COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — Thanks to a request from a retired professor, the Muscogee County School District has agreed to fill a half-century-old omission in its history.
The late Mary Lee Hall Bussey, the Black educator who led the county’s “Negro schools” for 18 years during segregation, will be honored in the rightful place where its all-white superintendents are remembered.
Judy Purnell, who taught African and African-American culture at Columbus State University, presented her case during the MCSD board’s work session last week. Then, during Feb. 19's meeting, the board unanimously passed a resolution that gives Bussey the posthumous title of superintendent and orders a professional portrait of her to be commissioned and hung in the Muscogee County Public Education Center along with images of the other superintendents.
Purnell, who grew up in Columbus and attended segregated schools, expressed her gratitude for the board’s decision.
“It’s always about having the right people, and the right time and the right place, right information,” she told the Ledger-Enquirer.
The resolution also calls for Bussey’s descendants to be invited to a formal reception that will celebrate the unveiling of the portrait.
“History doesn’t lie, but historians do,” she said. “So we don’t want to continue with lies. We don’t want to mislead people. The people of color need to know — any color — that there was a person of color in the area of education that out-stationed herself to be respected as a superintendent, based on work performed.”
The board agrees, as the resolution declares, “Segregation denied Mrs. Bussey the status of superintendent when that was her function and calling.”
MCSD superintendent David Lewis noted the resolution being approved during Black History Month is “coincidental but certainly appropriate.”
“It’s important to recognize history, recognize our roots and recognize how our school system has evolved over time,” he told the L-E. “And I think this is emblematic of that evolution. … I’m just really pleased and proud of our community and our board for recognizing this fine lady during that difficult time of transition.”
According to the resolution and the Columbus Black History Museum & Archives, Bussey was born Dec. 4, 1904, in Hazlehurst, Georgia. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English and education from Spelman College in 1943 and a master’s degree in English and education from Atlanta University in 1949.
Bussey came to Columbus in 1950 as a Jeanes Supervisor. The program was named after Philadelphia philanthropist Anna Jeanes, who donated $1 million in 1907 to create a fund in conjunction with the John D. Rockefeller Foundation to hire Black educators as supervisors of African-American schools during segregation.
The Georgia Encyclopedia says Jeanes Supervisors “improved school buildings and grounds, organized clubs to develop African American communities, and sought to enrich local cultural and social life.”
Bussey supervised the “Negro schools” of Muscogee County until the Jeanes program ended here in 1968 as school integration began. During her tenure:
— She trained and supported the teachers.
— Spencer High School, the first high school for Black students in Columbus, moved from 10th Avenue to a new building on Shepherd Drive, which now houses the Marshall Success Center.
— Carver High School, the city’s second high school for Black students, was constructed.
Her positive impact went beyond schools as she established a food and clothing bank at First African Baptist Church.
Bussey was 97 when she died March 19, 2002. She is buried in Columbus at Green Acres Cemetery.
The library in Brewer Elementary School is named after Bussey, but Purnell sought a higher honor for her.
“She’s an unsung hero,” said Purnell, whose interest in Bussey is personal as well as historical.
Purnell attended Manly Taylor Elementary School, where Bussey’s husband, Layfield, was the principal. Her 1967 graduating class at Spencer High School was the last in MCSD to be fully segregated, Purnell said.
After reading an online article about Bussey by Johnnie Warner, the founder of the Columbus Black History Museum & Archives, Purnell was motivated to elevate Bussey’s esteem to the level of superintendent.
With help from MCSD board secretary Karen Jones, Purnell said, she found records in Bussey’s personnel file that validated her memory of the “bubbly” and “amazing” leader who inspired her.
“African Americans do go unacknowledged for a lot of accomplishments, and I don’t want that to be the case here in Columbus,” she said. “There was a separate school system, I am a product of that, and I am grateful to Mrs. