Distinguished African-American alumni empower themselves, others through education

Editor’s Note: Black History Month runs from Monday, Feb. 1, through Monday, Feb. 29, this year, and HISD is celebrating with a series of weekly stories recognizing distinguished African Americans who graduated from HISD high schools. This final article focuses on alumni who went on to have successful careers in education. Previous articles highlighted athletesartistspoliticians, and media professionals.

Despite laws forbidding the education of slaves and generations of African Americans being denied the right to schooling, African-American leaders have always stressed that the key to success is a high-quality education.

In the HISD family, many distinguished African-American alumni strived to help others overcome generations of poverty and illiteracy by gaining an education.

Dedicated to a cause

Ruby Lea Pope shows off the class ring she proudly wore until her death as a member of Booker T. Washington's Class of 1930.

Ruby Lea Pope shows off the class ring she proudly wore until her death as a member of Booker T. Washington’s Class of 1930.

Ruby Lea Pope taught in HISD for 24 years. As a member of Booker T. Washington HS’s Class of 1930, she valued education so much that while teaching at Dunbar Elementary, she went on to earn her master’s degree in education from Texas Southern University.

Of her teaching, Pope said she “loved it… If you could name (the subjects), I loved teaching them.”

Her dedication to her school and community were still so strong that in an “I Am HISD” interview celebrating her 104th birthday, she revealed that she still wore her high-school class ring. Pope passed away on April 27, 2013.

Honored in HISD

Many buildings and schools in HISD are named after African-American teachers and leaders in education.

Jean Hines-Caldwell Elementary was named for Jean Hines-Caldwell, an African-American audiologist who had a long career as a home economics and guidance counselor at Phyllis Wheatley HS.

The namesake of HISD’s administrative headquarters, Hattie Mae White, was valedictorian of her class at Booker T. Washington High School. She graduated from the Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University) and became a strong advocate for school desegregation. She also served as a trustee for nine years and became one of the most controversial figures in board history, after besting two white opponents for a seat on the HISD Board of Education. White’s efforts, despite cross-burnings on her lawn and threats of physical violence, helped lead to the desegregation of Houston schools and the beginnings of racial equity in education.

Upper Academia

In 1995, Ruth Simmons made history; she became the president of the elite, all-women’s Smith College, the first African American to do so. Simmons repeated the historic event in 2001 by becoming the first African American to be named president of an Ivy League school, at Brown University.

Simmons attended Phyllis Wheatley High School, in Houston’s historic Fifth Ward, and even she never dreamed where her education would one day lead her.

“I had one goal,” she once told Makers.com. “If only I could one day work in an office — because every woman that I knew was a maid — the farthest I could think was working in an office. That was it.”

Other notable African-American educators from HISD include:

  • James Matthew Douglas, law professor and university president
  • Arthur M. Gaines, former principal of Woodson Middle School and former HISD Board of Education member
  • Otis Harold King, professor at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law