At age 84, Thomas Clifton VanDyke still vividly recalls spending his Saturday afternoons helping his mother decorate classroom materials for her students at the formerly segregated Blackshear Elementary School.
“I remember her putting together exhibits and bulletin boards for her lessons, and I would help color in the drawings,” VanDyke says. This was a time before teacher supply stores and well-equipped classrooms. I saw on an intimate level that teachers did what they needed to do to help their students learn.”
VanDyke smiles when he recalls memories of his mother and his aunt, who also taught at Blackshear Elementary and wrote the school song. Every so often he’d tag along with them on the short walk from their East Austin home to the headquarters of the Colored Teachers State Association of Texas, which served as the home base for educators to fight for equal rights.
“The association worked toward establishing equity for African American teachers; that was the professional agenda,” VanDyke says. But the greater good was to see that teachers were treated respectfully and, in turn, students would receive that same treatment.”
Designed by John Saunders Chase, the first African American to graduate from UT’s School of Architecture and the state’s first licensed African American architect, the building served as the association’s headquarters until it dissolved in 1966 when schools began the process of integration. Now as the new home of the Center for Community Engagement, the building will continue to serve as a meeting ground and central resource for community advocacy.
“The Chase building in and of itself is a living legacy,” VanDyke says. “The purpose for the building still lives on because it is a place where people are championing our biggest societal issues.”
Limitations and Expectations
A longtime educator himself, VanDyke is passionate about advocacy work—especially when it comes to supporting students in underserved communities. Growing up in Texas soceity in the 1940s, he knows all too well how hard it can be to succeed with miniscule resources.
“The schools were unequal in every respect,” VanDyke says. “Teachers had to make do with low wages, poor facilities and hand-me-down books. Sometimes, I received books that were so used up, I didn’t have any space to fill in my name.”
Determined to put their students on the right path, VanDyke’s mother and her colleagues made an extra effort to connect with them one-on-one. They also held PTA meetings in their homes to build relationships with parents and fellow neighbors.
“They really focused on getting to know their students, learning about their backgrounds and figuring out their specific needs so they could work with the parents,” VanDyke says. “Most of the parents were very involved and an interested in helping their children succeed, so it was a real community effort.”
Success was the ultimate goal, VanDyke notes, even if that meant being realistic about their limitations in Texas society.
“They knew whatever they were teaching was going to be critical because many of us knew that some may not graduate from high school, let alone go off to college,” VanDyke says. “They taught us with the mindset that this is the end.”
Fortunately for VanDyke, it wasn’t the end. Unlike many of his classmates, he not only finished high school but also earned a college degree. Looking back at his high school memories, he is especially grateful for a particularly tough English teacher who gave him the academic edge.
“I remember my English teacher being very strict, and I didn’t look forward to her classes very much,” VanDyke says, laughing. “I didn’t know it at the time, but she was teaching from a college-level textbook. When I entered my freshman year, I was so ready.”
After receiving his undergraduate degree from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, VanDyke went on to take graduate-level courses at UT Austin. Like John Chase, he was a man of many firsts. Among his many accomplishments, he served as the first African American to hold the positions of Travis County deputy district clerk and UT assistant director of admissions. While at UT, he helped create the university’s first outreach programs designed to bring in students who—like many of his former classmates—may not perceive college as a possibility.
“We went into these high schools in major cities and set up relationships with counselors to make sure students were getting the word about college, the application process, and to get them into the system,” says VanDyke, who also played a key role in creating the university’s largest open house—now known as Explore UT. “We were there to be their cheerleaders and help them keep their focus.”
During his time on campus, VanDyke had the honor of working alongside Almetris Duren (also known as Mama Duren), a beloved figure in UT Austin history who made a profound impact on African American students as housemother, mentor and adviser during the early years of racial integration.
“Mama Duren was a beautiful soul,” says VanDyke, who later served as director of admissions and records at Austin Community College for nearly 20 years. “She wanted to make sure all her students were doing well. I’d go to her apartment sometimes to strategize different things, and she would always be busy feeding and counseling a handful of students. She loved them and the university—she loved it for what it could be. She had a vision, and it was my privilege to work with her.”
Making it Work
Back in the days when African American students had to live in separate dorms and endure daily harassments at UT Austin, Mama Duren supported them every step of the way. In essence, she helped them find a way to make it work. This, too, was Johnetta Williams’ mission as a teacher in a segregated elementary school in Southeast Dallas.
With just the bare bones basics provided by the school, she had to get creative to meet her students’ needs. Chuckling softly, she recalls her memories of stopping by the local liquor store to pick up some empty cigar boxes, which she would then turn into makeshift pencil holders.
“We had very few resources,” Williams says. “When the white schools got new books, the hand-me-downs were passed on to us, but they were still usable, and we made it work. The schools supplied us with flags and chalkboards, but we had to pay for our other supplies with our own money.”
Although the job entailed long hours of work and very little pay, Williams was proud to be a teacher. Like VanDyke, she was raised by a mother who made sure all of her children found their path in education.
