The Woman who became County School Superintendent
Based on conversations with my mother, Elva White Grow Clark, the first woman county school superintendent in Miller County, thought to be the first in Georgia.
Gerald Grow — January 15, 1996
What did I accomplish as county school superintendent? Nothing much that anyone would think was special. Except that for a woman to get elected in the first place might be something some people would consider special.
Back in those days, men ran everything in public life. Every elected official was a man. Every political race was between men. It’s true, there was a woman somewhere in city government at the time, but she had been appointed, not elected. This was the late 1940s.
One day, one of the elementary principals came to me–I knew him, as I knew nearly everybody else in the county, he was a friend of ours, and I had taught his children in school. He said that the race for county school superintendent was coming up, and some of them had been thinking it was time to elect a new superintendent, and if I were to run, he thought I could win.
It had never occurred to me to run, and I told him so. But I went home and thought about it and talked to my husband about it. –I had my husband, and my children, and my job, and my friends. And I was happy the way I was. — But I got to thinking about it.
The man who was superintendent at the time–I liked him, I knew him as I knew nearly everybody else in the county. I had taught with his wife; she was a friend of mine. I don’t want to say anything bad about him–but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that his heart was really in state politics–he lived and breathed whatever Herman Talmadge was doing in Atlanta. Maybe someday he wanted to run for the legislature–I don’t know. But he just didn’t seem to want to be something as small as a superintendent in a little school system in a little county in South Georgia. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to be something that big.
But my brother and my father had been county school superintendents, in Atkinson county, where I grew up, and they had enjoyed their work. So I decided I would give it a try. If I was defeated, I wouldn’t let it bother me: people have a right to vote as they please, and people might not want a woman in that office.
Now I had taught many of the people in the county. And if I hadn’t taught them, I had taught their children. And all those years I had also helped my husband in our grocery story. People knew who I was. They knew the kind of person I was. And I knew who they were; I made a point of being able to call the name of every person who ever walked into the grocery story or sat in my classroom. My campaign, mostly, was just going out to knock on doors and let people know I was running, and to ask them to consider voting for me. I didn’t try to persuade people. They knew the kind of person I was, they knew I wasn’t going to change if I got elected, and they could decide for themselves how to vote.
I had a little help where I least expected it. Years before, teaching high school, I had caught a boy cheating on an exam. I quietly slipped him a note telling him to turn in his exam now and come see me about it Monday. I knew he was really a good boy at heart. When he came in, by himself, looking worried and guilty, I didn’t say anything about the cheating; he’d had all weekend to think about it. I’d made a different exam for him to take, and I gave it to him right there. And he passed it. And from then on he did fine. I never said one word to him about cheating, but I believe he learned his lesson.
I saw him, for the first time in a long time, on election day, at the court house where the polling place was. He called out to me and said, “Miss Elva! Today I’ve brought 25 people to town to vote for you!”
I wasn’t at all sure about whether I could get elected county school superintendent, or whether it was the right thing to do even if I did win. One day early in the campaign, I was driving out the Brinson Road. Like all the roads, it was dirt–that day, mostly mud and mud puddles. A school bus came toward me, carrying a few white children, on the way to school. Ahead of it, I saw three little black girls walking along the muddy road. They had to walk to school, you see, while the white children rode in buses.
As the bus came near, the black children jumped out of the way. They jumped across the little muddy ditch and clung on to the wire fence that ran along a field. Just as the bus passed, it hit a puddle. A big sheet of muddy water shot up and arched out and over and right toward the little black children clinging to the fence. It made me simply furious.
The water just barely missed them. I said, out loud, right then, “God, if you help me win this race, we won’t have that going on in this county again. I’ll see that these black children get a ride to school!”
Well, I did win the election. People told me I was the first woman ever elected to public office in Miller County, and the first woman to be a county school superintendent in the state of Georgia. I’m not sure whether that’s true or not; it doesn’t really matter. I got 1400-and-something votes. The previous superintendent got about 800. Now, that said something–though I don’t want it to sound like bragging.
One of the first things I did as superintendent was to start working on getting a bus for those little black children. You see, in order to get anything done, you have to make a group of men think it was their idea. So I promoted it till they got the idea, and they went out and found transportation for those children.
Another thing I did right away was take the maintenance men out to the schoolhouses and show them exactly what to fix up. I started by making the doors look really good. I wanted everyone to realize that important things happen inside those buildings, and that the people working there care about what they do. Maintenance was something the men in town understood, and those repairs earned me some respect.
