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Put Faith in Your Opinions

Donna Myers, Trailblazer

Savannah, Ga. - Donna Myers (Oliver) walked to the corner of Abercorn Street and East Oglethorpe Avenue and pointed her finger north. She described her after school walk from St. Vincent’s Academy (SVA) to the bus stop on Broughton Street. She remembered it like it was yesterday. “I walked Abercorn to Broughton, and in front of Levy Jewelers I would leave the group and then I would walk down Broughton to Friedman’s Jewelers on the corner of Whitaker and Broughton, and I would get a bus there to West Victory Drive,” said Myers, the first Black student in the 175-year history of the prestigious all-girls Catholic school. “Then I would take that bus home to Liberty City, my neighborhood.” Myers, a retired Chatham County educator and a member of the SVA Class of 1967, doesn’t get a chance to visit the school much these days, but despite the time away, couldn’t help but immediately remember stories from her high school days. She continued reminiscing. “At lunch, we could come outside and sit over there,” she pointed to a ledge on the side of the school building. “Or we could go to the bookstore across the street if we needed anything.” 

First among Many

Myers and two others, Veronica Johnson and the late O’Linda Douglas, were the first Black graduates of St. Vincent’s Academy, but for the first two years of her high school career, Myers was alone, the sole Black student at the school in 1964 and 1965. Whether she admits it or not, whether she agrees or not, she is a trailblazer for the Black students that attended after she walked through the doors. Today it would not be odd to see Black girls dressed in the white blouses and plaid skirts of St. Vincent’s crossing Liberty Street on their way to class or heading to Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist. In 1964 Donna Myers stood out in a much different Savannah, and for that matter America. “I went to St. Vincent’s with full knowledge that I would be the only Black girl in the school,” remembers Myers. “There was never a fear in my mind that I was less than or unprepared.”

A Savannah native, Myers likes to proudly refer to herself as a “generational Savannian.” Her father, Solomon Myers, Jr. is also a Savannian and attended the now closed Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic School with other family members and Myers herself years later. Catholic school was in her plans long before she was born. Sister Mary Monica, a teacher at Most Pure Heart, had taught Myers’ father and uncles and then taught her. Moving over to a Catholic high school was the obvious next move for Myers, and it may have even been predestined. One day as she and her mother, a native of South Carolina, were driving around town and passed by St. Vincent’s, Myers remembered telling her mother that she would go to that school one day. Myers was oblivious to the fact that in the Jim Crow South, at least at that time, that would not be possible. A few short years later, following the Supreme Court’s 1964 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing school segregation, she would be preparing for her first day of classes at St. Vincent’s, breaking the color line at the school for good. “I don’t think I was sensitive about myself,” said Myers about being the only Black student in school. “I was not self-conscious.” 

Asked if she was ever scared, she immediately responded, “I don’t have that kind of personality. This was the school my parents sent me to, and it was the school that prepared a young woman for society. Back then, you did what your parents told you to do, and St. Vincent’s was a school that aligned with their values.”

Ready for the Challenge

Myers has fond memories of her time at St. Vincent’s, readily admitting that she was received well by the nuns, the teachers, both lay and religious, and the students. A lot of what she learned about how to conduct herself came from her parents. Myers and her younger brother Solomon Myers III, 69, the oldest living Black graduate of Benedictine Military Academy (BC) and the second Black cadet to graduate from the school, were taught that they too had the right to earn a quality education. Academically the workload and expectations had not bothered Myers because the expectations for her to achieve high marks at home were just as high if not higher. “For me, there weren’t any academic difficulties,” said Myers. “I was the kind of student that would do what was asked of me. I never got in trouble growing up.”

Myers III remembers it being something his sister had to do and was “no big deal.” He said, “I don’t think it was a big deal to Donna and me growing up. To the adults, it must have been. Still, I don’t remember her being over-excited or it being a topic of discussion at the breakfast table.”

He continued, “I think it turned out to be a good experience for her. She got a good education and was prepared for college. It’s easy to be brave when you don’t know you’re being brave. She just went on there and did what she had to do. I’m very proud of her. She was definitely a trailblazer.”

