Hidden History: Breaking down barriers at Evansville schools

Hidden History

Special thanks to Kelley Coures with the Department of Metropolitan Development for his contribution to this story.

EVANSVILLE, Ind (WEHT)- She was the first black teacher at an all-white school in Evansville, and she changed the perspective for many, even beyond her classroom.

In 1959, just two years into her teaching career, 21-year-old Mattie Miller walked the halls of Harper Elementary School.

“I was a little afraid of going to Harper Elementary because I didn’t even know where it was to be honest. I was a little afraid of going to an elementary school that I knew nothing about, on the east side of Evansville.”

Knowing she wasn’t welcomed, Miller set her fears aside to take on her new role

“Many of the parents didn’t want me there.”

At the time, Miller didn’t know that many of the parents were in fact protesting her arrival at the school.

It took a long time for the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation to bring another black teacher to harper.

“I think it was 12 years. I was there a long time before any other teachers were selected. But they did transfer some black students into my room.”

Miller says when she was asked to move from the all-black Lincoln school to the all-white Harper school, the EVSC put a big responsibility on her shoulders.

“They told me that if I failed when they sent me there, that they would never hire another black teacher. I thought, I’m only 21 years old.”

Miller recalls one time when a student wrote a racial slur on her classroom window.

“And I said, ‘you know what? I want you to do something for me.’ He said, ‘what?’ I said, ‘I want you to get the word out of your system so you will never do this again.’ And I said, ‘Now, what I want you to do is start saying the word. It really was n***** and I thought, I said, ‘you start at a whisper and then just raise your voice and keep saying it and scream it as loud as you can.’ I said, ‘I think this will help you get it out of your system.’ And I sat behind the desk and he started off very softly, and I said, ‘now get louder, louder, louder.’ I said, ‘as loud as you want to.’ There was no one there but the two of us and he sat there and started doing this and he started crying and I started crying because I thought maybe this is a mean thing to do to this student but maybe he will get it out of his system.”

Miller says doubts from co-workers or parents never got to her because she knew what she was there to do.

” I just wanted to teach. It really didn’t matter with me that they were white. I just wanted to teach.”

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(This story was originally published on Feb. 24, 2020)

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