After I had been superintendent for a while, the position came open for principal of the high school. I went to the school board and told them I thought the man who used to be the superintendent, the one I had beaten so badly–I had known him twenty years–I thought he would make an excellent principal for the high school. And they appointed him. And he did make an excellent principal. He discovered that he loved this kind of work. He loved the children, and the teachers, and they loved him, and he just did an excellent job. Toward the end of my term, he came up to the office one day and I asked him to walk out on the courthouse steps with me, where nobody could hear us. I told him I wanted him to hear directly from me that I was not going to run for re-election, but with the improvement he had shown during his time as principal, I thought he would make an excellent superintendent, if he wanted to run again.
He was so shocked and so surprised. He said, “I am very thankful to you for telling me this. But you know, I think I am happier where I am.” And he continued as principal. And he was an excellent one.
Elva W. Grow as county school superintendent. Picture from the Miller County High School annual of 1952.
What did I accomplish as superintendent? Nothing, really, that anyone would think important. In those days we didn’t make elaborate plans or set detailed goals. I just did the best I could to get more support for the teachers and the schools. Just little things, from day to day.
One day LaBerta, one of the black principals, brought some of the black teachers to see me–I had a fine group of black teachers and principals. They were dedicated people and we got along well. They came to tell me that the teachers at one of the black schools found out that some children were coming to school with nothing to eat for lunch. So they had set up a wood stove and were cooking each day to feed those children. They came to ask me if it was all right for them to be doing this.
I told them, Yes, it was more than all right, I told them I was happy they were feeding children who needed to be fed, and I was happy they had seen a problem and had gone ahead and done something about it. And I told them they were right to come to talk to me about it. Not long after, I saw the announcement of a new Federal program and applied, and we received some money–it wasn’t much, not like today’s lunch programs–but it helped pay for the food those black teachers prepared. And the same program brought some lunches into the white schools for other students who needed them.
What did I accomplish as superintendent? Well, I can’t think of anything special. I went around and visited the principals and listened to their concerns; and I’d find ways to help them. I talked to the teachers–I knew nearly all of them; I had taught with many of them and I knew what fine, dedicated people they were. I would listen to them and encourage them and let them know how much they were appreciated. Whenever the chance came up, I would arrange for workshops and training sessions, and I encouraged the many teachers who drove an hour each way on nights and weekends to take new courses and get new degrees. I was so proud of them, and I wanted them all to know that. I wanted to help them to feel how serious their jobs were and how they were there not just to put in the hours, but to influence the lives of children.
I worked with the bus drivers, week in and week out, to help them with the schedules and to keep the buses running. In many ways I suppose myhardest job was to keep those old buses running.
Parents would call me all times of day or night, and on the weekends, and I would listen to everything they wanted to say and let them know I cared about their concerns, and, when I could, I would find some way to help them.
I worked hard to understand the problems and the opportunities in the schools, so I could present them to the school board, because they were the ones who made all the major decisions. Now, when I presented something to them, they would always say, “Miss Elva, what do YOU think about it?” And if I told them I thought it would help the schools, they would approve it. And we would do it. They were fine and supportive and helpful–one man on the board could barely read or write, but he was a smart man and a successful farmer, as many had been before him.
I had such good principals at my schools. Such dedicated teachers. Such conscientious bus drivers. (And other good help: I don’t want to leave anyone out.) They were the ones who did it all.
What I did was nothing special.
It was a tradition in Colquitt for a group of men to come to the drug store, buy a Coke and some crackers, and sit around and talk. Sometimes their favorite subject was to complain about how “that woman” was running things, over in the school superintendent’s office. I knew about this, because the druggist told my husband, and he told me. I didn’t let it bother me–I knew that none of them were people I had taught–but it bothered my husband. It made him mad.
As my term came near an end, I had to decide whether to run again. I don’t want to brag, but the principals and teachers made out like they wanted me to run again. I wanted to know what my husband really thought. So I asked him. He said, “You can run if you want to, but I surely don’t want you to. I’m tired of being fighting mad half the time and half-mad all the time!”
So I decided not to run again. I had my children to think of, and my husband, I had my home and my friends and my sisters and my brother and my mother and all the people I knew and loved.
After that one term, I left public life and went back to helping in the grocery store and teaching in the high school, where I worked happily under the man I had beaten so badly for county school superintendent. We got along well. He was a friend. His wife was a friend. I had known him for many years, as I had known most people in the county. If I hadn’t taught them, I had taught their mothers or fathers, or sisters or brothers, or their children or grandchildren.
Or I would teach them, some day.
Elva died in Tallahassee in 2002.