Legacy of Achievement: Local residents tell the story of Brookhaven’s Black HistoryPublished 9:31pm Saturday, February 22, 2014
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The story of African Americans that have come from slavery through post-slavery sharecropping, segregation, discrimination and the transition of desegregation is a uniquely American story.
From the first struggles of the Underground Railroad to simple demonstrations that took great courage like sitting at the counter of a diner and ordering a coffee, or expecting a gentleman to let the lady have the front seat on the bus, and finally to the attainment of the highest office in the U.S. – the presidency, African Americans have endless stories of courage to tell.
In every city, town and community you will find stories of triumph that may never have happened had not there been the first African Americans who fled a plantation, held demonstrations, demanded an equal education or spoke up for equality in the work place.
Maxine Allen and Josie Hightower are women of Brookhaven who have worked diligently to preserve the stories of the first black achievers of Lincoln County and the legacy of the last all black local high school – Alexander High.
Maxine Allen has been an employee at Lincoln County Public Library for 28 years. She felt the library needed something to commemorate Black History month and she had an idea when she started talking to people in her community.
“I like to take a look back and see where we’ve come from,” Allen said. “I just really like history, and I found out that other people are interested, too. When I started talking to people I heard a lot of stories about “firsts” – like the first black sheriff, the first black mail carrier, the first black elected official.”
She explained that these were important because it meant they were regarded as equals in the community of black and white people – that each of these “firsts” had their own struggle, and they each have a story of triumph and justice to tell.
“We are sitting here today enjoying the benefits of the work they did,” Allen said. The greatest thing she said they can teach young people today is “don’t give up if you know you are right. These ‘firsts’ had a determination. They had to withstand threats and taunting and many times, injustice.”
Allen decided she would compile all of the stories of the firsts and a photo of each to create a display for the library to display during Black History Month. She called up her daughter, Jennifer Allen Stenson, to help with typing and writing down all that she had gathered.
What the mother-daughter team came up with is “Brookhaven’s First Achievers,” a display of around 60 local black people who’ve been the “first” African Americans in their fields. The histories will be on display through February.
Hightower is a life-long resident of Brookhaven who has been active in her community uplifting those around her through education, volunteerism and celebration. She has volunteered for organizations such as Habitat for Humanity; The Brookhaven Humanitarian Auxiliary; Mississippi School of the Arts; the Alexander Junior High Reunion and Hall of Legacy, which she co-founded; and most recently the “O” Foundation.
She taught school from 1973 to 1990 in Brookhaven where she taught first grade for eight years and then moved to teaching language arts for seventh graders. She was selected as one of The Daily Leader’s First Unsung Heroes in 1992 for her compassionate community activism.
Hightower’s husband, John Hightower Jr., was one of Brookhaven’s First Achievers. In 1984 he was the first black elected official in Lincoln County and ended up serving the county as an election commissioner for 16 years.
“We were all so proud when that happened,” she said. “It meant a lot to the community.”
Hightower is another Brookhaven resident who is well versed in the community’s “firsts” and can readily recite them from memory. She came of age on the cusp of desegregation. She graduated Alexander High School in 1960, 10 years before Lincoln County schools would be integrated. Alexander High School was first Brookhaven Colored School, but was renamed in 1937 by then current principal A.A. Alexander. The original school had burned, and Alexander named the new school in honor of his parents.
“I remember we had to walk by Brookhaven High School every day to get to the all black high school – Alexander High,” Hightower said. “We had to withstand taunting when we walked by there, but, we just kept walking.”
By the time Hightower graduated from Alcorn A&M College with a degree in elementary education and started her teaching career, she was teaching an integrated class in California. She was the first black teacher on the staff of an elementary school in La Luz, N.M. – but she said all the schools over on the west coast were already integrated in 1967 when she started. When she returned to Brookhaven in 1973, the schools here were integrated, too.
The last class to graduate the all black Alexander High School was the class of 1970. But, Hightower said those that had come from the all black high school felt it was a special place that would inspire them through their adult life.
“There are a lot of us who became educators,” Hightower said. “I chose to be in education because of those people who had taught me.” She listed several teachers from Alexander, including Annie Sullivan, Jesse Buie and Theola Robinson.
Hightower became a historian of sorts for Alexander High School and with schoolmates such as Beatrice Gills and Dianne Dennis, they started a reunion in 1983 and a Legacy Hall of Fame in 2012 that she explained was about celebrating where they came from and where they were going.
“We had started the reunion to recognize alumni who’d gone on and been successful,” Hightower said. “These people deserved recognition.”