Dorothy Gray: Miss Tuskegee 1925-26

 

 

(The account below was written in 2002)

JACKSON, Miss. − Dr. George Washington Carver knew her personally, and Dr. Booker T. Washington was her hero long before she became the first Miss Tuskegee in 1926.

Born in 1908, this great granddaughter of ex-slaves Aaron and Hannah Berkley even remembers Charles Lindbergh’s flight over the Atlantic and his landing in Paris in 1927.

Now 94, Mrs. Dorothy Gordon Gray, a Jackson, Miss., resident, is bent on preserving the history of others who soared to great heights of educating poor African-American children throughout the nation.

Gray plans to devote the remainder of her life to ensure that three individuals on her short list of gallant educators are not forgotten. The first is someone she’s known all her life – her mother, Eva Gordon.

"She was a wonderful mother and a great teacher," said Gray, remembering her youth in Magnolia, Miss. Gordon taught her two daughters more than just how to make biscuits, although Gray, the eldest child, values that lesson.

"I remember standing on a box watching her make biscuits, then she’d let me try. It was so much fun," remarked Gray. They must have been pretty good biscuits because her brother was always ready to get his portion.

"My mother was an amazing woman. I remember asking my teacher at Tuskegee for copies of class worksheets. ‘What do want with them?’ she would ask. I wanted the extra worksheets to send to my mother for her to use to help her students," she said.

Eva Gordon was deemed smart by more than just her children. She was one of a select group of Jeanes Supervisors, who were noted educators assigned to assist Negro teachers in poor communities from 1908-1968. Anna T. Jeanes, a Quaker from Philadelphia, Penn., gave the $1 million endowment that made Jeanes Supervisors possible. The endowment also provided funds for improvements to school buildings in rural areas. Anna T. Jeanes is the second individual Gray wants to receive recognition for dedication to the education of Black Americans.

Third, but not necessary last on Gray’s list, is Julius Rosenwald, who provided 20,000 shares of Sears stock for the "well-being of mankind," which included building schools for Negro students. The value of that stock prior to the Great Depression of 1929 was $35 million. Some 4,977 schools were built throughout the South, including one in Gray’s community in Pike County, Miss. What is significant is that Blacks in the respective communities raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to assist in the construction of schools in their individual communities.

"Rosenwald did great things for Blacks. I wish more than anything for his story to be told," said Gray. "What did I do with that book on him?" she questioned. "Oh, I’ve got to find it." As determined as Gray is, the book has probably been located by now, just as she found photographs of her days as Miss Tuskegee and as a star basketball player there.

As Miss Tuskegee, Gray was the campus queen.

She recalled the time the school "took a whole train from Tuskegee to Philadelphia, Penn., to play Lincoln University in football. We had Pullman porters and diner men waiting on us. I had never been on a train before. The mayor of Philadelphia welcomed us, and the band and I were presented at three theaters. Oh, you probably don’t want to hear all that."

But it was Lincoln University football fans that didn’t want to hear about the game. "Lincoln was talking about how no high school football team was going to beat them, but we did. I don’t remember the score, but we won!" she laughed.

Tuskegee Institute was founded in 1881 on an abandoned plantation in Macon County, Ala. Two years before Dorothy Gordon was born, Booker T. Washington, in his 25th anniversary address (1906), said: "A part of the mission of this school is expressed in the purpose and determination to assist the race in laying a gradual and permanent foundation in right living, through the accumulation of property, industry, thrift, skill, the education of all character, moral and religious habits, and all that which means our usefulness to the community in which we abide…"

Washington’s ideology inspired Dorothy Gordon to continue her education after completing a two-year education course at Tuskegee. In 1928, she enrolled in Hampton Institute, where she changed her major to home economics and graduated three years later. Gray later earned a master’s degree in home economics from Columbia University.

Home economics is no longer offered as a college major or as a high school elective. This concerns Mrs. Gray as to how youth will learn the basic living skills that the course of study provided. "Kids today don’t know how to choose the right foods to eat. They need to understand what’s in the food that’s on the shelf. You can see the problem today with obesity. It’s not all about nutrition. Kids today don’t know how to sew on a button, or iron a shirt," she said emphasizing the importance of skills incorporated in a home economics curriculum.

Mrs. Gray received her basic living skills training from her mother, who was trained by her mother Celia Ann Berkley Williams, but contends that all children don’t receive home training. "What about them?" she asks. Several plaques line the hallway of Mrs. Gray’s North Jackson home acknowledging her mother’s commitment to basic living skills. "For Outstanding Service" is the common theme on awards from local, state and national 4-H Clubs. There is also a community center in Magnolia named for Mrs. Eva Gordon.

Talking with Mrs. Gray, one learns quickly that home economics is a lot more than cooking class. "It’s the teaching of cloth and management of time. It’s about nutrition and the mind. It’s about learning specialties in food. It’s about human development and learning to work with children," said Mrs. Gray, who practiced her craft at Grambling University, Tougaloo College, Alcorn College and several high schools in Mississippi. A building is named for her at Alcorn State University in Lorman, MS, where she taught from 1950-62.

