Saturday, January 2, 2016

Education - A Path Out

While conducting research on the family genealogy, I came across census records on family members from 1870 to 1940.  The highest level of education a person achieved was one item shown in the census records. Historically, in these United States of America, black people were prevented by social, economic, and racist conditions from pursuing an education for hundreds of years.  We originally were brought here to be slaves, not to go to school and become successful and prosperous.

Once slavery ended and blacks allowed to pursue and education, racism typically prevented blacks and whites from attending school together.  The educational resources and facilities for blacks were often inferior to those of Caucasians. Money wasn't invested in bringing "black" public schools up to the same level as those of whites. Due to persistent racism blacks were prohibited from attending many colleges for years.

Under those conditions, I was not surprised from my family tree  research to see that many Hill family members from the 1870s to the 1940s did not go beyond the 7th grade in terms of formal education.  A 7th grade education and racism that kept blacks from pursuing many occupations converted to blacks only being able to get jobs as laborers, service jobs and generally what were called "unskilled jobs".  These jobs were often low paying and did not support a prosperous lifestyle.

There may have been some family members who were able to overcome the odds and attend and graduate from a college.  But when I was growing up I don't recall meeting one person in the Hill family who shared with me the fact that they attended and graduated from college. On the Alexander side of the family I do recall hearing that an uncle had attended Grambling University, a historically black college.

My dad only had a 7th grade education, while my mom graduated from high school.  That converted to their not having jobs that paid well.  Avenues open to white Americans to get good paying unskilled jobs were not available to black people.  My dad worked in a variety of "unskilled jobs" from working on cars at a car dealership, being a janitor, and working part time as a security guard (among the jobs I knew of).

My parents seemed to understand the importance of an education in the future of their children and enrolled my two brothers, sister, and me in the Catholic School system in Saint Louis, Missouri. Attending those schools required that my parents pay tuition for all of us.  They sacrificed financially to pay to send us to Catholic schools to get a good education.

In the early 1960s becoming an entertainer was touted as being one way a black person could become "successful" in life.  Motown featured a number of singing groups who became role models for many black youth.  I recall my brothers putting together a singing group in the mid 1960s and with friends practicing singing songs and performing at talent shows.  So that was the basic image of how to be successful. Become an entertainer.  Going to college and getting a degree was rarely mentioned as the first option to success.

Somehow as an 11 year old, I understood that education would be my only path to obtaining a well paying job.  I knew I had no future career as a singer or entertainer, and my athletic skills were good but not worthy of becoming a well paid professional athlete.  In a life changing event, in the late 1960s we moved from Saint Louis, Missouri to Compton, California.  Due to a lack of money my parents originally enrolled all of us in public schools in Compton.  I could tell from my first day, the public school system in Compton was inferior to what I had experienced in the Catholic school system in Saint Louis and that my future would not be helped attending a public school.  I faced a decision point.   How was I going to avoid a future of unskilled jobs as my legacy?  Did I want to follow the same path as my parents?   Education and getting a college degree was my only option. Well, turning to a criminal life was an option but I chose not to go in that direction. I took matters into my own hands and just stopped going to the public school.  I told my parents that I wanted the same chance as my brothers and sisters had, that being able to attend a Catholic school up to grade 8. Luckily my parents gave me that chance.  I attended Catholic school in Compton and prospered academically in grades 6 through 8.  I know now, that was a turning point in my life.

In the meantime the educational path of my brothers and sister was disrupted.  They dropped out of school in the first year or so in the Compton public school system. With that disruption came them being sentenced to a lifetime of only qualifying for unskilled labor or service jobs, or worse.  Moving to California did not enhance their chances to continue forward with their education.  They had been enrolled in Catholic schools in Saint Louis.  But the hope that provided ended when we moved to California and they were put into the public school system.  I've often told people that I felt my siblings had the intelligence to excel in schools and pursue careers, if they had been pushed into staying in school and/or remained in the Catholic school system.

Our family's Compton experiment didn't last very long.  After three years, I had begun attending a Catholic high school in Los Angeles, but events already were in place to move us back to the midwest.  We moved to Gary, Indiana and I attended a public school there.  There was no money to pay tuition for my attending a Catholic high school.  Luckily, the academic discipline I was taught in eight years in Catholic schools carried me through my high school years and I excelled academically in high school.   I started applying for admission to various colleges during my senior year in high school.

I was accepted into the University of Evansville.  It was an environment foreign to any I had ever been around.  The school of 3,000 some students had less than 100 black students.  I purposely attended the school to learn how to deal with a culture that I knew I would encounter and work around the remainder of my life.  Prior to then my only interaction with white people was in stores.

I graduated from college in five years.  The extra year was due to my accepting an internship with a Federal employer in Indianapolis as a Human Resources intern.  That two year internship provided me with a guaranteed well paying job when I graduated from college.  My choice to use education as my means of getting a good job had worked out.

I worked in Human Resources for the Federal government for 35 years.  I worked extra hours to learn my trade and to become better than my co workers.  I gained a Masters degree that was paid for by my employer.  My work assignments allowed me to travel around the country.  My job financed my being able to provide a comfortable lifestyle to raise my two sons under.  It provided income to enjoy life and do things I had never been able to experience as a youth.

At work I was often the only black male in the organization, in meetings, and in training sessions.  So I made sure to always carry myself in a professional manner.  Wearing a shirt and tie was a minimum.  Wearing a suit to work was often something I normally did. Those around me would only get positive images of a black man.

I became a supervisor, managed major human resources projects to include being one of the few African Americans who had developed a job classification standard covering government employees. Along the way I mentored others and assisted others in developing their careers.  I was employee of the month and employee of the year.  I managed HR programs for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service and closed out my career as the Director of Human Resources for the National Archives and Records Administration in Saint Louis, Missouri my home town.  It was ironic that I ended my working career where it had all started.  I ended my career in Saint Louis with a six figure salary, managed a diverse staff of 21 people, worked in a brand new building, had my own brand new large office, and lived in an apartment paid for by my employer.  It was only through the blessings of God, and using the educational system that I was able to prosper and enjoy the retirement lifestyle that I now enjoy.

When I speak to nephews and nieces or students I mentor, I stress that I achieved success by using education as my pathway.  If I had not focused on getting an education, my lifestyle would likely be much different and less enjoyable than it is today.  I try to stress to others that in this country education is the key to success.  Without it the odds of your having a lifestyle allowing you to really enjoy life are slim. So the options are school, education and improved odds of financial success.  Or no education, and hustling in a variety of legal or non legal ventures to stay afloat.  Which do you choose?

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