Rosa A. Temple still an inspiration to young people

Published 1:00 pm Monday, April 12, 2010

Last week’s column was a retread. This one, too.

It’s just that last week’s School/Youth story about students who got fired up while studying the life of Rosa A. Temple was so compelling I want to visit the topic of school names again.

It’s often said and always trued: We all stand on the shoulders of giants.

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I will always think it’s dumb to name schools after points on the compass and such when there are so many educators to honor.

Look at the Vicksburg Warren School District. It has added two schools since it was created.

One “honors” a Union general (indirectly) because Sherman Avenue is where it was built and Sherman Avenue tracks the line reached by the general’s troops when they approached during the Civil War. (In fairness, Sherman was an educator in that he was the first president of what is now Louisiana State University.)

The other “honors” a farm family, the Danas, who were probably very nice people — and who would probably be very surprised that along the road that led to their homestead there’s a school bearing their name.

Indifference to school names is a reminder of the days when big cities, including New York, numbered schools. Face it, there’s nothing inspirational about having “PS 352” on your jacket.

Mrs. Temple was born in 1869 (making her a contemporary of Sherman) and after attending Jackson College started teaching here in 1885. She didn’t retire for more than 60 years, until after the end of World War II.

When a new consolidated high school was built for black students, it was only right to name it in her honor.

Rosa A. Temple died in 1972, the year after her name was stripped from Temple High.

Jim Crow had reigned all during her days and, in the process of doing away with segregation, the thinking was that we’d all be better off if we forgot about people like Mrs. Temple, Lucy Jefferson, H.V. Cooper and other local education leaders named Culkin, Bowman, Carr, Fox, McMillin, Jett and others.

The schools were gutted, sanitized, sterilized. All their trophies, tarnished or new, were tossed. All portraits removed. All done in the name of equality.

Well, my experience with teachers — at least the good ones — is that they are not politicians, social engineers or anything else. They are teachers. They care about teaching. They care about students learning. The color of the students or their age or shape could not matter less.

And it’s been my experience that young people need inspiration. You can browbeat a kid into doing his homework, but you can’t force him to enjoy learning. It takes a motivated teacher to trigger that impulse.

Although most of her career was during the fiction of separate but equal, there was nothing compromising about Rosa A. Temple. Teachers at the school that bore her name were inspired by her example and challenged students to excellence.

Rosa A. Temple has been buried at Cedar Hill Cemetery for almost twice as long as the students newly enthralled by her example have been alive. But look what happened. In a school project to learn the stories behind names on tombstones, Mrs. Temple’s legacy was rediscovered. Students contacted people who knew her and interviewed them. The more they learned, the more they wanted to know.

The intensity of laments about bad schools, low test scores and disinterested students has been growing for years. So far, no one has discovered a magic cure.

Naming schools for education leaders might not fix everything.

But it couldn’t hurt.

This world has plenty of villains whose deeds dominate the news cycles, but they haven’t won — yet.

And they won’t as long as we remember the good guys.

Thirty-eight years after she died. Sixty-three years after she retired. And 141 years after she was born, Rosa A. Temple is inspiring young people to learn and to like learning.

There’s a message there. We really need to pick up on it.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail