stay and we gonna make the best of it. And I'm going to do my part and I expect you to do yours. And I really, I never had any trouble. I stayed over there 3 years.

Jackson: No kidding?

Lewis: Uh uhh. The only thing that happened one time, just before Christmas a little boy, he was passing a note and so I said read ___, so I called his name I forget his name, he was white, his name was _____. I said, “Let’s share the note you know, bring it up here so we can all have a good laugh.” And it was this poem about Black Christmas, you know, I don’t know if you ever saw one or not. It was about ___ this year you can't sing White Christmas and you got to have Chocolate ice cream as well as Vanilla, it was a whole lot of little things like that on it and so I had him to read it. “Uh huh, read it out loud so we can all hear it you know and we won’t waste time passing it from one to the other.” And he didn’t write that so I didn’t have any more trouble, not a bit and Christmas at the end of the year, the gifts, the gifts, the gifts. They gave me a hard schedule, I didn’t mind it. I had a homeroom, I had 2 regular 11th grade classes in English. I had 2 remedial classes of 12th grade English, and a 10th grade remedial class. 10th grade with all the dumb football players in it and see they had 4 Black, 6 Black football players. They gave them all to me.

Jackson: Then you worked with them.

Lewis: Um hmm, the 12th graders, some had been there 3 or 4 years in the 12th grade. Could barely write their names.
Jackson: Mobile, particularly Black Mobile is a more literate place than when your father came here. Had there been any key moments in Black Mobile history that you can point to and say you know, this was an important for good or for bad, for the literacy rate changing. This moment here was crucial.

Lewis: Oh if anything I would say, desegregation of the schools here changed literacy rate for the worse. It had some good points, but what happened it wasn’t done fairly and we still you know are segregated in a way. It has never been completely wiped out. First thing they did, they raided the Black schools of teachers. They raided them of students. They said first accepted only, you know students with certain averages. And they closed them, our schools, our kids lost their identity. That’s what happened the last year I was at Vigor. They closed Mobile County Training School in the middle of the year and Blount they sent students from Blount and from Mobile County Training School in the middle of the year. Uprooted them and they resented it and that’s when all that fighting and walls really. They got up to school in the morning, National Guard is lined all out in front of the school with the guns and all and they fighting all day. Soon as the bell ring they were fighting. So, and then I left there and went to Dunbar and I had quite a few White teachers then and I noticed how they, they didn’t teach. They ignored the children and they were, they were schoolchildren you know they were impressed you know I had a White teacher and she let us do anything we wanted to do and the kids just stopped learning and started this obedience to everybody, disrespectful and everything. In our Black school we didn’t have that. We didn’t have the disrespect that came about. They let them do anything they wanted to do. They sat and gossip with em, oh yes, tell them everything that went on at home in the project over there over the weekends. You know everybody who had a fight, everybody who got busted for drugs, everybody who did this, who momma was having a baby for somebody else, and who was pregnant and that’s the kind of thing that carried on. I caught a teacher one day in the lounge, he was attending classes at South Alabama and he had to make a survey and he was passing this around. He had passed these slips out to his kids: “What do you like to do?” And he had a list of 20 questions on there and this child had put and at the answer for every question was the F- word. And I told him, I said, “a student turned this in to you and put his name on it, and you laughing about it?” I say, “He has no respect for you, and you going to carry this to your class?” he said, “Well yes, I'm making a survey of what they think.” They think that’s funny. See we were laughed at. So that’s when I think it really went downhill, its bad to say maybe, but like I said it had some good points but mostly and most people I talk with feel the same way.

Original Format

VHS

Duration

8 min 51 sec
5 min 17 sec

Files

Citation

National African American Archives & Museum, and Museum of Mobile, “Willie Pearl Lewis Interview Clips,” Mobile Public Library Digital Collections, accessed April 26, 2019, http://digital.mobilepubliclibrary.org/items/show/2418.

Item Relations

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