Myers teased that her brother would be the one to get in trouble and that her father would refer to her as her brother’s “defense attorney” because of how she would plead his case. It rarely if ever worked but thinking back to those times makes her laugh. “

Fair Treatment

Despite being treated fairly for her first two years as the only Black student at St. Vincent’s and then as a junior and senior alongside Douglas and Johnson, Myers does remember there was a time her intelligence and dreams were questioned. A teacher assigned the seniors to write about where they wanted to apply to college. Myers wrote about applying to her dream school, Middlebury College, a private Liberal Arts college in Vermont and one of the best of its kind in the country. Myers was dreaming big, the teacher didn’t agree. She requested that Myers’ father come to a parent/teacher conference. The meeting was to possibly discourage his daughter’s high post-high school expectations. All that meeting did was further fire Meyers up. She would graduate from St. Vincent and attended Middlebury, later graduating with a Bachelor’s in French and Sociology Anthropology. As a junior, Myers earned a coveted spot in Middlebury’s summer language program, a graduate-level program for adults. “Those were real adults,” she laughed while thinking back to being one of the only college students in the program that year.

During her senior year in college Myers was just one of 16 Black students. Her experience at St. Vincent’s compared to four years in Vermont among a handful of Black students pale in comparison. “It wasn’t about my faith in the priests or the nuns; it was about my faith in God,” she said about her high school journey.   

Was it because she was Black or because the teacher didn’t believe she could achieve it? Myers isn’t sure, but she remembers what it felt like, remembers it like it was yesterday. “I do not feel that I was treated differently, in no situation was everyone, my friend, but I got along with everyone,” said Myers, who occasionally will attend class reunions. “The lay teachers were amazing; at no time did I feel singled out. I felt like I was just a kid.”

Myers came home to Savannah following college graduation and began a 40-plus year career in education, teaching within the Chatham County public school system. She became an administrator and a principal at Hodge Middle School before retiring. Some of the students Myers taught would raise funds for summer trips to Europe which gave her the opportunity to have them use the French they learned in her classes in the real world. She also spent years traveling to the old Soviet Union to teach English to teachers there. Sometimes she would stay in the homes of host families, most likely being the only Black person to ever have stepped foot in these people’s homes. Again she was breaking new ground and blazing new trails. “I enjoyed being immersed in their culture; it was fine,” she said of her four trips to the Soviet Union. Her time at St. Vincent’s Academy helped craft an exciting and impressive life and career.

“The experience at St. Vincent’s reinforced what my parents taught me and gave me real-world experience,” said Myers, who attends St. Benedict the Moor Church, Savannah.

“I am sure it was difficult for Donna and her family to make the decision for her to attend SVA in the 60’s,” said SVA President Mary Anne Hogan in an email to the Southern Cross. “Although I can never speak about a specific high school experience of any graduate, since the memories of high school are so personal, I pray she looks back fondly on her time here.”

She does. “Having done that alone for two years, I’m sure having that many years at a young age in that situation probably prepared me for anything, said Myers.”

And everything. Consider the trail blazed.









Mother Mathilda Beasley’s impact on education still felt generations after her passing

Savannah, Ga.- The Mother Mathilda Beasley cottage, originally located at 1511 Price Street, is now located inside of Mother Mathilda Beasley Park across the street from St. Benedict the Moor Church, Savannah, was closed Halloween Saturday afternoon.

Beasley, Georgia’s first Black nun, continues to be a popular religious figure and example of sacrifice and selflessness, particularly when it comes to education. The historic site, prior to COVID-19, was one of the more popular free tourist locales in the city. On this day, however the Southern Crosswas allowed to take a look around the cottage, which was moved to its current site on May 24, 2014. Chatham County Parks and Recreation Community Outreach recreation leader Adrienne L. Derien-Roach believes the cabin serves an important purpose to the community at large. “Today [Mother Mathilda Beasley’s] legacy serves as an inspiration to many in Savannah of what a person can become despite challenging circumstances,” she wrote in an email to the Southern Cross.“Keeping her memory alive by way of her cottage is important. It serves as a reminder to always strive to offer the very best of ourselves.”

