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Teaching with class

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“Integration was the biggest change I can think of over my years in the educational system,” said Bryant, who possesses a sharp mind and wit as she wrestles with arthritis.

She notches her 88th birthday Sept. 29 and lives one house away from the site of the home she was born in on Lebanon’s Forrest Avenue in 1923.

“I walked from Forrest Avenue to Market Street School for 12 years. I walked through rain, sleet and snow. I spent eight years at Market Street Elementary and four years at Wilson County High School,” said the sixth-born child of James and Hattie Crutchfield.

Bryant grew up with five brothers and a sister. Her father worked as a brick mason, while her mother washed and ironed clothes. As a teenager, Bryant helped her mother with those chores and also babysat five days a week for $3 a week.

A member of about 30 graduates (only two survive) in the Wilson County High School Class of 1941, Bryant recollected two of her favorite teachers.

“My sixth-grade teacher was Mrs. McDaniel, who influenced me a lot. My high school teacher was Mrs. Gibbs, and she would not let us think about things we couldn’t do. She made us read the classics and all the great literature writers.”

Of the seven children in the Crutchfield family, six earned college degrees, and five received advanced degrees. Bryant attended Tennessee State University (known then as Tennessee A&I) in the fall of 1941, where she would major in education. She knew she wanted to teach in a city school system.

“My sister was a teacher in the rural schools during the long period of segregation, and that did not please me at all—to be a rural school teacher,” she said. “I had to go with her to rural schools when she had fish fries to raise funds to buy pencils for the students.”

In the meantime, romance blossomed in her life.

“We used to have a black fair here in Lebanon. They had a band in Gallatin that would come over here to play. I met James Bryant at the fair. When I went to college, he was a junior at TSU. I already knew him, and after conversation and friendship, we dated and then he went to the Army,” she recalled. “We married March 21, 1945.”

The previous fall, in 1944, Bryant received a phone call that fulfilled her dream of teaching in a city school.

“I got a call to see if I wanted to come and fill in for a teacher who had passed, and I did. I dropped out of college and came to teach,” said Bryant, who would return to college in the summers to finish her degree.

“The first class I taught was third grade with 35 children. That was a very special class to me. The third grade is almost like a transition. They can write some. They can read. They are ready and eager to learn,” said Bryant, who taught third grade for two years and then taught sixth grade for 18 years at Market Street Elementary, while her husband was the principal of Wilson County High School.

One of Bryant’s students, Evelyn McGregor, who recently retired, taught second through fifth grades for 37 years at Highland Heights, Sam Houston and Castle Heights Upper Elementary schools.

“Miss Hattie was my sixth-grade teacher in 1959-60 at Market Street Elementary,” McGregor said. “Back then we were in self-contained classrooms and had one teacher all day. That was a good thing for me, because she was one of my favorite teachers. I remember that she was strict, and we had to mind her, but we still had fun with her. Miss Hattie was one of the teachers who cared about her students and wanted us to be successful and to have good morals.

“I think she was one of the teachers who influenced me into becoming a teacher. I loved school. She made it fun for us, and I guess it was then that I decided I wanted to be a teacher,” McGregor reflected. “On rainy days and other days when we couldn’t go outside for recess, Miss Bryant taught the girls and the boys how to knit. It was a lot of fun.

“I remember how I used to admire her beautiful handwriting. . . . I remember that at the end of the school year I was sad because I was going to another class, and Miss Bryant was not going to be my teacher anymore,” McGregor said.

Four years after McGregor matriculated from sixth grade, Bryant would no longer be teaching a classroom filled with African-American students in an all-black school.

“On Feb. 10, 1964, Mr. (Roy) Dowdy (superintendent of Lebanon schools) called me into his office at Sam Houston School and asked me would I transfer to Lebanon Junior High,” Bryant said, choosing her words carefully.

“After prayer, careful thought and discussion with my husband and family, I decided to say no because I didn’t feel it would be fair to leave my class at Market Street so near the end of the school year. He asked me again during the summer, and so I began next fall at Lebanon Junior High, teaching seventh-grade social studies.”

The first African-American teacher to be integrated into the LSSD said, “Like every school situation, there were pleasant and unpleasant moments. I knew that I was capable of handling the situation—whatever presented itself—and there were things that presented themselves that I handled.” 

Another long-time Lebanon educator, Andy Brummett, was witness to Bryant’s skills in the classroom.

“The name Hattie Bryant has always been synonymous with education,” said Brummett, who retired in 2005 after 32 years with the LSSD, the last 16 years as its director. “Hattie came from Market Street to teach at Walter J. Baird Junior High. She didn’t take anything from the kids, but she was a lady, too, and was treated with respect.”

“I was the only black teacher at Walter J. for many years before others were hired,” said Bryant, who taught 13 years at that school, retiring in 1978.

“My husband, James Bryant, was principal of Wilson County High School, and in 1964 they transferred him to Lebanon High School. They didn’t close the Wilson County High School down until 1969. They bused kids over from Lebanon high for several classes a day,” Bryant remembered.

Bryant’s husband earned his master’s degree at the University of Michigan and studied further at Fisk.

After 18 years as principal of Wilson County High, he taught math three years at Lebanon High before teaching 10 years at Tennessee Preparatory School in Nashville. Mr. Bryant died in 1994.

The couple had two children. Daughter Marilyn is a fashion coordinator in New York City, and son James, nicknamed Skip, is a project manager for the state of Tennessee. Bryant has six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She lives in the house that she and her husband built with their own hands.

“I made the mortar, and he laid the brick,” she told with pride. “We did it all except for the plumbing and the roof.”

Returning to the topic of education, Bryant stressed “the key to strong discipline is let every child know that you care about them and keep ’em busy.”

“When I first started teaching over here (at Market Street), our superintendent suggested that once a month we visit so many homes and get to know the children, their background and home situation. So once a month I picked out a couple of families, called their mamas and then the children saw me coming, and they would say, ‘Here comes Miss Bryant.’”

One of her students in the 1970s, newspaper publisher-turned-banker John Bryan, was keenly aware of her firm hand in the classroom.

“I sat right in front of her, and she looked over what looked like a pulpit at me and would say, ‘John BRY-AN, do you understand what I’m telling you?’ ‘Yes ma’am.’ She was very intimidating, and I walked the line in her class,” Bryan recalled.

“She’s a very true-blue citizen of Wilson County and a community leader, and all of her efforts have always been for the right reasons. If anything, she taught me that, and she showed me that in her actions over the years. She was one of those teachers I feared, but she made you learn. I learned to respect her and then to love her, and I think she had that effect on everybody,” he said.

One of Bryant’s closest acquaintances over the past 50 years is Juanita Rhodes, famous for her cooking skills for more than four decades at Lebanon Golf and Country Club. The two met at Market Street Church of Christ, where both are members, and Bryant taught Rhodes’ children, Charles and Patricia.

“Words can’t describe her,” Rhodes said of her friend. “She’s an outstanding person. She will do anything for the community or anyone else who heeds help. I don’t drive, and she picks me up for all the various functions: for church every Sunday, every Tuesday and Bible study on Wednesday night. Anything in the community we need to go to, we are there together,” Rhodes said.

Another dear friend of Bryant is Joslyn Conrad. The two have served together for more than 20 years as members of Wilson County Democratic Women.

“Miss Hattie is the same every day. You can tell she is a retired teacher. She is very disciplined, very organized, and that’s just the way she is,” Conrad said. “She was a wonderful educator, and through the years throughout our travels, we’d see students she had in her classes, and she remembers them by name, and I guess whether they behaved or not.

“Several years ago as she was about to turn 80 years old, we decided to have an 80th birthday party at Five Oaks for her and try to keep it a secret. We had probably 300 people there, and we pulled it off. We kept saying, ‘Please let it be a secret,’ because Miss Hattie is every place.

“She’s just a really special person to me, a delightful person,” Conrad said. “She enjoys going. She says, ‘I’m going as long as I can.’”

While the arthritis occasionally gets Bryant down, it’s never for long. She’s got more going on in her life than most 25-year-olds.

“I spend time with the Civic League and am active with AARP, the retired teachers, Democratic Women, Garden Club and am on the board of directors of Liberty State Bank,” said Bryant, also a globetrotter.

“My daughter worked with several companies in New York where she is a fashion coordinator, and I have traveled with her to Hong Kong, Paris, London, Bangkok, Casablanca, Spain, the Bahamas and Mexico,” she said.

But home sweet home in Lebanon is where she prefers to be, and she is especially fond of her Wednesday get-togethers with fellow members of the Wilson County Civic League Senior Citizens group.

“We play bingo, we sew, we quilt, we celebrate birthdays, we chat, we do nothing. We eat and enjoy each other,” she sums it up.

What were her thoughts when she was told that Lebanon’s newest middle school would bear her name?

“I was in shock,” Bryant confessed. “I got a call on my answering machine from Sharon Roberts, director of the city school system. She wanted to talk to me. ‘What does she want to talk to me about?’ I couldn’t imagine. So I returned her call.

“She told me, ‘I have some news for you. The board of education has just met, and they agreed to name the school after you and Cordell Winfree. It will be called Winfree Bryant Middle School.’ I was speechless. I said, ‘Thank you. I don’t know what to say,’ and hung up. Then I just sat there in that chair and thought about all the years that had gone by.”

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag@wilsonpost.com.

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