By Joshua Benton
Pinkie Mae Gardner entered this world in 1924, three years before the Wilmer-Hutchins school district did.
She never thought she would outlive it.
“I hope it lasts forever,” she says. “It doesn’t look like that’s gonna happen, though.”
Ms. Gardner is a walking piece of district history. She’s the only surviving member of the first and only graduating class of the Wilmer-Hutchins Colored High School.
Her diploma sits proudly in the living room of her home, three blocks from where the school stood until it burned down under mysterious circumstances. She’s a visible link to the district’s segregated past, when blacks were servants and sharecroppers, not superintendents and school board presidents.
Which is why it’s awkward that her granddaughter, Saundra King, is one of the people in charge of shutting down the district.
Pinkie Mae King was born on a scorching July day on the Lancaster farm where her father, Robert, sharecropped cotton and corn.
The spot is now a truck stop on an Interstate 20 frontage road. But there’s still an old cedar tree from Pinkie’s childhood standing there, near where Dr. Carnes, the horse-and-buggy doctor, delivered her.
Pinkie went to school where all the local black boys and girls did – a small, two-story building in Hutchins, a three-mile walk each way. Wilmer-Hutchins was still a new district then, having been formed in 1927 in the merger of four smaller school systems. The area’s population was mostly white; control of the district was totally white.
The new brick Wilmer-Hutchins High School was “the finest rural high school in the state,” the superintendent bragged in 1928, with “the most modern equipment available.” It was for whites only. The budget for its construction was $60,000.
Blacks didn’t have a high school. The black elementary school that Pinkie attended was built on a budget of $2,000. It had outhouses, a coal potbelly stove for heat and one strict teacher, Odella Morney, for all its students.
Pinkie enjoyed school, particularly history. Ms. Morney thought it was important that her students learn to sing, and once a year the black students would walk over to the white school and put on a little concert. They sang religious songs such as “Never Grow Old”: When our work here is done and the life crown is won / And our troubles and trials are o’er / All our sorrow will end, and our voices will blend / With the loved ones who’ve gone on before.
“They were nice to me,” Ms. Gardner says of her white peers. “I didn’t think anything about race. It was the way things were back then.”
When Pinkie was 9, her father died of congestive heart failure. She watched him die, slumped in his chair at home. “There was nothing I could do,” she says. “I stood there and stared at him.”
It was then that she decided she would be a nurse when she grew up – so the next time someone was dying, she could help.
To be a nurse, she would have to go to high school. Her timing was perfect: When she was the right age, district officials decided to clean the upstairs of the black schoolhouse and convert it into what they called the Wilmer-Hutchins Colored High School. Pinkie was in the first freshman class. Four years later, in 1939, she was one of eight graduates.
“I’ve still got the black robe and the black cap somewhere,” she says.
As it turns out, Ms. Gardner’s class was the only one to graduate from the Wilmer-Hutchins Colored High School. Not long after graduation, the building burned to the ground.
No one ever figured out the cause. It wasn’t unheard of for Southern whites of that era to attack black schools. And with walls like dry paper, the school could have burned from any stray spark.
But, Ms. Gardner says, rumor had it that the school was burned by blacks.
“It was such a shack,” she says. “I heard they burned it down because it was so awful they wanted the kids to be sent somewhere else” – namely Booker T. Washington or Lincoln high schools in Dallas.
Indeed, that’s where the high school students were bused. Wilmer-Hutchins’ black elementary school students went to a makeshift school inside Little Flock Baptist Church until a new school, named for Ms. Morney’s father-in-law, could be built on the site of the burned one.
Ms. Gardner wanted to attend nursing school. But none in Dallas County accepted blacks back then, and she couldn’t afford to travel to the nearest black school, at Prairie View. “I had to go to work,” she says.
She found vocational nursing work for years until El Centro College opened and she could start a program in registered nursing. She graduated in 1973 and worked until her retirement in 1988. By then, Wilmer-Hutchins was a very different place from her childhood.
In 1967, a court order forced Wilmer-Hutchins to integrate its schools. Many whites left town in response. Over time, Wilmer-Hutchins’ population shifted, and blacks gained control of the district’s school board.
The change was not without tension. The cities of Wilmer and Hutchins – which, despite the district’s name, make up less than half of its population – tried to break away and form their own majority-white districts in the 1970s. A legal battle with racial overtones delayed construction of the district’s current high school for seven years.