Until her death in 1903, Beasley had dedicated her life to bettering the lives of Black Catholics, Black people and those within the Diocese of Savannah. Though many, her missions revolved around education, and even though there were nationwide rules against teaching Black citizens of the United States and more specifically, Savannah, how to read and write, Beasley heroically continued her work doing so in secret in many cases. In the cottage, there are plaques stationed throughout the three rooms for visitors to follow Beasley’s lifeline and work in the Diocese. 

Starting with a church, school and home for Black children at Sacred Heart Church, Savannah -a marker highlighting her work remains on the parish grounds- Beasley was a forebear of a Black Catholic community. St. Benedict the Moor Church was built exclusively for the Black parishioners, the first parish of its kind in Savannah. She would also manage the Sacred Heart Orphanage (1891), the city’s first orphanage for Black children. Beasley, who founded the Third Order of St. Francis in 1889, the state’s first order of Black nuns. Beasley became Superior four years later in 1893. The orphanage was known to have between 30-40 children, then known as “colored waifs,” living there at a single time. 

A city greenspace, Mother Mathilda Beasley Park, was dedicated and named in her honor in 1982. The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) later honored her works as a “Woman of Vision,” installing her bust in Arnold Hall.

Born on November 14, 1832, in New Orleans, Mathilda (Taylor) was raised a slave and baptized into the Catholic faith four months later by the Archdiocese of New Orleans Rev. A. Mascaroni. Her Catholic faith would serve her well as she moved to Savannah as a young woman, eventually marrying local business owner Abraham Beasley at 37 on February 9, 1869. Following her husband’s passing in 1877, Beasley donated what has been referred to as “her wealth” in a number of historical and archival documents and books to the Catholic church. She would dedicate the remainder of her life to the church and to educating Black youth.

 

 

St. Pius X lives on through the faith and dedication of its alumni

Savannah, Ga.-  Rex DeLoach, 83, doesn’t attend the St. Pius X Alumni Association meetings much anymore, even with the meetings taking place via Zoom. He has a good reason for that though. “I did attend the meetings [in person] for a while, but now I don’t have the capability to do that anymore,” said DeLoach, who admitted he’s not technologically proficient.

One October morning he met a Southern Cross reporter at St. Benedict the Moor Church, Savannah to show off a picture of the St. Pius X Class of 1955. It was the first class of graduates at the defunct Black Catholic  high school, a school with deep-running traditions to this day. DeLoach is very proud of his association with St. Pius X; the retired United States Air Force veteran considers his time there crucial to his career success. “My time at St. Pius X, the skills I learned there, helped prepare me for what was ahead,” he said. About his time as a member of the first graduating class at St. Pius X, DeLoach said, “It was a new beginning, and we happened to be there at that time. I think some of the alumni have within them the ability to remember the past because some of the things we went through are hard to explain.”

On a warm Friday morning, DeLoach stepped out of his white SUV at the corner of East Broad Street and East Taylor Street wearing a gold and maroon St. Pius X t-shirt and matching cap. The back of the t-shirt read “Rex DeLoach, Class of 1955”. 

“It’s hard to explain how it is today versus what it was like back then,” said DeLoach. “This town was a lot different then than it is today.” The alumni association keeps alumni like DeLoach in contact with former classmates, something he especially enjoys now that coronavirus has further limited his outside contact with friends and family. His morning meeting with the Southern Crosswas scheduled at 8 a.m. to both avoid traffic and people. “I’m still in contact with a classmate that lives in Atlanta,” he said. “We went to school together from [the former] St. Mary’s all the way through high school.”  

The ties that bind

Those times bound the people that attended St. Pius X together. The same can be said for some of the people that worked in the school. 

The St. Pius X Alumni Association had a reunion in June 2004. The school’s last director Monsignor Fred Nijem, the retired former pastor at Sacred Heart Church, Warner Robins, thinks fondly of the warm feelings in the room that night. Nijem remembers the community around the school being close-knit and familial. “Catholics made up the largest percentage of the families at the school, and the closing of St. Pius X was a very traumatic experience for them,” said Nijem. “St. Pius X provided an opportunity for African American students to matriculate into some top-level colleges around the country, and that was one of the reasons they were going to miss that school. It was a relatively small school, and it drew from all three of the (then) predominantly Black parishes in Savannah- St. Mary’s, St. Benedict’s, and St. Anthony’s. But, the school was kind of a meeting place where all three of those individual communities could come together.”

St. Pius X alumna Rhonda Miller-Williams, 71, Class of 1968, agrees with the community aspect of having attended St. Pius. “We all came from three missionary [elementary] schools, and some of our parents had difficulties paying,” she said by phone. “It was the most important gift I’ve ever received. Attending St. Pius enriched my life.”

Miller-Williams isn’t as active in the alumni association as she once was but understands how important it is to keep in touch with fellow St. Pius alums. She believes it’s much bigger than just occasional text messages and Facebook likes. “We have a responsibility as African Americans to remain in touch,” said Miller-Williams, a retired administrator and Sacred Heart Church, Savannah parishioner. “It is important for us to continue to affiliate and validate the historical aspects of our school.”

The communities that made up St. The Pius X student body, which had over 400 students graduate, have remained close, if not physically, then most certainly spiritually. Having attended St. Pius (1952-1971) is almost a badge of honor for the alumni. “It was a nice little school. We had fun there,” said Willis Shellman, (‘63) the alumni association treasurer. “We had so many good people come out of that school. We are just trying to keep it alive.”

Alumni like Savannah’s first Black mayor Floyd Adams, Jr. (Class of 1963) and author and former Savannah State University professor Dr. Charles Elmore (‘63) and retired Glynn County judge Orion Douglas (‘64) to name a few. 

The first alumni meeting of the year took place this summer via Zoom because of the restrictions on public meetings. Under less pandemic-like conditions, the alumni association would meet at Savannah Classical Academy. This K-12 charter school now stands in East Anderson Street, where St. Pius once stood. By all accounts, the leadership at Savannah Classical Academy is proud of its association with St. Pius X. It has been instrumental in helping keep the alumni association, which has well over 125 members, close to where everything began. 

“It’s a historic structure,” said Miller-Williams of the former St. Pius X building. “The most exciting thing is that our building is still there.”

“Our school was founded and staffed by Catholics,” says long time educator and alumni association co-founder Ormonde Lewis (‘63). “I see our Catholic legacy continuing today with our alumni association.” 

Close contact

Monthly meetings at Savannah Classical Academy, local philanthropic efforts, fundraisers and good old fashioned check-ins on fellow alumni are all a part of why the St. Pius X Alumni Association works.  “Our prayer, our Christian service projects and our concern for each other bolsters my faith,” said Lewis, who was also a former staff reporter at the Southern Cross.

Living in Orange, New Jersey, John Pyous, Jr. 81, (‘57) doesn’t get back to Savannah as much as he used to. Pyous is a property owner in town and would make the trip south every three months to check in on tenants and check in on St. Pius alums. The retired United States Army engineer enjoyed a 40-year career that took him all over the world. Still, he always found time to stay in touch, thanks in part to the alumni association. “I find it very satisfying, personally, because it helps me keep the legacy going,” he said during a recent phone interview. “What the alumni association did for me, instead of just keeping in touch with my folks that I went to school with, it opened up a whole big world for me.

“I wouldn’t have known all of the people I do now without the alumni association.”

Nathaniel Glover (‘71) agrees. Glover is part of the last class of graduates at St. Pius X and holds that distinction close to his heart. He, too, used to attend meetings and believes it is essential to remain in touch. “We stay together, we communicate, it keeps the world balanced,” he said by phone from his home in Pooler. 

The St. Pius X alumni association did not get an opportunity to host their annual “Pius Fest” this year due to COVID-19. The annual gathering that takes place on the third weekend of August is held at Savannah Classical Academy and brings alumni into town from all over the country. Shellman knows they missed an excellent chance to meet and greet each other, especially those that live outside of Chatham and Bryan Counties, respectively. He listed Florida, Oregon, New Jersey, Iowa, and Maryland as other states that he could remember alumni currently residing in. “People come from out of town, and we celebrate each class,” he said. “We are looking forward to having it next year; it’s a lot of fun.”

The alumni association has also hosted Christmas parties, with that being a time where people come back home to Savannah to see family, and the St. Pius X alumni is a family. Just ask them. “When I think about the entire St. Pius X experience, I think of family,” said Glover. “When you get older, you lose family members and close friends, so it’s important to stay in contact.”

 

 

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