Connecting Atkins High history through the generations

Connecting Atkins High history through the generations
April 13
05:00 2017

Editor’s Note:Scott Plaster, Atkins English and School Publications Teacher; and Atkins students Nosha Wilson, Kaylin Carpenter, and Ally Moore wrote the story below. During the creation of this feature, its subject – the former Atkins High School teacher Georgia Harper –passed away on Friday, March 3 at 8:30 p.m. with her three sons by her side. In a letter to Atkins, her son John Harper said, “I am so happy that you all brought so much joy into her life in her final days. Because of you, there will always be a special bond between our family and Atkins High School.” You can read more about Georgia Harper’s life at the link: 2017/03/a-tribute-to-geor-gia-harper-connecting.html


During its Black History Month tribute, some students from Scott Plaster’s journalism class at Atkins High School didn’t just do research and write articles on famous black Americans or read about the origins and traditions of their school in a book. They actually talked to a teacher at the original Atkins High School, 106-year-old Georgia Harper, who taught at the school from 1931 to 1934.

Imagine learning about the school and community’s history straight from someone who lived it. Through the modern technology of video conferencing, that’s just what the students and their teacher did.

Harper’s son John Harper said, “Georgia felt as if she had four very kind visitors in her room. I certainly do not have the words to fully express the joy we both felt, and are still feeling. You will be in our hearts the rest of our lives.” Similarly, the experience had an impact on the students. “It’s something I will always remember; we made such a connection,” said Nosha Wilson. Ally Moore said, “It was an interesting way to learn about our school’s history instead of just reading about it.” Kaylin Carpenter said “It really made the history of Atkins come to life in a relatable way.”

It all started when the school received a comment on its online school magazine site from John Harper, who said his 106-year-old mother, Georgia, had taught at Atkins way back in the ’30s. Journalism teacher Scott Plaster immediately saw an opportunity when his students suggested a video conference with Ms. Harper and her son.

Over the course of two weeks, the students planned the call by doing research and planning the questions to ask. They connected via the Skype application three times the next week, first making introductions.  Each call bridged gaps in distance, age, and friendship over the Internet airways. “It was so special for Mr. Harper to reach out to us. Because of his kindness, he made this very powerful experience possible. We are so fortunate to have had this chance to connect with these two very special people,” said Plaster.

During the calls, John and Georgia Harper were interested to learn how Atkins has progressed as a magnet school, with an integrated and diverse student and staff population, an athletic program, the conveniences of transportation, a school cafeteria, and modern technology.

In a letter to John Harper, Atkins Principal Joe Childers said, “I have to say that when I meet graduates of Atkins, they are some of the most loyal fans of their school.  I am sure that is the result of the dedication and hard work of folks like your mother.”

The students were just as interested and surprised to learn about Atkins life in the 1930s. Built as a part of the Rosenwald Fund, Atkins High School was the first “modern” high school for African-Americans, and was innovative in the idea that it was the first school that prepared them for careers and further education that weren’t just “Negro jobs.”

The school was even built in what was, at the time, an all-white neighborhood. As a part of that new curriculum, Georgia taught English at Atkins from 1931 to 1934. Georgia’s life during her tenure at Atkins encompass so many aspects of American life for African-Americans and for women, from living under segregation, battling gender stereotypes, and seeing civil rights expand for people of all colors. “From black slavery to a black president,” was difficult to imagine, Georgia said.

“There were mostly black students being taught by black teachers” at the early Atkins, said Georgia. Interestingly, Atkins did not have a cafeteria and students walked home for lunch. During Georgia’s time working at Atkins, she stayed at the house of the principal of Atkins at that time. Georgia says that back then it was common for teachers to live with their school principal. Georgia lived with a roommate, Inez Nicholas, another member of the Atkins faculty, at John Carter’s home and food was provided for them. She also remembers the days of separate facilities for black and white in the depression-era Winston-Salem.

Georgia is also multi-racial (Caucasian, black, and Native American) and she also said that she never wanted to “pass” as white; she said she was always proud of her African-American heritage.

Times were hard for Georgia as she was teach-ing during the Great Depression. Her salary started at $720 her first year, and actually went down to $400 a year, which was even more difficult to live on. She left Winston-Salem in 1934 and went to teach at Fort Valley High School in Georgia.

Georgia had gotten married and became a stay at home mother in 1941 and did not begin working again until 1964 when she had three children.

Harper was a very intelligent and innovative woman. She worked for Lyndon Johnson’s Poverty Program, which was set up to get people from unemployment to employment. Georgia began in the intake position and quickly got promoted to supervisor. Georgia succeeded at her job for six years and then decided to retire in 1972 at the age of 62.

After retirement, Georgia and her husband traveled extensively from 1972 until 1990. Georgia’s husband died in 2003 and Georgia lived near her son John in Battle Creek, Michigan.

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