A joyful reunion: oldest graduates of Cleburne’s all-black high school reminisce

03/06/2014 9:50 PM

03/06/2014 9:51 PM

For the Booker T. Washington High School graduates, it was a rare reunion.

The six, the oldest surviving graduates of the city’s segregated high school, laughed and hugged each other as they remembered the good times from their teenage years.

And they chose not to dwell about not attending high school with their white contemporaries.

“Segregation was a way of life,” said Zuma Kidd Cleaves, 94, who wanted to talk about how boys carried her books. “I guess if we would have worried, we never would have learned anything.”

The graduates gathered in the gym of their former high school Thursday — now a part of the Booker T. Washington Recreation Center — to make sure their place in history is not forgotten.

City Councilman John Warren, himself a 1958 Booker T. Washington graduate, said he felt compelled to organize the event to honor the graduates whose pictures are in a display case at the center. Photos taken Thursday will be added to the display.

Washington was Cleburne’s only high school for black students. It opened in 1904 and literally was on the other side of the tracks from the white part of town. The school closed in 1965 when the schools were desegregated, and African- American students went to Cleburne High School.

The building fell into disrepair until the city bought the property and built the recreation center on the site. The gym was the only portion of the building to survive.

When asked about their thoughts on segregation, they chose not to dwell on it and wanted to remember the good times and experiences they had while at Booker T. Washington.

When Herbie Phillips Stone graduated in 1932, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, but she insisted on going to college and teaching history.

“When the Depression hit, I was lucky that my parents sent me to college,” Stone recalled.

She eventually graduated from Paul Quinn College in Waco, then known as Waco College, where she studied history. She moved forward with her life, teaching high school history in Dennison and Alvarado before returning to Cleburne for good.

“I guess it was the Lord’s will for me to live such a long life,” Stone said. “When I was a young woman, I said my prayers and ate the right foods.”

Cleaves, who now lives in Mount Calm near Waco, said that she walked 5 miles to and from high school but that it wasn’t a hardship. “I remember it was exciting; boys carried our books,” she said.

She recalled how the principal always began the day with the Lord’s Prayer and several songs.

“He would tell us to stand up straight with our chests out. They [teachers] instilled that in us,” she said.

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