By Dr. Bill Scaggs
The Meridian Star
When H. M Ivy arrived in 1923 to lead public education in our community he was well prepared to tend Meridian's progress by nurturing the previously planted seeds of excellence. He stood on the shoulders of at least four 19th Century educational system builders par excellence.
Three of those giants left Meridian pursuing "career ladders" that carried them beyond Meridian. In 1915 the fourth arrived in Meridian as a school principal and was promoted to high school principal in 1917 some six years prior to Horace Ivy's engagement as superintendent. He served our community until his death in 1945.
His name: Thomas Jefferson Harris. Mr. Harris's achievements are all the more remarkable for the restraints imposed by the "Jim Crow" culture of our state and region. And what was Jim Crow? Bottom line: It was a system for oppression of blacks. It was institutionalization of intolerance. It reinforced the "myth" of separate but equal access to educational opportunity for blacks and whites. And in many ways remains part of our past that has not yet passed.
Thus it is also a past that can, if allowed to do so, illuminate the issues of today. Most certainly "Professor " Harris — as he was addressed during a time that terms like "Mr." or "Mrs." were reserved for white folk — was a key leader in the development of the launching pad for today's Meridian Community College.
The Jim Crow rule book provided that Mr. Harris act as superintendent of Negro Schools in Meridian. It also dictated that Dr. Ivy act as the Boss Superintendent. And , of course, the fine print of the segregationist's code was "keep everything and everybody" separate and keep "everyone in their place." I've not learned if Mr. Harris was a registered, poll tax paying voter.
From our window in 2012 it is difficult to understand or appreciate the challenges Mr. Harris faced in 1915 as he undertook the quest for school improvement in the Jim Crow world which called for education to constrain rather than liberate. And while Wechsler School is rightly celebrated as the "brick light house" for education and community upbuilding, it was separate and unequally supported.
So when Dr. Ivy set up shop in 1923, Mr. Harris brought around eight years of experience in Meridian to their quest for schools that were accessible and excellent. Their experiences and capacity to work together set the pace for school improvement in Meridian across the following two decades. How?
Mr. Harris brought "boots on the ground" experience as an education leader in a Jim Crow culture; Dr. Ivy, also experienced in that culture, brought an extensive network of educational leaders from across the state, region, and national school improvement landscape. So it was no accident that by 1927 Horace Ivy led the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges' work on accreditation of "Black Schools."
It is clear to me that Dr. Ivy and "Professor" Harris understood that educational excellence is determined by the preparation and commitment of individual teachers. By 1929 they teamed to establish The Meridian-State Summer Normal for Teachers. "Normals" were teacher training and accreditation institutions and some cases forerunners of today's "Colleges of Education."
The Meridian-State Normal was located at the Meridian Campus of Haven Teacher's College, an institution we'll visit on another day. An exemplary collaboration of the Meridian Schools, State Department of Education, Haven Normal, Rust College, and the Methodist Church made this possible.
Of course, Jim Crow required Dr. Ivy serve as Director and Mr. Harris served as Assistant Director. From our 2012 perch, this seems a modest beginning for uplifting "instructional quality." Actually, it was clearly counter-cultural and quietly revolutionary. The Meridian-State Normal was a statement to this community that learning matters for all of us. And teacher-leaders make this happen.
Stay tuned. Next time: Local colleges before H.M. Ivy.
Dr. Bill Scaggs is President-Emeritus of MCC. The opinions and perspectives contained in this column are his alone.