At Tougaloo College’s 2002 commencement last Sunday, May 19, Mrs. Gray was recognized as the only surviving professor of the Class of 1952. "Tougaloo sent for me. I was so honored. I’m so grateful for the things I’ve seen and done in 94 years," gleamed Mrs. Gray, who is basically confined to a wheelchair. However, her health is fair, considering her age. "I have diabetes and had a car accident some time ago that damaged my knee, but most days, I get up and at least get dressed," she said, sporting her Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority tee shirt.

Mrs. Gray’s sister, Juanita Gordon Jackson came to live with her recently. Mrs. Jackson is also a retired home economics teacher who taught at Lanier, Callaway and Jim Hill high schools in Jackson. The pair employs house sitters around the clock to assist with their daily needs. "I’m doing pretty good considering. Someone stole my car, so I can’t get around as well. I have to depend on other people to take me places in their car. If I had my own car, it would be easier to pay someone to take me around," said Mrs. Gray, who doesn’t have any children.

But it doesn’t take much to lift the spirits of this woman, who is also an icon in education. Several people came together in January to pay tribute to Mrs. Gray on her 94th birthday. One of those persons was her student at Alcorn State University, Alyce Griffin Clarke, who has served as a state legislator in the Mississippi House of Representatives since 1985.

"Momma Dot was my advisor," said Alyce Clarke, who represents Mississippi’s 69th District. "It’s unfortunate that she never gave birth to children, but she served as mother to so many of us. If you were in home economics Momma Dot made sure you did well, and if you were smart, she found a way to interest you in home economics." Rep. Clarke said that when she entered Alcorn she wanted to be a nurse, but Professor Gray had other plans. "Momma Dot would look at me and just say, ‘Uha uha, yes, you look like you’d be good at that.’ When I was a junior I told her it was going to be too late for me to change my major. She simply said, ‘I know, I know, but home economics needs good students, and that’s why I kept you here.’"

Fortunately for Rep. Clarke, the training she received under the direction of Mrs. Gray has allowed her to excel in the health field. After completing further study at Mrs. Gray’s alma mater, Tuskegee Institute, Rep. Clarke worked as a nutritionist with the Jackson Hinds Comprehensive Health Care Center, where a breast-feeding room now bears her name. In the legislature, Rep. Clarke is chairperson of the Public Health and Welfare Committee, also the Education, PEER and Ways and Means committees. She is a member of the Mississippi Public Health Association and Regional Association of Drug Free Schools and Communities.

"Momma Dot encouraged female students to be well educated. She knew that men with less education received the better jobs, and she did all she could to improve the financial stability of women," added Rep. Clarke. "I am just one of many she dreamed for."

Others present for the 94th birthday celebration were Tuskegee alumni Robbie Stewart, Mr. and Mrs. Titus Sanders and Emma Moore. Three carloads of family and friends traveled from New Orleans to participate in the celebration, including her cousin Lucy Corrine Gordon George. "Lucy brought tons of food," Mrs. Gray recalled, acknowledging it topped with the expectations of this professor of social etiquette. Also on hand for the birthday bash were members of the Hayes, Porter, Sizer, and Sims families, and best friend since 1937, Lucille Fraser, mother of Dr. Lionel Fraser of Jackson.

At age 97, Mrs. Lucille Fraser can still recall the days of her early friendship with Mrs. Gray. "We met while she was a teacher at Tougaloo College. I was a teacher at Tougaloo’s elementary school and my husband was also a teacher at Tougaloo College. After the elementary school closed, I taught school in Jackson. Dorothy went to Alcorn, but we remained friends. I just love her." Tougaloo is not the only school the pair has in common; Mrs. Fraser is also a graduate of Hampton Institute.

A longtime member of Central United Methodist Church, located in the storied Farish Street Historic District, Mrs. Gray grew up in the Methodist Church. Her grandfather Berkley was a founding member of the St. James United Methodist Church in Magnolia. Her father, Emory Gordon was also instrumental in her pursuit of a career in community service.

Prior to her retirement in 1973, Mrs. Gray worked with her late husband, Mr. Garrett Gordon, the first principal of Prentiss (MS) High School, and also with the State Department of Education, both in the capacity of home economics instructor. Since retiring, Mrs. Gray has fond memories of caring for her mother and husband, and a fun vacation with him in Haiti.

Her thoughts of days gone by were momentarily interrupted by the voices of soap opera characters on The Bold and The Beautiful. "Do you watch it?" she asks. "It’s awful. The mother is pregnant by her daughter’s husband."

Anyone would have to chuckle as the plot thickens in what must be her favorite daytime TV drama. However, the wonderful real life stories of Eva Gordon, Anna Jeanes and Julius Rosenwald is what she truly hopes to one day see on network television.

Courtesy of Alice Thomas-Tisdale, Jackson Advocate (Jackson, Miss.) Associate Publisher