Sometimes when we stop to honor leaders, we forget that movements for social change are built on the strength of numerous individuals, many of whose efforts go unrecorded and unrecognized. These individuals are true heroes.
Mary Kennedy Carter died early Tuesday morning December 14, 2010. She was 76 years old. Mary was an outstanding teacher, an activist and a hero. I worked with Mary Carter for the past 20 years as the social studies director at Hofstra University. Mary was a cooperating teacher at Rockville Center Middle School helping to prepare student teachers. After she retired, she became a field supervisor and adjunct professor at Hofstra working with student teachers from the other side.
Mary was always an activist and an organizer. She was on the committee that developed the award-winning "New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance" curriculum and has worked for its implementation as part of the state's Amistad Commission. She influenced the lives of thousands and will be sorely missed. Much of this post is based on an interview with Mary published in Social Science Docket for an article on teachers whose lives were shaped by the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Mary Kennedy was born in 1934 in southeastern Ohio and grew up in segregated communities there with her five brothers and sisters. Most African Americans in the area worked as servants or manual laborers. She was lucky because her mother was a teacher, which was quite unusual. Her father worked as a barber out of their home. He had both black and white clients. Hers was a very religious family and education was an important part of their lives. In school, they were taught that Africa was a continent of savages and that blacks were inferior to whites. However, her parents challenged these ideas at home and taught Mary and her siblings to take pride in their heritage.
Racism was pervasive in her part of Ohio. As a young child, she had black and white friends, but they were separated as soon as they became teenagers. According to Mary, "You could not go out in mixed groups or on dates because the recreational facilities, roller-skating, swimming, and bowling, were segregated. If black families wanted to swim, they traveled to the all-black swimming pool in neighboring Middletown. If we wanted to roller skate, we were permitted to use the Hamilton, Ohio rink, but only one day a week. Because of these restrictions, entertainment usually meant just gathering with friends and family members in our homes and yards where we would play games, listen to music and hang out."
At the movie theater, blacks had to sit in the back seats and they could not go into the restaurants or "eating places" and sit down. One of Mary's brothers played on the football team. The coach said that whoever scored the winning touchdown would get a free ice cream at the local ice cream shop. However, when her brother scored the winning points he was not allowed in the store.
All of the children in Mary's family went to college. Mary attended Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. She described it as "an overwhelmingly white school, but there were enough blacks there that we could feel comfortable 'doing our thing'." Mary originally wanted to become a foreign language teacher but, because of discrimination in hiring, the only job she was assured of getting was as an elementary school teacher. Her job was at an elementary school with a predominantly Polish population in Cleveland, Ohio. She was one of five black teachers at the school - all female.
After teaching in predominantly white schools in Dayton, Ohio and San Diego, California, Mary received a fellowship to study at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City and was then able to teach at a teacher preparation college in Uganda, Africa. Mary recalled, "I was thrilled to finally be on the continent of my ancestors. It was the first time in my life that I was part of the 'majority' population. It was a fantastic experience being able to meet the President of countries and other top officials."
Although she was asked to stay in Uganda, she decided to return to the United States. She moved to New York where she worked as an editor and writer for McGraw Hill Publishers. While there she met her husband Donald Carter.
After leaving McGraw Hill, Mary was hired by the Roosevelt school district in Long Island to develop a black history program and teach it. At that time it was an elective for seniors. In this position, she was able to bring many speakers to the school including Jackie Robinson and Betty Shabazz (the widow of Malcolm X). Mary remembered, "I loved my experience at Roosevelt, but resigned after having a baby. Years later I was hired to teach in Rockville Center on Long Island. At the time, Rockville Center schools had been forced by New York State to integrate."
In Rockville Center, Mary was able to help unite members of the school by developing a model human rights curriculum. She preached diversity, anti-violence, and multiculturalism and created after-school student clubs to promote these values. The first one was known as PINK, "prejudice is not kool." After PINK became an established part of the school curriculum, they changed the name to BLUE or Build Lasting Unity Everywhere. This club was even more successful because more male students were inclined to join. They hesitated before because they thought the name PINK was too feminine. Mary considered these clubs one of her greatest accomplishments and was pleased they continued after she retired.
Mary's activism was closely connected with her teaching. It included writing curriculum, teaching children and teachers, and conducting workshops about ways for all people to live together harmoniously and as contributing members of our great country. While at Rockville Center, she served as a member of a statewide committee that was supposed to develop a curriculum of inclusion that would have included in the New York State school curriculum the history and culture of all people. The curriculum met a lot of political resistance and was never implemented. Part of the problem was that committee members wanted to stress a common culture without addressing the fact that minority groups had been left out of the history of the United States and world history in the past and this situation needed to be corrected.
While at Hofstra, Mary became part of a team developing and field-testing the New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance curriculum that was developed with the support of the New York State Council for the Social Studies. In 2005, the curriculum won the Program of Excellence Award from the National Council for the Social Studies. In the past few years, Mary was a member of the New York State Amistad Commission, which was established by the State Legislature to investigate how issues of race are taught in America's History classrooms.
At the end of her career, Mary became the historian for her church in Roosevelt, New York and a teacher educator at Hofstra University in Long Island. She supervised student teachers and taught social studies methods and educational issues classes. Most of her students were white and were raised in largely white suburban communities. A major focus of her classes was helping them to recognize the importance of diversity, because of the richness and strengths it brings to all of our lives.
Mary believed "All students need to know the history of Africa and Egypt and the contributions they have made to world history. This is not just something to be taught to black children. They also all need to understand that many white people played important roles in the struggles for minority rights."
Mary Kennedy Carter, teacher, activist, and hero will be missed.