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Then and Now; 80 years after Phoenix Colored High School

by Brian A. Wilkins
September 1, 2019

Phoenix Colored High School Class of 1948. Photo via African American Registry (aaregistry.org).

PREFACE

This article was my junior year Advanced Reporting (301…whatever it was called) assignment at Arizona State University and was turned in on November 23, 2006). It was the most challenging class in my ASU years. Christia Gibbons was the professor. She’s tough and only gave me a B+ for this article that I thought was an “A+.” 

When I read all the reviews on that RateMyProfessor site, it’s nauseating. All the entitled, young Millennials and Gen Z kids on that RateMyProfessor website linked herein are just whining. Journalism is truth, accuracy and proofreading (which is where I failed in my 301 article). Christia is cool and taught me a lot; and she can teach you a lot. Listen to her. She wouldn’t still be there after all these years if she’s not effective. Christia has been in media for a long time and has watched the metamorphosis live in living color.

Love ya lady!

—-ORIGINAL PAPER—-

The Civil Rights Movement, “colored” restrooms, share-cropping, and segregated schools are terms seldom associated with Phoenix, Arizona. Cities such as Birmingham, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi likely come to mind when those terms are mentioned in conversation describing the unfortunate past of the United States. But 80 years ago this fall, Phoenix Colored High School opened, as the population of African Americans and the resentment towards them being here, increased simultaneously.

Arizona officially became a state on Feb. 14, 1912 and immediately began enforcing segregation in public schools. Phoenix had a population of fewer than 15,000 people at the time and less than one percent of that population was African American.
Because the number of black students was so small, the issue of segregation was not significant at the time. In 1913, Elizabeth Harris was the lone black student to graduate from Phoenix Union High School. Her graduation prompted the Department of Colored Students to be established in 1914.

Another black student would not graduate from Phoenix Union until Johnnie Credile in 1918. Credile’s graduation prompted the colored department, later re-named the Phoenix Colored School, to be moved to the back of a small room in the commercial building on campus.

The next eight years would progressively see the number of black graduates increase until a single room was no longer sufficient for them. The city opened Phoenix Colored High School in the fall of 1926, at 415 E. Grant St., separate from the main Phoenix Union campus and its white students. The school’s name was changed to George Washington Carver High School in 1943, after a number of parents complained about it.

Calvin Goode is one of several Carver High alums who still live in the Phoenix-area. Goode, who would go on to serve in the Phoenix City Council for a record 22 years, came to Arizona as a baby from Oklahoma. His family settled in Gila Bend where his father worked in a cotton field. Goode recalled his elementary education and the conditions he endured.

“The schools in Gila Bend were all segregated,” Goode said. “There was only heating in the school, and no air conditioning. There were about 25 kids in my class and we had only one teacher [for all subjects].”

Goode received a diploma from his school in 1940 that said he could attend high school at any school in the state, except for his hometown Gila Bend. He moved to Prescott and went to school there for three years. The elevation caused him to become seriously ill, so he moved to Phoenix and graduated from Carver High in 1945.

“I had a great time at Carver,” Goode said. “We had a number of outstanding graduates because of the outstanding teachers and the learning environment they created.”

Coy Payne also graduated from Carver High and thought highly of his time at the school as well.

“We got training equal to what Anglo student received, but it was difficult because of the lack of adequate materials,” said Payne, who later became Chandler’s first black mayor. “Our teachers were great. They all had master’s degrees and they understood what we were facing when we graduated. I laud them for their inspiration and instilling values that would help us succeed in life.”

W.A. Robinson became Carver High’s principal in 1945 and is credited for assembling a faculty of college-educated black teachers from all across the country. Though all the books, furniture, and equipment at Carver was the garbage left over from other schools, Robinson and his staff created a learning environment that rivaled that of the better-funded, more adequately equipped white schools in the city.

Goode and Payne both went to Arizona State University after graduation from Carver. Goode received a $100 scholarship for his first two years at Phoenix College before transferring. Goode earned a bachelor’s degree in business in 1949 and later earned his master’s in education. Payne also earned his master’s in education from ASU.

Goode said his experience at ASU was not like the nurturing, personable one he received at Carver. He said he doesn’t remember any overt racism, but remembers other black students telling him about unfair practices by some of the teachers.
Though Payne said he also didn’t remember any blatant racism, he recalled an incident with his advisor he said he would never forget.

“My advisor told me she couldn’t understand why I wanted to be a teacher and that it would be better for me to find a job that didn’t require any skills,” he said of the lone advisor for black students at ASU. “Another time, several of us went to see her and she said ‘you boys would be better off going to Phoenix and getting a job as a bus driver.’”

The ASU Alumni Association said they could not comment on the issue, and calls placed to ASU Media Relations were not returned or were forwarded to a department who would not comment.

On Feb 9, 1953, Maricopa County Superior Court Justice Fred Struckmeyer, Jr., in the case Phillips v. Phoenix Union High Schools and Junior College District, ruled that segregation was unconstitutional and made it illegal in the state of Arizona. The ruling, made more than a year before Brown v. Board of Education, led to the closing of Carver High on June 30, 1954, and the opening of South Mountain High School two months later, three miles down the road.

