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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Willie Mae Lee Crews, June 16, 2005. Interview U-0020. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

High standards at Hayes High School in Birmingham, Alabama

Crews discusses Hayes High School in Birmingham, Alabama. Crews first started to teach at Hayes in 1963. Crews briefly recalls the history of the school, noting that it and another African American school were established in order "to protect" the white schools in the area. Here, she focuses on the faculty at Hayes, the high standards the school established for its students, and the faculty's determination to teach their students honesty and integrity so that they might live up to the school's moniker—the Pacesetters.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Willie Mae Lee Crews, June 16, 2005. Interview U-0020. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

KIMBERLY HILL:
Can you tell us just a bit about Hayes' history? How it started I mean.
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
Yes, Hayes and Carver were built to keep children from attending, to protect Phillips High School and Woodlawn High School, which were all white. If we put these schools in strategic positions and then zone the kids, they would not attend Woodlawn or Phillips. Phillips was downtown. That was the reasoning behind building those schools where they were, and to do it quickly. The first Principal of Hayes, A.C. Dickenson, who died not so long ago, wanted the school to be named Pacesetters. He didn't want any names of animals, he said, "We're going to be Pacesetters." So Hayes High Pacesetters is what they are called.
KIMBERLY HILL:
I heard that he wanted Hayes to have the best black teachers in the district and the best programs for students.
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
He accomplished that. Andrew Abercrombie did class day activities that would rival something from Broadway. Once he redecorated the gym into a Hawaiian paradise and momentarily you thought you were in Hawaii. He was just that good.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Was he one of the teachers?
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
He was a teacher; he was head of the English department. Marion Rogers produced plays for "Raisin in the Sun"-[telephone ringing WC answers]
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
You could suspend [imagination] and think that you were actually viewing these. Laverne Cromer had a choir that would rival just about any college choir. We sent students to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, George Ritzer was a member of my church who went to M.I.T. We were Pacesetters with state troopers; we had the first female state trooper in Alabama. It was the first female, not the first black female, but the first female state trooper, Clarisse England. A picture of her was in the New York Times. I had asked her repeatedly to write her story in a little booklet and get it published.
KIMBERLY HILL:
She should.
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
Our Band Director was superb, Mechanical Drawing teachers, Physics, History, Florence Terrell in Art. They called us Little University sometimes. [laughs] We did, we had a wonderful faculty. Carol Robertson's mother was our librarian during the 1970s and she had reading clubs and she published her monthly bulletins "Mrs. Crews' class is reading, Mrs. Finch's class is reading, Mrs. Collin's . . ." The P.E. teacher was even a reader, oh and smart too, Josette Collins. One year the seniors had me first period, Mrs. Finch for second period and Josette Collins for third period. They said, "We give up, we'll come back next year, we cannot do three of them." We had pride in the school, pride in ourselves and pride in the students. We taught them, this is your school. What do you want people to think about your school? Then what must you do in order to generate that? They had their first major reunion in December of last year, maybe, I'm not sure when. There were people who came that did not have tickets, who could not get in because it was already full at the Sheraton.
KIMBERLY HILL:
There is still a lot of pride in the school?
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
Still a lot of pride in the school. They had given scholarships now because it was changed to a middle school and now it's a high school again. We had wonderful coaches. You couldn't go and play basketball or football like run-of-the-mill folks did, you had to have your hair cut and you had to be clean and people had to know you were Pacesetters. We had wonderful bulletin boards. For me it was a good place to work. We had good math teachers.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Were you teaching English?
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
I taught English the entire time. I would rotate up and down; I always wanted to teach all levels. Especially when I became department chair, so that I would know what was going on at the other levels. If I had twelve I would take a nine, or a ten and an eleven. I would go back and forth, to keep up with students. They would tell you there were only two excuses for not having your work; either your house burned or you died, both of which we could verify. [laughs] They just laughed and said come on. The football players now will say, 'why do we have a test after a football game?' I would tell them that they knew in advance about the test, I wouldn't give them pop quizzes to fail them. You don't give exams to fail students, you want to know actually what the kids know. The tests allow the teachers to assess themselves and discover what needs to be taught again, what you did not teach well or where misunderstandings have taken place. I told the athletes, "You knew the football game was Thursday night and you knew the test was Friday, you had time to prepare. Just as you prepare for the football game, you prepare for me."
KIMBERLY HILL:
They didn't care for that?
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
They'd talk about it, but they did well anyway. Now they tell me they understand why. If you are assigned to me from eight until nine, then you belong to me. You do not belong to your coach, and you are responsible for this class. I have met students who barely made it and some who have come to me in tears to say 'I'm glad to see you because I wanted to let you know how important you were to me'. That is what makes teaching worthwhile. I think we taught more about integrity and honesty than anything else. You need to be good men and women. I remember teaching something in eleventh grade about character and something else, and the paper that they were to write said 'when I am thirty.' The teachers who got together for this assignment gave them a house, a bank account and a car, so when they wrote the paper they couldn't write about a five bedroom mansion or this kind of car because that was already a given. One young man wrote that when he was thirty he would have made an honorable man of himself, and I remember that because that is what he did. He became an honorable man. If they made a million dollars that was fine, but please become honorable men and women. That was a thrust of our teaching at Hayes, that was our philosophical stance. We knew that we were in a sense parents and that we were taught to be good teachers. It would not have crossed our minds to say the parents should raise them at home. We believed that the students belonged to us, we were the adults and we were in charge. Not as police officers, but we had the knowledge and experience. We knew the kinds of things that they would face and we wanted them to be prepared. However we had to do that, by whatever means necessary [laughs], as Malcolm [X] said, to get you to read a book, talk about that book and understand what that writer said, whether you agreed with that writer or not was what we wanted. By not giving up, that is what we got.