IN MEMORIAM: Congressman John Lewis on Education, Democracy, and the Obligation to Create a Beloved America

John LewisIn October 2019, Atlanta photographer Andrew Feiler met with Congressman John Lewis at his office in the nation’s capital. Feiler’s portrait of Lewis will accompany his foreword to Feiler’s forthcoming book A Better Life for Their Children, a photographic history of the Rosenwald schools built in the early twentieth century for African American children in the Jim Crow South. Today, as Congressman Lewis makes his final journey to Georgia, we are honored to share the following in his memory. #goodtrouble

“Those of us who were represented by John Lewis have had the privilege of knowing that our political leader was centered by his morality, courage, and humanity. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have been able to spend private time with him in his office working on his foreword for the book. The night he passed away, a close friend who is also a photographer (and who, like me, lives in Lewis’s district) sent the following text, which made me cry.

Thinking of you. I am sorry to hear about John. I am happy that he supported your book and trusted your project. Your vision will sail on his wings. He blessed it.”

—Andrew Feiler

My first day of school was, in many ways, like that of any other child. I was up before dawn and fully dressed by the time the sun rose, way too excited to eat breakfast. My blue denim overalls—the same pair I had worked in all summer—were clean and pressed. I wore my favorite red flannel shirt. And on my feet were a pair of well-worn black brogans, the work boots I wore just about everywhere.

Other than my youthful anticipation, however, most Americans would not recognize many things about my introduction to elementary school. There were no buses for black schoolchildren in rural Pike County, Alabama, where my family had its farm. Six years would pass before I would ride a bus to school. Until then I, along with the seventy or so other students who attended the Dunn’s Chapel School, walked.

Some of my classmates had to walk miles to and from school each day. For me it was only a half-mile hike downhill to the Dunn’s Chapel A.M.E. Church, beside which sat a small wooden building, whitewashed and with large windows. It was beautiful, and it was our school. This was the same school my mother had attended with her sister and several of her brothers. It was a Rosenwald school. It had been built in the early decades of the twentieth century with money provided by a man named Julius Rosenwald, a northern philanthropist. Working in partnership with black educator Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald established schoolhouses across the South for the education of African American children.

Our school had been partitioned by an interior wall into two rooms. There was a single potbellied stove in each room that we fed with wood during the winter months. Setting out into the surrounding forest on a firewood-gathering expedition was a regular part of our school week routine. We would also gather straw to bundle into brooms that we would use to sweep the classroom floor and the red clay yard outside.

We had no running water. We had no well. Nor did the church. There was a farmhouse a short distance up the road that allowed us to use its well, and we would take turns walking back and forth to that house to fill our classroom’s bucket. Each of us kept a cup or glass with a name taped on it on a shelf by a window, above the bucket and the dipper.

One of the things I remember most vividly about that classroom was the huge Alabama state flag mounted up by the blackboard, right next to the teacher’s desk. The flag was white, with two bold red lines forming an X across it. I was thrilled when I first saw it—I had never seen anything quite so majestic. That feeling of respect never went away, even when I began to learn what that flag actually represented. It was what it was supposed to stand for—a people, a community, a society united by a common bond—that gave me a feeling of awe.

There was no American flag in that room, but we began each day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. We said the Lord’s Prayer as well. We would finish with a patriotic song—”God Bless America” or “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”—then we would start our day.

Our school had two teachers for all seventy students. One teacher taught grades one through three in one of the rooms; the other taught grades four through six in the other room. Both teachers, like each of us, were black. My teacher was Miss Williams. The teachers’ salaries were paid by the county, the only government money that came in support of our school. Everything else that we needed, we—or, more accurately, our families—provided. As I look back, it was shameful how little Miss Williams had to work with in terms of books and supplies. Our desks, maps, paper, and pencils all had to be bought with cash raised by community events. Fish fries were always good moneymakers. So was the occasional picnic that included ballgames and other fun group activities.

I loved school, loved everything about it, no matter how good or bad I was at it. My penmanship was poor—it has gotten only slightly better over the years—yet the thrill of learning to write was intense. I loved reading, especially about real people and the real world. Our school had a small library, and biographies were my favorite, stories that opened my eyes to the world beyond Pike County. By the time I was in the third grade, I had learned that there were black people out there who had made their mark on the world: Joe Louis, Mary McLeod Bethune, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington Carver. I will never forget my first field trip. It was a day’s outing to the Tuskegee Institute, my first journey out of Pike County. We walked through the museum there, touring a lab like the one in which Carver had done his pioneering work with peanuts. I came home that night to a front room piled with peanuts picked from our fields, waiting for us to shell and store them for the winter; all I could think of were the specimens I had seen that afternoon, scientifically sorted and labeled in clear jars of solution.

I was curious. I was hungry to learn. I was absolutely committed to giving my all in the classroom. My parents would describe education in almost mythical terms, that it offered the keys to the kingdom of America, that it offered the keys to a better life and to the opportunity so long denied our race. My parents had not gone far in school themselves, and they wanted more for me. But when there was work to be done in the fields, that came first. Farming season and the school year would overlap at times, and when they did, I was expected to stay home and help to pick the cotton or pull the corn or gather the peanuts.

I was not the only one to have to work in the fields, of course. This was true for almost every child in our school. It was a southern tradition, just part of the way of life, that a black child’s school year was dictated by the farm rhythms of planting and harvesting. You went to school when you could.

I resented that. It was not a question of falling behind my classmates; we were all in the same boat. But it was clear that all these days we were missing—a couple of days here, three or four there, sometimes an entire week—interfered with our learning. We were striving to catch up, not just with ourselves, but with the children in other schools who did not have to work in their families’ fields to survive. I did not know about children like that when I began elementary school, but I knew about them by the time I finished. I knew that the names written in the fronts of our raggedy secondhand textbooks were white children’s names and that those books had been new when they had belonged to them. And I knew ever more clearly that education was the way out and the way up.

Andrew Feiler’s photographs and stories bring us into the heart of the passion for education in black communities. The passion of teachers who taught multiple grades and dozens of students in a single classroom. The passion of parents and neighbors who helped to raise the money to build our schools and then each year continued to reach deep to purchase school supplies. The passions of students like me who craved learning, worked hard, and read as many books as we could put our hands on.

Just as important, Feiler brings us into the inspiring partnership of Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, who together harnessed these deeply held passions in African American communities to bring a better education to generations of students like me. Rosenwald and Washington reached across divides of race, religion, and region. Their partnership demonstrates that concerted action can make America better and the world better.

Education is the cornerstone of democracy. Education gives us the skills and the know-how to build a better world. Informed and engaged citizens hold the power—through their vote and through their actions—to make our world work better for all. America is made better each time one of us sees something that is not right, not fair, not just, and has the courage to stand up, to speak up, and to find a way to get in the way. All of us have a moral obligation, a mission, a mandate to do our part. Each of us must play a role, to help to redeem the soul of America, to help to create a beloved America, a beloved world where no one is left out or left behind. May the spirit of peace, justice, and love be our guide.

From A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools That Changed America by Andrew Feiler. Foreword by John Lewis. Forthcoming February 2021 from the University of Georgia Press. Published with the generous support of the Sarah Mills Hodge Fund.

 

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