The district – which had a number of management problems while under white control – had plenty more under black leadership. Finances were a mess. Test scores were miserable. The Texas Education Agency intervened so often in Wilmer-Hutchins affairs that it sometimes seemed the agency should have set up a permanent office at district headquarters.
Black parents began to flee the district, just as white parents had a generation earlier. Wilmer-Hutchins’ student body has shrunk by a third in the last decade; more of its residents send their children to charter schools than any other district its size in the state.
“I don’t know when it happened, but things started to go downhill at some point,” Ms. Gardner says. “My kids were already through, so I didn’t go to the board meetings anymore. I didn’t keep up with it as closely as I should have.”
Her own family saw the decline in quality. Her granddaughter, Saundra King, attended Wilmer-Hutchins schools until seventh grade, when her family moved to Lancaster.
“We moved because we thought the schools in Lancaster were better,” Ms. King says. “There were rumors about the school district. They just felt I would get a better education if we moved.”
Ms. King graduated from Lancaster High in 1987 and has gone on to a successful career as an analyst for a Dallas financial services firm.
Flash forward to 2005. Wilmer-Hutchins is a mess. Its former superintendent is under indictment. Its offices have been raided by the FBI. A financial crisis has forced the closure of A.L. Morney, the school on the site of the old black high school.
The Texas Education Agency, tired of dealing with the combative Wilmer-Hutchins school board, decides to throw it out of office. Under state law, it would be replaced with a five-member, state-appointed board of managers. Looking for candidates with financial skills, they call Ms. King and ask her to serve.
The board’s main job, as dictated by state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley: Determine whether Wilmer-Hutchins could be saved. If not, the board’s task was to shut it down forever.
That got Ms. Gardner mad.
She started showing up at board meetings. She’s now a regular sight at public forums, walking slowly up to the podium to speak. The district may have mounting debts and an academic crisis, but she thinks it’s worth saving.
“I hate it,” she says. “There has to be some way to keep the school going.”
She says she’s not comfortable being political. “I couldn’t have been a Martin Luther King. I couldn’t get out there and march,” she says. But she’s lending her emotional support to keeping the district alive.
One might think she would try to use her grandmotherly pull on Ms. King. But she says her granddaughter is an adult capable of making her own decisions.
“I let her make up her own mind,” she says. “She’s knowledgeable. I don’t want to be an influence.”
Ms. King says she understands her grandmother’s mind-set.
“I know she’s very proud of her attachment to the district,” she says. “With the district closing, it’s affecting her greatly.
“I’m compassionate, because it tears my heart, too, that the district might not be there. But I have to focus on the children and what’s best for them.”
Last month, the Wilmer-Hutchins board of managers met to decide the district’s fate.
It appeared the board had reached an uneasy consensus. Wilmer-Hutchins’ finances were in such a state that opening its schools this fall was an impossibility. The district would have to ask someone else to take over the responsibility of educating Wilmer-Hutchins students for the next school year.
The managers discussed the possibility that the district could be revived in 2006, if a number of hard-to-reach goals were met. But for the residents in the audience, the meeting had the air of a funeral.
Ms. Gardner spoke briefly during the public-forum portion of the meeting, then took a seat in the audience’s front row. Three hours into the often-tense meeting, it came time for the evening’s biggest vote: the resolution authorizing the shutdown of all district schools.
It was presumed that board president Albert Black and his colleague Michelle Willhelm would support the resolution. Donnie Foxx, a Wilmer-Hutchins graduate and the most outspoken critic of a shutdown, was expected to be a no vote. The fifth board member, Sandra Donato, was absent.
So the resolution – and the district’s future – rested on Ms. King’s vote.
Mr. Black asked his fellow board members for a motion. Ms. Willhelm moved that the resolution be adopted.
“Do I hear a second?” Mr. Black asked.
The audience, which had been rowdy earlier in the evening, fell silent. People shifted to the edges of their seats.
Almost 10 seconds passed.
Then Ms. King leaned into her microphone and said: “I second.”
Some in the crowd gasped. The fight was over, and they had lost. A moment later, the board’s vote turned out as expected: 3-1, with Ms. King voting yes. The audience filed out slowly, beaten.
Disappointing as it was to Ms. Gardner, it came as no surprise.
“It was a done deal,” she says. “I guess it’s all finished now.”