MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
Hannibal's still the emotional "home" to a bevy of classmates who attended the 2008 reunion of Douglass High School this past weekend. "Mountains of Memories" was the theme of the gathering of friends and former students of Hannibal's all-black school, which closed in 1955, following court-ordered desegregation.
Joe Miller, who transferred to Hannibal High School from Douglass for his senior year, served as emcee for the Saturday evening banquet at the Hannibal Inn.
"I'm always a bit overwhelmed about the turnout of people," he said. He recognized many familiar faces, and "I see those who haven't been here for awhile." Joined by those who have remained or returned to make their homes in Hannibal were attendees from Chicago and Oklahoma, Texas and California, and more.
A special feature of the event was the presentation of a plaque to the Hannibal school board, represented by Henry Sweets, acknowledging the merging of DouglassHigh School and Hannibal High School in 1956. The plaque, which will be prominently displayed in the halls of HHS, reads:
"Presented to Hannibal High School proudly in recognition of the first class to represent integration of Douglass High School and Hannibal High School for the purpose of equal education in our school system and better race relations in our community. Class of 1956."
Assisting in the presentation were members of the class of 1956, including Joe Miller of the former Douglass High School , and George Harris, Miller's classmate at HHS. Harris spoke briefly to the assembled group. He described his class as pioneers of integration. "I'm here representing the Class of 1956 on this momentous occasion. They say all good things come to he who waits. It has been 52 years since integration. It is akin to something that has been a long time coming."
Accepting the plaque, Henry Sweets, curator of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, said, "I'm in the history business. This is a special reunion. These are very important stories to keep alive. I challenge you to take these memories back and share them. Talk with your children and grandchildren. Tell them where you started out and where it will go in the future. Thanks for keeping alive the memories of Douglass School ."
Guest speaker for the Saturday evening banquet was W.T. Johnson, administrative assistant at Hannibal's Veterans Elementary School . While not a Douglassalum, he could relate to the experiences shared by those gathered for the reunion. "I, too, have memories of when I attended Lincoln Colored School (near Palmyra.) He encouraged attendees to share their stories with their children and grandchildren. "They have no idea of the sacrifices you made in order to get an education," Johnson said. "Today, young people have the opportunity to get an education, but they don't actively participate. Students come to school without pencils and paper, and with poor attitudes. They are not hungry for an education."
To emphasize his message that education is a valued asset, Johnson read from the poem, "The Race," attributed to Dr. D.H. "Dee" Groberg, which describes the importance of getting up each time you fall, rather than giving up:
For all of life is like that race, with ups and downs and all.
And all you have to do to win is rise each time you fall.
And when depression and despair shout loudly in my face,
another voice within me says, "Get up and win that race!"
Johnson asked parents and grandparents to encourage their children to have "a smart attitude, a positive attitude. Respect for themselves, their parents, their community and their home. My hope is that today's students will gather in the future to celebrate their school years as you have."
Joe Miller made special presentations during the evening, including a recognition of Elaine Bacquie Miller, who was formerly secretary at Douglass . "She's only missed one reunion," Miller said.
A photo gallery was on display throughout the evening, provided by Major Griggsby, "the historian of Hannibal," Miller said. Music for the evening was provided by Billy Morrison and his band, The Music Company. Morrison's son, Marty, joined the combo.
The Rev. Maurice Cole ( Douglass , Class of 1954) kept the reunion theme in mind when he spoke a blessing, "Remember who we are, where we came from and who helped us" along the way. "Many have passed on - the list is long. We're under command from God for us to remember in grateful thanksgiving to our redeemer for all those who were used in the redemption."
Douglass High School educated students from Lewistown, LaGrange, Canton, Palmyra, Frankford, New London, Shelbina, Hunnewell and Hannibal. WhenDouglass closed at the end of the 1955 school year, the students were divided among their local school districts. The Rev. Faye Vaughn, wife of Robert Vaughn (Douglass , Class of 1950) said some of the New London area students came to Hannibal, and others went to Mark Twain High School . Faye, who lived in Bowling Green, attended to school in Frankford.
Gary Christopher of Cedar Hill, Texas, and Joel Dant of Chicago, were grade schoolers at Douglass at the time of integration. They lived south of Hannibal, and leftDouglass to attended Ocean Wave, a one-room country school, until reuniting with their former class mates at Hannibal Junior High when that rural school closed. They both spoke fondly of the close bonds they formed at the rural school environment, and Joel still owns the farm where he was raised in the Ocean Wave community.