March is Women’s History Month. February was Black History Month. Readers, allow me to share the story of a black woman who continues to have a profound influence on my life — my former teacher, Susie Sansom-Piper.
I was a fuzzy-headed 12-year-old when I had Mrs. Piper for seventh-grade Texas History, and I was largely unaware of the racism and strife that had plagued our country only a few short years before.
In the classroom, Mrs. Piper was firm, but fair, and always encouraging.
As I got older, I learned that Mrs. Piper had been the last principal at Aycock School, the school for African-Americans before desegregation. As I got older still, I realized she probably would have been a better administrator than many our district had over the years, but she was likely denied that opportunity because of her race. Yet we students never heard a cross word from her about it.
She finished her career and lived in our hometown a while before moving to east Austin. There, she became active in her new church and in other civic work.
In 2016, Mrs. Piper was chosen by the LBJ Library in Austin to speak at an event honoring the 50th anniversary of our 36th president’s signing of the Voting Rights Act. She was joined by Luci Baines Johnson, a familiar face around these parts, who praised Mrs. Piper for her teaching. (Remember, her father began his career as a teacher.)
Luci Baines Johnson also talked about the political capital and sacrifice it took just to allow the Voting Rights Act to pass. “Some of these members won’t be coming back here (Congress) because of their votes,” she remembered him saying. “But he told me a lot of good people in the future would be coming here because of this vote.”
Mrs. Piper lived through the days of poll taxes, intelligence tests and other roadblocks to African-Americans gaining the right to vote, a century after emancipation.
In 1965, only three states still had a poll tax — Texas, Alabama and Virginia. Not the Lone Star State’s proudest memory.
In her speech, Mrs. Piper brought along a poll tax receipt, dated Dec. 29, 1964.
“You had to pay the poll tax to vote,” she said. “It cost $1.75. You could feed a pretty big family for several days on that.”
She also recalled that teachers and employees of the school district were told who were the preferred candidates of the powers that be, and that they were expected to cast their votes accordingly.
Other impediments to vote included the migratory nature of adults and children, who had to follow the seasonal work in the cotton fields to make ends meet. Transportation to and from the polls was yet another problem.
She summed up her talk by saying the Voting Rights Act provided many treasures in her life, including “the privilege of voting for the candidate of my choice,” adding “choice, not of coercion.”
History, warts and all, is what she taught. At age 12, we had no idea of the obstacles faced by our classmates and their predecessors who happened to have darker skin.
Today, Mrs. Piper continues to teach, write a column each February for Black History Month highlighting local contributions from African-Americans, from business leaders, to military veterans, to city council members, to entertainers. It goes without saying that many, or even most, of those stories would have been left undocumented and lost forever had she not taken the time to document and share them.
She also has written several books of thoughtful poetry.
A couple of weeks ago, my family joined her friends from St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Austin to honor her at a surprise party. Now 96 years old, Mrs. Piper continues to be spry, still working on her church’s newsletter and playing organ at times.
Many shared their memories of Mrs. Piper.
I read an editorial written by our hometown newspaper editor Mike Brown which tabbed her as a “national treasure.” I told the crowd everyone should be so fortunate to have a teacher like her. And every community should be so lucky to have someone like her telling the stories of those often overlooked.
She was, and still remains, my favorite teacher.