Though technically integrated from day one, South Mountain, today, has the largest percentage of African American students of Phoenix Union’s 13 non-charter high schools, and has the second lowest percentage of white students (Carl Hayden High). Hispanic students represent the majority at all Phoenix Union high schools, but the 27 percent of black students at South Mountain is by far the most of them all.

Statistically, South Mountain is on par with other schools in the district. Its dropout rate has gone down from 8.5 percent in 2001-02 to 2.8 percent last year. Its four-year graduation rate went from 71.7 percent of all students in 2001-02 to 76.7 percent last year, which was best in the district.

But according to a report card for South Mountain, issued by the Arizona Department of Education, in 2002-03, it received an “underperforming” overall grade, meaning it is not meeting state performance and progress goals.
Twila Craig, Senior Associate Principal at South Mountain disagreed with the report.

“The report was inaccurate. Certain things were supposed to be reported that the school as unaware of,” Craig said. “Our status changed once they went back and got the necessary information.”

Craig is part of the new administration at the school now headed by Principal Alvin Watson, who became the full-time principal after serving on an interim basis last year. Watson replaced Patricia Tobin as principal who retired after five years on the job. Though the numbers from the report cards say South Mountain had some problems during the previous administration, Craig would not go as far as to place blame on anyone.

“I couldn’t pinpoint anything in particular they were or weren’t doing,” she said. “In our district, everyone is on the same page and the administration works hard to make sure things that need to be done are in fact done.”

One of the more controversial policies at South Mountain is the identification badge students and staff must wear on campus at all times. The policy, instituted in 2002, according to the DOE report card, was adopted in response to the 61 incidents that occurred on school grounds that year which required the intervention of local, state or federal law enforcement. That number dropped to zero incidents last year. Student opinions on the policy are wide ranging.

“I don’t think we need the I.D. I don’t think students come on South’s campus if they don’t go to school here,” said Shanese Jackson, a freshman at South Mountain. “I just don’t think they are necessary.”

Some students feel the badges are necessary to keep people off campus who aren’t supposed to be there. There are others that did not want to comment on the subject. One student summed up in a few words how she and many of the others feel about the I.D. badges.

“I think it’s dumb. I just don’t like it, period, and the pictures are dumb too,” said Anessa Thomas, a South Mountain sophomore.

The academic environment at South Mountain is also on par or better than that of its Phoenix Union counterparts. In 2005, of the 151 teachers and teacher aide at the school, 77 of them had at least 10 years experience, 65 had master’s degrees, and three had doctorates. South Mountain also has five magnet programs, more than any other school in the district.
Students are either indifferent about the quality of their education or had a positive view of it.

“I think it’s pretty good. I’m learning the basic things I need to pass,” Jackson said.

Thomas had a similar opinion.

“It’s cool because last fall we didn’t really have all the opportunities we have now,” Thomas said. “They have all those magnet and vocational classes now, but the most fun part for me is lunch because that’s where all my friends are at.”
Goode still lives in the neighborhood and does not feel the education students are getting is comprehensive enough. Goode and his wife both served on the school board, and he is a strong advocate of early childhood education and giving back to the community.

“There are more resources needed and more opportunities needed, such as head-start,” Goode said. “Some folks have told [my family] we should move to a ‘nice’ neighborhood, but we refused. This is our community.”

The Reverend Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County Branch of the NAACP, agreed that the community is being fragmented and is disappointed in the education system in Arizona as it pertains to African American kids.

“We lost a lot when we lost our community after the so-called integration of schools,” Tillman said. “We knew our teachers, we knew our principal, and everyone lived in the community. Unfortunately segregation was a part of that perfect life when church, family, and school were all parts of the whole.”

Tillman wants African American history courses added to the curriculum at all public schools and wants to eliminate out-of-school suspension as a punishment for students. He feels if a student is given a week off from school it will give them the opportunity to get in even more trouble.

Tillman said the problems South Mountain had a few years ago happened because the former principal tried to enforce new rules and regulations at the school without community input. He credits Watson for turning things around, but said much more needs to be done.

“I can’t deny [Watson] has stepped in and dealt with many issues and took them on strong,” he said. “He’s doing it similar to how ASU beat Washington [a couple weeks ago] by going back to old school and doing what they should do and what they do best.”

When Craig was asked about African American history courses at South Mountain, she said everything is channeled through the social science department, but felt an independent course is a good idea.

“I think it would be a very beneficial course because [black kids] have no idea about what their history entails,” she said. “Their parents aren’t really in tune with their history or background either.”

Craig disagreed with Rev. Tillman’s implication that African American kids were better off before integration.

“Had it remained that way, our students would have been out of touch with the world,” she said. “When they moved on, their background would have been based on their community, and they would not have been in-tune with what was going on in the real world.”

Carver High School is now the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center. The walls are covered with photographs of alumni who went on to college and secured various occupations. Princess Crump, the executive director of the center, thinks it would do black kids today a lot of good to come and visit the museum, which is scheduled to be completed by 2008.

“Some are curious about the history of African Americans in Phoenix,” she said. “More than anything, they are surprised that there is a community that was so small and such a significant part of the city.”

Goode said the playing field is still not equal for all students in Phoenix. Though all of his kids graduated from college, overall he said there is still a lot of work to be done.

“Freedom, justice, and equality for all is what this country is about,” Goode said. “We haven’t quite gotten there yet.”

 

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