“When my father died at age 49, my mother wanted to make sure we could support ourselves so we wouldn’t end up in the same situation she was in,” Williams says. “She showed me that teaching was a respectable profession for an African American woman, and it was also something I could do to help the community.”
With her sights set on teaching, Williams graduated from Bishop College, a now defunct HBCU that was located in Marshall, Texas, and took on her first job at her former elementary school.
“It was exciting teaching alongside my former teachers,” Williams says. “I was working with the people who inspired me, and I was there to pick up the ball and run with it.”
During her rookie year of teaching in 1965, Williams and her fellow colleagues were ordered by the school principal to join the Colored Teachers State Association of Texas. Through her membership, she learned how to advocate for equal rights without fear of retaliation. The association also pushed for school integration, which became a reality for Williams in the early 1970s when Dallas ISD began the process of relocating students and teachers to different schools.
“They took Black teachers with master’s degrees to white areas and the young, inexperienced white teachers were sent to the Black areas,” Williams says. “People didn’t have a say in where they would go. I don’t think it mattered for the younger teachers, but many of the older teachers who were at a school for a long time felt uncomfortable and preferred to stay in their neighborhoods.”
Williams was among the many experienced teachers sent to different schools far outside of their neighborhoods. Despite the setbacks, she faced her new challenge with a can-do attitude and, once again, found a way to make it work.
“It was a 25-minute drive instead of a short walk to the school, so it was a big change,” Williams says. “At first, I didn’t like working at this different school, but then I started to adjust to it and embraced some of the new methods, and I ended up doing just fine.”
At this point in her career, Williams became highly active in her advocacy work—marching at demonstrations for equal pay, attending national teacher association conventions on Capitol Hill and serving on various committees for teachers’ rights. One of her greatest successes, she says, was playing a role in passing a major bill that would allow teachers to take a much needed 30-minute lunch break away from their students.
“The biggest victory I can remember was passing the Duty-Free lunch bill,” says Williams, who is continuing her advocacy work as an active member of several committees at the state and national level. “Teachers were expected to take their classes to the lunchroom and sit with their students. The Duty-Free Lunch legislation gave us time to plan, to run errands like making copies, and to meet with our coworkers to share ideas on class projects.”
Of all her achievements throughout her many decades of teaching and advocacy work, Williams says her greatest success of all was helping her students reach their full potential.
“I’m most proud of being able to look back at the students who I taught over the years and seeing them in their adult roles as productive citizens,” Williams says.
Laying the Groundwork
Jeremy Horne, a graduate student in the Educational Leadership and Policy Program, believes much can be learned by studying the teaching practices of African American teachers who laid the groundwork for today’s progressive teaching practices.
“When we talk about culturally responsive pedagogy, we focus more on teaching practices that are more poignant in particular to students of color,” Horne says. “What we’re not talking about is that Black teachers have been doing this for a long time. We often overlook the fact that Black educators are the originators of what we’ve learned today.”
During his graduate assistantship with the Center for Community Engagement, he spent many hours researching the history of the Colored Teachers State Association of Texas. While combing through archival photos, newsletters and interviews, he found that many of the members were highly educated scholars who left an indelible mark on the U.S. educations system.
“The perspectives and histories of Black educators are not often included in our historical recollection,” says Horne, “It’s important to look at this association and all that its members accomplished—from equal pay to the Sweatt v. Painter case to landmark decisions regarding Black education in general.”
Although the nation has certainly progressed since the days of segregation, Horne notes that we still have a long road ahead until public education truly becomes the great equalizer.
“Black people still highly value education—and they find community through education,” Horne says. “That persistence has been holding strong throughout generations. Yet Black educators and students still experience persistent inequity; it might be couched in different language and discourse, but it still remains consistent in education today.”
A Time of Awakening
During this time of school closures and rapid gentrification in historically Black neighborhoods, Horne says the new John S. and Drucie R. Chase Building will provide valuable advocacy resources to vulnerable communities, particularly African American parents who continue to face persistent inequities in public education.
“Black people have been fighting to get an education—even to the point of death,” Horne says. “There are all of these stereotypes of disengaged Black parents, but historically they have always been engaged. We need to shift the question of how to engage Black parents to what the institutions need to be doing to support them.”
Looking toward the future, VanDyke is excited about the building’s next new life as a central hub for community advocates. He hopes to see many people making good use out of its many resources and working together for the greater good. Given our city’s major challenges with affordable housing and African American displacement, he urges us all to think outside of our self-interests and help others in need.
“One of the things I’ve come to realize is that everything is connected; everything is related,” VanDyke says. We need to awaken folks to help people see this. We need to truly exhibit loving thy neighbor and loving human beings. If we don’t seek to raise our brothers and sisters up, all is lost. To quote a stanza from an old Negro Spiritual: ‘If I can help someone along the way, my life has not been in vain. If we adopt that attitude, we will go a long way in helping others.”