When Geraldine Beard moved to Washington Terrace in 1976, she was excited to somewhere less violent than her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.

“At the time we were leaving Baltimore, the crime was escalating,” Beard said. “We really didn’t want to raise our son there.”

The same year, Charlene Wilson — who came to Utah from her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, for college — graduated from Weber State University and began teaching at Jefferson Elementary, now known as New Bridge Elementary.

These women, one from the South and one from the East, had two things in common: their excellent credentials in education and their skin color. While they used the former attribute to enrich the lives of hundreds of students over the years, the latter was often the sole factor in presenting challenges that other educators in Northern Utah didn’t have to face. 

“I didn’t see too many people that looked like me,” Wilson said. “I was a little disappointed because there was not a lot of things for black people to do during that time.”

According to a staff report published in 1977 by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, out of 605 teachers in 1975 at Ogden School District, only 10 were black.

Beard recalled that sentiment, too. 

“For 15 years I was the only African-American educator in Weber School District,” Beard said. As far as she knows, she was the first African-American educator hired in the district.

A couple days after settling into Washington Terrace, Beard decided to apply for a special-education teaching position with Ogden School District.

“When I got to Ogden City Schools, the secretary there looked at me and said, ‘We don’t have a job here for you,’” Beard said. “It was a very condescending way that she said it.”

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But that did not deter Beard from teaching there.

She called the district’s special-education director and was asked to come back for an interview. She got the job teaching at an alternative school. After working there for a year, she got an interview with Weber School District for a teaching position at Bonneville High.

“The interview was interesting,” Beard said. “The gentleman there (was) very nice, but he asked me questions I knew nothing about.”

He asked her about her religion and he wanted to know how many children she planned to have, she recalls.

Two days later, Beard said, school officials called to apologize. They also offered her a second interview, and then a job.

Wilson, teaching at Ogden School District, said she often dealt with teachers and students who regularly used racial slurs.  

She said she lost friends in the schools after confronting some colleagues about their lack of action to correct white students using racial slurs in direct reference to minority classmates.

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“I’m black, but you cannot call me the N-word,” Wilson said. “You must call me by my name and I will call you by your name.”

TEACHING WHILE BLACK 

Beard said teaching special-education students was an amazing experience and that her students were able to learn from a different perspective. But dealing with white parents was sometimes challenging.

“It was difficult for the parents to understand that I was qualified as a special educator in public schools,” Beard said.

Beard graduated with a degree in trainable mental retardation from Coppin State University.

She recalls a time when she was teaching and a mother came in to pick up her sick child’s homework folder. The woman asked for the teacher.

“She stood at the door and she looked around,” Beard said. “She actually said, ‘You are black,’ and I said, ‘So are my parents. How can I help you?’”

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And there were also the white teachers who had trouble teaching black kids.

“We had teachers say, ‘I just don’t know how to teach black children,’” Beard said. “Every time a student of color acted up in another classroom, they were sent to Mrs. Beard’s room.”

Weber State University Education Professor Forrest Crawford said black teachers in the district had to deal with rejection and uncertainty throughout their time teaching. 

“It was a burden that they carried with them because they never were really sure of themselves, whether the districts embrace them or the community really embrace them,” Crawford said. “They were pretty much on their own. ... They had to rely on their own intuition.”

Time has not necessarily improved the situation, either. 

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s most recent data on racial diversity among educators, most teachers in the country are white, even as minority populations continue to grow exponentially.

The report states that in 2011-2012 school year, 16 percent of public school students identified as black, while only 7 percent of teachers in public schools were black.

Overall, in the 2011-2012 school year, 82 percent of public school teachers were white, while 51 percent of students in public schools identified as such.

A breakdown of the racial demographics of teachers in Utah was not made available by the Utah State Board of Education. Officials said the organization has the data but does not produce a report on it.

Ogden School District was unable to provide a breakdown of its own racial demographics.

Wilson said she felt the district didn’t provide much opportunity for advancement, either.

“When you have people and they are top people and they are not looking to try to put anybody of color at the top, then you are not going to get there,” Wilson said.

She said she applied to become a principal multiple times but was never selected. Her credentials were there: a bachelor’s in education from Weber State and a master’s and education administrative certificate from Utah State University.

“The superintendent would say, ‘Charlene, you almost made it. Try again,’” Wilson said. “I think I tried for about five or six times, but then I gave that up. … I thought, ‘There’s no use to me doing this if they are not ready for this.’”

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She said her race was the main reason she was never hired as a principal. Only 1.7 percent of the population in Weber County identifies as black.

“They’d never had a black (principal) before,” Wilson said. “You had a lot of teachers that didn’t want a black principal telling them anything.”

Beard retired from teaching at public schools in 2008, but said 2018 still has the same problems of the past. 

“The atmosphere is not conducive to people of color as far as being professionals in the classroom,” Beard said. “The economics of teaching is not where it should be.”

Despite the challenges, Beard said she feels she made an impact on her students, particularly with the perspective she offered as a black teacher.  

“The young people at my classroom got to see my view of things,” Beard said. “They got to realize that people who are a different color than they are still have the same emotions, the same needs, the same drives and desires.”

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History books often tell the story of a “first” to neatly summarize the way of social change — showing that later generations can build upon improvements won by people like Beard and Wilson. 

Wilson retired in 2006. When asked if she believes she helped pave the way for other black teachers in her district, she hesitated.

“I would like to say that I helped the situation, but that doesn’t always have to be true,” she said. “You think if you helped, they’d hire more than just one (African-American) … but there was always one after.”

Contact education reporter Sergio Martínez-Beltrán at smartinezbeltran@standard.net or 801-625-4274. Follow him on Twitter @SergioMarBel and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/STANDARDEXSergio.

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