Atlanta has begun its new school year, and my Facebook timeline feed is dotted with pictures of beaming children. Just about a hundred years ago, my grandmothers started school for the first time. I have no photos of my father’s mother at that age, but she spoke to me of her anxious first days at an elementary school in New York City. She’d gone there with her great-aunt and adoptive mother, Sarah Henderson Jacobs, who occasionally traveled North for short stints of domestic work:
The first day I ever went to school, Frances [Aldridge Newsome, her paternal aunt] took me and her son Edward to school. And the building – I don’t remember what the building looked like inside – but I know we went in, and they had little benches, at least it was built around in the room. And you could stand there by it and mark on your paper if you wanted to or whatever. I didn’t see no seats in there. You sit on the same thing you were writing on. It’s in that, it seem like, from what I remember, it was down in the basement. You had to go down there, and the benches was all the way ‘round the room. And the teacher’s desk — and she had a desk in there. And the children sat on the desk, or you stand there by it, or kneel down if you want to mark on it. First grade, you ain’t know nothing ‘bout no writing no how. And I went in, and I just looked. I just, I didn’t do nothing. I just sit there on top of the desk. And I was crying. I went back to Frances’ house, and then after they come picked us up, I said, well, “Frances, I want to go home.” Go where Mama was. So Frances said, “We’ll go tomorrow.” I said, “How come we can’t go today?” She said, “Well, it’s too far to go now.” I said, “Well, can you call her?” And she said, “I don’t know the phone number, and I don’t know the name it’s in.” And so that kind of threw me; I finally went on to bed. But anyway before long they all took me back over to Brooklyn.
My mother’s mother also spoke of her early school days:
I never shall forget, we went to Golar’s school when there was a flu epidemic at home, and the schools were closed for months, you know. I don’t know how or why they closed them like that, but anyway, they were closed. And the county schools were open. And Papa used to take us down there to [her sister] Golar’s school. She had a school down there below Belmont. It wasn’t called Belmont. What’s the other one called? She had a little school in Williams Grove. And taught me so much more than them city schools. Girl, I’m telling you, I was in second grade, I never shall forget, she taught me how to crochet. She taught me how to crochet. She taught me how to do divisions. She taught me how to do fractions.
Margaret Colvert Allen, seated far right, third row. Circa 1915, Statesville.
Margaret C. Allen, second from right, second row from top. Her sister Launie Mae Colvert Jones, at left, first row of middle section. Circa 1916, Statesville.
Interviews of Hattie Henderson Ricks and Margaret Colvert Allen by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.