By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published (via Facebook) on March 9, 2017; Updated and Republished on April 3, 2018 and September 13, 2022
Americans rarely see their schoolteachers as heroes and their schools as revered institutions of learning. I do. Whether we recognize it or not, they shape the lives of the children who determine our future.
I attended K-4 grade school at Alonzo Lott, a small all-black public elementary school in Memphis, Tennessee. From the fifth grade through high school graduation, I attended the Laboratory School on the campus of what is now Alabama State University. This article features the Laboratory School.
The school was founded in 1920 and was located on the campus of Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes in Tullibody Hall. It operated continuously until 1969, when it was closed as part of a reorganization during Alabama State College's transition to university status.
The school had an all-black student body, faculty, and staff. It also had only one class of about 30 students for each grade.
What the Laboratory School lacked in size and financial resources, it made up for in the heart, intellectual acumen, dignity, and high moral fiber of their teachers and students.
By the time the Watkins family arrived back in Montgomery in 1959 to begin my father’s second period of employment at ASU, I had learned to appreciate the knowledge, skills and abilities of my teachers. They were super-smart educators and larger than life figures in my world. They demanded academic excellence from each student and spared no effort to prepare us for success in life.
The Standard for Educational Excellence
The educational preparation we received at the Laboratory School was intense, practical, and very forward-looking. These teachers produced an academic “dream team” every year. We never felt inferior to any ethnic group or competitor.
Racism was never viewed as an acceptable excuse for failing to reach our goals in life. We were taught to treat racism like turbulent weather. It was real and pervasive, but we were trained to find a way around, under, over, or through racism in order to reach our destination in life.
Our dedicated and caring teachers, along with our loving parents, synchronized our developing minds, growing bodies, and unconquerable spirit. They prepared us to become agents for the positive changes we sought in the world.
Looking back on it today, these teachers were visionaries and unsung heroes. What they achieved in the field of education with limited segregation-era resources and unlimited creative genius was nothing short of a miracle.
My friends frequently ask me why I love climbing the mountains of international business, especially since it is filled with daunting challenges and only occasional successes. I do it because I am a flag-bearer for my K-12 teachers. I climb the mountains for them.
I will not stop climbing the mountain until I have exhausted every ounce of strength in my body and applied every modicum of knowledge my teachers gave me during the 1950s and 60s. I am the embodiment of their sacrifices, preparation, hopes and dreams. Only when I hoist the flag of educational excellence in their honor on top of the highest mountain peak of international business will my job be done.
Unsung Heroes in Education
I want all of my readers to know who these unsung heroes are. I want their names and faces memorialized in the annals of recorded history.
The Laboratory School is now featured in the University of South Carolina of Museum of Education. The school was also recognized by the Alabama Department of Archives and History in "Laboratory of Learning: Alabama State College Lab High School, a Model Education," presented by Sharon Gay Pierson at the Department's Farley Auditorium on September 17, 2015.
My personal heroes in elementary and secondary education were: (a) Messrs. W. J. Coston and Moses Clark, Laboratory School principals; (b) Mr. Thomas Robinson, assistant principal and woodshop teacher; and (c) Mrs. Sadie G. Penn, Mrs. Clara Davie, Messrs. A. C. Henry, Joseph Gilchrest, W. C. Allmon, Tim Sanders, Charles Moss, R. Thomas, David Stott and Clyde Edmonson, Ms. Annetta Baugh, Mrs. Ollie Phillips, Ms. Murrillo Garner, Mrs. Etta Myrtle Alexander, Mrs. Faustine Dunn, Ms. Athalee Smiley, Mrs. Althea Thomas, Mrs. Mary Bell, Mrs. Mattie Gilchrist, Mrs. Evelyn Young, Mrs. Frizette Lee, and Mesdames M.G. Brown, C. Clark, S. Singley, C. Taylor, Draper, Rice and Sneed, all of whom were distinguished educators.
When you look at the faces of these teachers and principals in the photographs accompanying this article, you are looking at the faces of greatness in education.
We learned Latin, French and Spanish before we could drink from “Whites-Only” water fountains. We learned how to communicate orally and in writing from the best English teachers in America. Our math and science teachers contributed greatly to the success of those students whose algorithms would later transform the global telecommunications and technology industries. Our biology teachers produced the best doctors in America.
We learned the countries and cultures of the world from brilliant geography teachers who rarely traveled beyond the state of Alabama. We were constantly reminded that the world is connected by common cultural values and a history of human exploration.
By the time we graduated from high school, these teachers had molded our will to win and given us all of the confidence we needed to achieve success against all odds. We were unstoppable in our quest to succeed in life.
The Laboratory School had a 100% graduation rate throughout its 49-year history, and every student progressed to a post-secondary education. The students who were educated in this small all-black school in Montgomery went on to favorably impact every aspect of American society, including law, medicine, engineering, civil and criminal justice, science and technology, mathematics, education, business and finance, aerospace, energy, diplomatic services, and international relations.
No school in America today has matched the cumulative achievements and positive impact on the world that the graduates of the Alabama State College Laboratory School accomplished throughout their careers.
Our teachers were the "best of the best," and we were, too! I am as proud of this family as I am of my Carmichael/Varnado/Watkins bloodline family.
PHOTO: Alabama State College Laboratory School Seniors of 1966. Missing from this photo are: Wilmer Ira Ballard, William Bell, Alonzo Bonner, and Ronald Beverly. As of September 13, 2022, the following class members are deceased: Wilmer Ira Ballard, Linda Carter. Gladys Elmore, Gloria Lawrence, Voncile Pierce, and David Ross. Voncile Pierce eventually married John Gibson, who became one of the most distinguished presidents in the history of Alabama A&M University (Huntsville, Alabama).
PHOTO: The Class of 1966 in Caps and Gowns. Missing from this photo are: Wilmer Ira Ballard, Gloria Lawrence, and David Ross.
PHOTO: Members of the National Honor Society at the Laboratory School in 1965
PHOTO: Ronald Beverly receiving his diploma in May 1966 from Dr. Levi Watkins, President of Alabama State College.
PHOTO: Donald Watkins receiving his diploma from his father in May 1966.
PHOTO: Ronald Beverly in 1966. Today, Ronald maintains contact with all of the Class of 1966 members and serves as our unofficial "coordinator."
PHOTO: The faculty of the Alabama State College Laboratory School in 1966.
PHOTO: Mr. Wellington J. Coston was my first principal. He was as solid as a rock.
PHOTO: Moses Clark was my second principal. He was brilliant and strong.
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