Classics Teachers and the HistoryMakers: Part 2

As a follow up to an earlier post (here), I wanted to share a couple more stories about Classics teachers. These posts contain only a few of the many and great examples of the references to Classics teachers in the HistoryMakers archive.

Chemist and academic administrator Grant Venerable tells about a Latin teacher who pushed her students to succeed:

“There aren’t enough teachers in the school who do that, who recognize the potential that’s there, and they pull it out… The Latin teacher, it was the same thing.  She had students who were getting Cs in their other classes, and they’d get As from her, because she sat on them and made them love Latin.”

Grant Venerable ©TheHistoryMakers


Jeannette Brown, an organic chemist and author of African American Women Chemists (Oxford, 2011), tells her Greek and Latin teacher’s advice to her as an African American woman:

“She taught, she taught classics, Greek and Latin.  And she was strict.  And I just thought she hated me, except when I got, when I got–when I graduated, she gave me a hug, and later on I went back as an alum… I still remember what she looked like because she’d sit, you know, she was straight, and she was strict.  And she was always well dressed because, you know, as ‘the’ African American teacher in the school, she had to hold up the reputation of African American teachers and ‘Jeannette Brown, Ms. Brown, you will also–‘ She didn’t say it that way, but that’s what was her intent.  And I, you know, I’d be the best I can be.”

Jeannette Brown ©TheHistoryMakers

Classics Teachers and The HistoryMakers

Note: See other posts about the HistoryMakers Project here, here, here, and here.

Stories about Latin, Greek, and Classics teachers frequently occur among the references to Classics we have found in the HistoryMakers archive. Interviewees from a wide array of backgrounds situate these teachers in narratives of their formative education and as influential mentors.

Of course, praise for Latin teachers and the commonly cited benefits of learning Latin appear, as Marie Johnson-Calloway, a painter and art professor, describes:

“And I never could understand why we learned Latin, but I will defy anybody to question my grammar now, because she taught grammar, English grammar, through teaching Latin to us.  And she was just an outstanding teacher.  My Latin teacher, after her, was also outstanding.  I had a lot of teachers who I thought were excellent.  And they introduced us to things that our children nowadays don’t get.  And we learned these classic things, and you know, you don’t forget them.”

Marie Johnson-Calloway ©TheHistoryMakers


Historian Lonnie Bunch relates a more particular experience when he talks about Howard University’s history program, influenced in part by a Howard professor in Classics, Frank Snowden:

“What I learned about was, first of all, I learned not just–this is what Howard was good at, I didn’t just learn black history.  And while I learned those things, I also learned new lenses of understanding history, that it wasn’t black history and white history, but that rather there were lenses of black life that illuminate all aspects of the American past… So I learned a lot of that kind of thing.  And I also learned, candidly, because there was a lot of work that was being done by Frank Snowden on the black presence in the ancient world of Greece and Rome, you began to suddenly ask different questions.  Why wasn’t that ever discussed?  Why don’t we know that history?  So it really just stimulated this sort of real interest in learning about the past for me.”

Lonnie Bunch ©TheHistoryMakers



Marie Johnson-Calloway (The HistoryMakers A2005.083), interview by Loretta Henry, 03/29/2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Marie Johnson-Calloway describes influential teachers at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, Maryland.

Lonnie Bunch (The HistoryMakers A2003.212), interview by Julieanna Richardson, 09/05/2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 10, Lonnie Bunch discusses Howard University’s history department in the early 1970s.


The Honorable Russell B. Sugarmon on Classics in his early life

HistoryMaker Russell B. Sugarmon, a municipal court judge, served on the Tennessee Democratic Party Executive Committee, in the Tennessee State Senate, as a referee in Memphis Juvenile Court system, and on the General Sessions bench.

He describes his experience reading Classics in his early education, even though it took place in school, as autodidactic, which reflects the experience related in many of the narratives we have found in our archival research. Here, he discusses his early education and the value he found in reading Homer and others:

“It was I think three rooms, seven grades, so, the teachers–there were, there were two teachers, plus Ms. Smith, and they had to teach classes in the room with–kids in a different class had to stay because they couldn’t let us out, ’cause they didn’t have anybody to supervise us on the outside.  And so, we had a choice while the teachers were teaching, some grade other than the one we were in we could either take a nap, sit there and be quiet, or read.  And she had a nice library, so, we all came out of there loving to read.  Books opened up access to other times, and other places.  I mean, you could visualize, and read about the world.  I, I read the ‘Iliad,’ I read the ‘Odyssey.’  I read over the seven years I was there.”

Tangentially related: Sugarmon says that his favorite quote is the mock “Latin” phrase “illegitimi non carborundum,” commonly translated as “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Sugarmon tells that after he learned the phrase from a friend of his father, he found comfort in it and now shares it with friends in need:

“I’ve had that language put on some bronze plaques, then–every now and then, one of my friends is in a real problem, I’ll give him one, and it don’t cost much. But, they seem to enjoy the refocusing, of a problem.”

Russell B. Sugarmon ©TheHistoryMakers


The Honorable Russell B. Sugarmon (The HistoryMakers A2003.148), interview by Larry Crowe, 06/28/2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 6, Russell Sugarmon describes his childhood activities.

The Honorable Russell B. Sugarmon (The HistoryMakers A2003.148), interview by Larry Crowe, 06/28/2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 2, Russell Sugarmon’s favorites.

An Introduction to TheHistoryMakers Project

In the past months, sententiaeantiquae and I, a graduate student in Ancient Greek and Roman Studies at Brandeis University, began a project which aims to research oral histories of African-Americans in order to better understand the cultural place of Classics in that community. TheHistoryMakers, a database of video interviews with prominent African-Americans archived at several universities, was founded by Brandeis University and Harvard Law School alumna Julieanna Richardson and contains thousands of hours of narrative from African-Americans in all fields. In it, we have found many references to the role of Classics and ancient works of literature in personal narratives of early life, education, and intellectual growth.

This is the first in a series of posts which will highlight our findings in the hope that they might broaden discussion about the role of Classics in the educational experience of all communities.

To start, I’d like to share a quote which captures the view of Armstrong Williams, a media commentator and the host of “The Right Side with Armstrong Williams,” on the benefit of Classics in education and daily life:

“At a very young age, we started reading the classics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Homer, [William] Shakespeare, I read all the classics, I read the Bible from cover to cover, I read em all.  I mean some of my greatest lessons, well, the greatest books I’ve ever read are the classics.  And so, you know I was inspired to do that, and you know it really helped me out on tests too.  It would help me in communicating with people when I would have a conversation and you find out that you’re well read, in other words, you’re preparing yourself for life.”

Armstrong Williams ©TheHistoryMakers


Armstrong Williams (The HistoryMakers A2003.170), interview by Larry Crowe, 07/29/2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 6, Armstrong Williams talks about reading material in his family home.