Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influences: Parents as Teachers

BOND: Both of your parents are teachers. What did they teach?

HRABOWSKI: Right. My mother was a teacher all of her life, I mean, from college days. Mother taught English. Mother was actually an elementary teacher but she also did a specialty in English. Later on, she taught math also, so she did middle school English and math. And my father taught everything. It was a time of the one-room schools down in lower Alabama. By the time he came to Birmingham, he said colored men couldn’t make any money teaching, so my father became a laborer in a steel mill even though he’d gone to college. My mother and father had met at a place called Alabama State in the ’30s. And he worked three jobs, but in addition to the three jobs -- the steel mill job, the railroad job and with the funeral home there -- he did the reading and writing for his white supervisors who didn’t even have a high school diploma I don’t think, but they couldn’t read and write. It’s amazing how people were not necessarily literate of any race, and they used him behind the scenes. They would pay him side money. He’d be home at nighttime doing something, whatever report they had to do. I remember I would try to understand why he was doing it and I would hear him and my mother talking because she’d be saying, “You need to have that job,” and he would just say, “Just leave it alone,” you know. And he’d just get that extra money.

BOND: Because the possibility of him having that job was beyond --

HRABOWSKI: No, you would not have a black man as a supervisor in a white company. No, no, no, no. But he also -- I should say he also worked with the people in the steel mill to help people for years get GEDs and then my mother started working in the GED program so they worked five jobs between them to give me the best they could. But he was working with folks to get them with reading and math skills so he was still teaching in the steel mill and getting them to go back to get their high school diplomas and then he’d get them to my mother who was teaching in the GED program because they could just do a little better with that kind of -- and then in many cases, some went on to college.

BOND: So in some ways your parents are a preparation for the kind of work you do today with kids putting them into a science curriculum?

HRABOWSKI: Oh, yeah. My dad loved math. My mother loved math. My own philosophy about teaching math is based on my mother’s experience with something called The New Math in the ’60s. Most people were afraid of it. What she came to understand as an English type was how important reading was to teaching mathematics because math problems are typically story problems. Kids will say, “Give me the equation. Don’t give me the word problem,” because they don’t know how to read and translate from the words to the symbols, so I was her guinea pig throughout that ’60s so we’d have -- she’d have poetry up on the walls and she’d have word problems up and we’d be memorizing Zora Neale Hurston and doing word problems and she’d give me prizes -- blueberry pie, a Big Mac, whatever, as time went on, so I was getting fatter and smarter all the time.

BOND: Back to your mother for a moment and her protest against unequal pay for black teachers, how’d this develop? What happened? Were there lawyers involved?

HRABOWSKI: You know, I took it for granted. You know how when you get older and you remember stories and you never took the time to ask all the questions? I don’t even know the details. I just know it was always a big joke among her friends and the teachers. They knew she was the leader of the protest. She always had the big mouth. She was willing to say -- now, I know they never got to the point of lawyers and things like that. They wouldn’t even have understood things like that. I know that she was fired. I know that she always said with great pride that she was fighting for other teachers. And I know that they were all proud when finally -- whenever it came in my childhood, there was that equalization. Now, when that occurred, I don’t know, but for years, that was a point that her friends would talk about.