Mama K and Her Kin, Part II


The 1963 Lanett Championship Football Team

In Part I of “Mama K and Her Kin,” I wrote about my grandmother Katherine Dabbs, who was educated at Jacksonville State Teacher’s College in North Alabama, where she met my grandfather Gordon Dabbs (we called him Daddy D) in a music appreciation class. I also talked about one of her experiences teaching in a one-room school house in North Alabama. But Mama K’s educational adventures didn’t end there.

Mama K married Daddy D, and they settled in the Ridge Grove area of Chambers County, not far from Dudleyville and Budston, you read right, Dudleyville and Budston. in between Camp Hill and Lafayette, Alabama, the county seat of Chambers County. Lafayette hit the big time in 1988 when the feature film Mississippi Burning was filmed there. Some people didn’t like how the town was portrayed in the movie, but it did bring some needed funds to the cash strapped county that has long been one of the poorest in the nation.

It was poor when Mama K and Daddy D settled there and Daddy D was the principal of the Ridge Grove school. My mother was born in the little house that is right down the road from the property that my grandfather bought before he took the job as principal of Lanett High School in Lanett, Alabama. I’m sorry that I never met my grandfather, he died of a heart attack the year I was born, but I feel like I know him from the stories people tell him, especially my mother. She is so proud of her papa!

From her I learned that he was a wonderful teacher and principal. He loved science, taught physics, and liked to build things. Mom says that he built a generator from scratch that the family used when they went camping. When I was little, my siblings and I rode on a little go cart that he built, and all of us rocked in the little rocking chair he made for my sister Ronda, the oldest of his grandchildren. My husband John repaired and painted that rocking chair for our daughter Hannah to use, and it is still sitting down in our garage, ready to be handed down to children who will have wonderful memories of rocking and reading and daydreaming. I’ll be sure to explain how that chair was built with love by their great, great grandfather.

Mama K was devoted to Daddy D and she was the quintessential principal’s wife. When my mother and then my Uncle El, (He was also a teacher–he taught Spanish) was born, Mama K stayed home and took care of them, but when they got older, she went back to teaching and taught Alabama history and conservation. Yes, conservation was an important subject for rural Alabamians in the 50’s, my mother tells me. The soil had been badly depleted during the over-farming of the depression and war years, so the public schools stepped in to teach new and sustainable farming techniques to high school students.

Mama K continued to teach during the late 50’s but in 1959 tragedy struck and Daddy D, who had a history of heart problems, died at his home in Lanett. He was greatly mourned by his family, of course, and the whole community, but especially the educational community, both black and white. Even before the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954, my grandfather had begun forming a strong relationship with Mr. Brown, the principal of the nearby black high school, but because of the resistance across the US and especially in the South to integration, there was not an immediate move to desegregate the schools, but my grandfather and Mr. Brown were anticipating the move towards integration. My mother remembers asking her father about desegregation, and he told her there might be “a lot of trouble” but that in the end “It’ll all work out.”

After my grandfather’s death, Mama K continued to teach at Lanett High School and the push to desegregate became stronger. Although my mother isn’t sure of the exact timing, my grandmother played a pivotal part in the successful racial integration of the county’s schools. Sometime between 1959 and 1963, the new administration asked for volunteers among the white teachers to go to the black high school to teach, while teachers from the black high school came to Lanett High. Mama K was the first white teacher to volunteer. She told my mother that as the widow of a beloved educational leader, she should set an example for the rest of the teachers.

Mom doesn’t know too many details about that time, but what we do know is that the Lanett City Schools were integrated successfully and without violence. Mama K didn’t teach much longer, however, because sometime in the early 60’s, I’m not sure of the exact date, my grandmother became seriously ill and was hospitalized, so it seemed to be a good time to retire.

My Great Aunt Jane, also a teacher, came to live with my grandmother following Daddy D’s death. As I said in Part I of this blog post, Aunt Jane taught math, including trigonometry and calculus. She continued to teach for years in nearby Valley, Alabama, and even though I was young, I can remember going on errands with her when she still taught and how students and former students would stop and talk to her, telling her what a good teacher she was. I was so proud to be her grand niece.

When I started teaching, Aunt Jane, who was like another grandmother to me, gave some extra special gifts that I continue to cherish to this day–one is a charm bracelet that she received when she retired that has all sorts of math and science teacher charms, including a math book, a beaker, a slide rule and an abacus. I’m an English teacher but I love it–the other is something that looks like an ordinary pen but extends out to be a pointer. I don’t use it any more but I did when I first taught because it always amazed my students–they were easily entertained back then. When Aunt Jane died, Mama K gave some of her things to the grandchildren and to me she gave a heavy marble pen holder that Aunt Jane got when she retired. I have it on my desk at the college where I teach, and every time I look at it and see her name, Jane Leath, I am reminded of the great teaching legacy I belong to and am so glad I have chosen this profession.

When times get bad and I get discouraged I remember them all–my grandmother and grandfather, mother, father, aunts, uncles, cousins, all the teachers in my life who have made a difference in this world–for good.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s