HISD crossing guard reflects on growing up in civil rights era, stresses importance of education

At 19, Mary Campbell was more interested in working and socializing than paying attention to the injustices of the world — she wasn’t politically savvy or familiar with nuanced discussions about race.

But that changed when she was invited to her first political assembly in 1970, just two years after Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. When she received that invite, she just knew she had to go.

“She told me, ‘you’re going to learn something today,’” she said, recalling the words of the friend who invited her to her first meeting and served as the catalyst to her educational awakening.

For Campbell, that was the moment education became a driving force in her life. More than 50 years later, that motivation hasn’t changed for the 71-year-old crossing guard assigned to safeguard students at HISD’s Daily Elementary School.

As schools across the district honor Black History Month by teaching the history and achievements of African Americans, Campbell is now sharing lessons from her own experience, all in the hopes of motivating students.

“I tell them to follow their dreams,” Campbell said. “It might take a while to figure out what they are – I know it did for me – but don’t stop chasing.”

Campbell grew up alongside her seven siblings in the small town of Ville Platte, La., but said she didn’t feel the weight of racism and prejudice until she moved to Houston as a teenager. That’s when the sidelong glances from strangers in restaurants and turned-up noses from her classmates began.

Even still, she was taken aback on how little she knew about politics or the importance of the civil rights movement. She was eager to learn more.

In the years that followed her first meeting, Campbell traveled all over the city to hear African American leaders and change-makers like the late Mickey Leland and a young Sheila Jackson Lee speak on issues that plagued the African American community.

“I loved to hear them talk,” Campbell said. “I learned a lot.”

At 4, Campbell remembers being bothered that her parents put her to work on the family farm instead of sending her to school.

But she more than made up for it, eventually catching up. In her quest for learning, she enrolled in nursing school, University of Houston classes, and even the Houston Police Academy in search of more knowledge and opportunity. 

She ultimately found her calling as a chef. During four decades of working in the kitchens of well-to-do establishments such as the now-defunct Memorial Drive Country Club, she shook hands with U.S. presidents and other dignitaries before retiring and joining the HISD team.

She’s proud of her accomplishments, but she’s even more proud of the fact that all her siblings attended college, and her son, Johnny, was reading by age 3.

At her crossing guard post at Daily Elementary School, she now spends her days helping young scholars safely make their way across the street while sharing words of wisdom along the way.