The year was 1968. Mable Beasley was the first black teacher hired by Littleton High School.
She taught health and gymnastics until she retired in 2001.
The impact she made on her students and the relationships she formed with each have turned out to be the capstones of her life.
“My students have kept me going!” she said In her sweet Southern accent.
She proudly shows off the photo collages that fill the walls of a room in her Ayer home. On display is an endless parade of snapshots of glowing students, parents and teachers attending happy occasions with Mable and John, her beloved husband of 40 years, who died recently.
Born 67 years ago in Wake Forest, N.C., Beasley was the youngest of six, born to Novella Davis Young and Mottie Fowler Sr. She grew up “dirt-poor.”
Her mother cleaned the homes of “white ladies” and her father was a custodian at Wake Forest University. Beasley vividly recalls her earliest years and discusses them with clarity and candor. One recollection is taking her first puffs on a cigarette at the age of 5 while sitting on her porch watching the boxcars go by on the train tracks outside her door.
Beasley wanted to go to Shaw College because her friends were going and she didn’t want to miss out. She shakes her head in amazement as she recalls, “I don’t know how I made it through or how I finished; we had nothing. I got a $50 basketball scholarship and I worked all kinds of jobs to stay in school. I remember always being hungry.”
She continues, “One day, while at Shaw, I was with the kids who hung out at Hamilton Drug Store in Raleigh, around the corner from the university. Everyone was sitting at the counter ordering lunch, and the waitress asks me what I was having. Well, I wasn’t having anything because I didn’t have one penny on me. The waitress looked at me (Sarah Davis, she’s not with us anymore) and says, ‘Honey, you can’t study on an empty stomach.’ That lady fed me every day!” Beasley’s eyes teared up as she recalled the story.
Beasley recalls, “One day she asked me where I went for my dinner. Well, I usually didn’t have dinner; I would take the bus home those 16 miles and most often, there wouldn’t be any dinner unless my mama had leftovers from her job. Well, Sarah gave me the name of her friends who owned a restaurant and told me to go there every night for dinner until I graduated. I graduated in 1965.”
During her college years, from 1961-’65, Beasley was involved with efforts to desegregate the lunch counters at Woolworth’s. Her group was led by Dr. Floyd McKissick.
“This was an awful time, terrible,” she said with sadness. “I remember, oh so well, the segregated public accommodations on the highways, and at the restaurants.”
“During our protests we were hosed by the police who set the dogs on us. White people would line up and call us every filthy name, and throw things at us. The militia would beat people. During those years I became a hater too. I didn’t start as a hater, but I sure became one,” said Beasley.
“I changed when I came up north. I changed because God changed me. I gave up hating,” Beasley smiles broadly.
Claude Jean, the principal of Littleton High School, hired Beasley as soon as she got out of her car to come to the job interview. Standing on the front steps of the school, Jean was waiting for her. As soon as he saw her he called out, “You’re the lady I have been looking for, come in, let me show you your office!”
“I was speechless,” she recalls, shaking her head.
“He showed me not only my office, but everything I could have ever wanted; the tennis courts and the football and soccer field — it was a truly wonderful thing.”
Beasley continues, “But I was worried, really worried. I asked him, “Pardon me but do you have any black kids here?’ ”
“No,” he replied, “You will be the only black person in the school.”
“I exclaimed, ‘But those kids are going to kill me!’ ” said Beasley.
“Mr. Jean assured me that everything was going to be fine, just fine. It was. I came in every day with my Bible and the kids would see me with that and at first, they would just look, and then we all got to know each other and it was a real good thing,” Beasley smiled broadly.
Jim McKenna also taught physical education with Beasley at Littleton High School.
He recalls, “Mable has a wonderful personality, she was very professional and totally in control of her classes. I enjoyed working with her and I remain in admiration of her talents. In those days it was unusual to find someone as qualified as she was in coaching sports as well as conducting physical education classes. She was and is unique and totally successful at what she did.”
McKenna’s daughter, Sheila McKenna Kish, was one of Beasley’s pupils. “She was a one-of-a kind teacher and she treated each of us as though we were her daughters,” said Kish.
A former pupil, Robin Sewell, recalls: “One of the amazing things about her is that no matter how much time passes she can remember every one’s name. That shows you how much she cares,” Sewell said of Beasley.
Mike Hayes, a former student, lives nearby and helps Beasley with her yard work. “She’s a great lady,” he said.
From pupil Jen Paulin class of ’91:
There is a fine lady; her name is Miss B;
Her eyes are brown and lively as can be.
Gym is her game,
She teaches any sport;
She often outscores the guys on the court.
Should you lose a game, you’ll run the fence twice;
You’ll run it again if you’re not so nice.
She stands there at guard with whistle intact;
If she blows it loud you’ll know to stand back.
When she says “hey girls”
It’s time to warm up
We scuttle around and start to line up.
She believes in us kids and making gym fun.
Showing it’s not whether you’ve lost or won
Comparing life to a game
We all can win
It all depends on the heart within
She’s given me faith,
I’ll never forget,
One heck of a lady to all she’s met.
She knows me well, so easy to relate;
Must be ’cause we were born on the same date?
Bernadette Robinson, who graduated in 1986, wrote a letter about Beasley to the principal, Mr. Robinson (no relation). One line stands out: “She knows people and she is loved and respected by all.”
At the urging of her daughter, Shannon, Mable Beasley received her master’s degree from Cambridge College in Mass. in 1996.
Beasley’s older sister, Bea Gaddy, died in 2001. She spent much of her life helping others despite early years filled with homelessness, severe depravation and hunger.
Her life changed when she found 50 cents and bought a lottery ticket that paid her $290. She fed 39 families as well as her own. From that, her new life of advocating for the poor and homeless began.
For the remainder of her life she operated soup kitchens and shelters for the homeless in Baltimore, Maryland. Having been presented with numerous awards and honors, President George H. Bush awarded her the 695th Point of Light for her lifetime of service to others. She was inducted posthumously into the Maryland Hall of Fame.
“There is no security in life, only opportunity.” — Mark Twain