The Time Traveler most recently landed the time machine in front of a small cinderblock schoolhouse east of Hernando known as the Morgan Grove School.
Inside, a well-dressed, smiling young African-American woman named Gemenie Bowdre was teaching a class of young children of various ages as an old-fashioned wood stove kept the classroom warm and cozy.
Matriculation, spelling quizzes and history lessons helped the day to go by pretty quickly. Most children ate a slab of cornbread or perhaps a bologna sandwich for lunch and washed it down with a glass of ice-cold buttermilk.
The teacher saw to it the children finished their schoolwork early because many of the students had walked to school. Public transportation was reserved for white students during the days of segregation in Mississippi. Under separate but supposedly equal conditions, children of differing races were educated separately in segregated schoolhouses.
That would change in 1970 when integration of Mississippi’s educational system would finally take place, nearly two decades after Brown vs. the Board of Education, a United States Supreme Court decision which struck down separate but equal distinctions.
“Miss Gemenie,” that smiling teacher in the Morgan Grove School, would go on to become the first African-American principal of Hernando Elementary School. The late Love native would later serve with distinction on the DeSoto County Board of Education.
A woman of many firsts, Bowdre was among the first group of blacks to attend the University of Mississippi, just 10 years after James Meredith’s historic enrollment in 1962.
But Bowdre’s education began well before that. Bowdre recalls having shared a dorm room at the Baptist Industrial College in Hernando with five fellow co-eds, or “three girls to a twin bed, and wearing black skirts, white “shirt waist blouses and saddle Oxfords while attending the segregated college."
In 1944, Bowdre began attending and became an active participant in the Hammond Hill Sunday School and Congress of Christian Education.
The Time Traveler considered “Miss Gemenie” as a very warm and close friend.
It is an honor on behalf of the Board of Directors for the DeSoto County Museum to unveil our latest exhibit, installed during “Black History Month” which commemorates my good friend’s long and distinguished life.
Bowdre’s gentle voice echoes to us down the long corridor of time. It’s the same advice she might have given to students in that one-room segregated schoolhouse at Morgan Grove.
“The most rewarding experiences cannot be measured by the number of years that I have served … but through the service that I have rendered.”
ROBERT LEE LONG is Curator of the award-winning DeSoto County Museum.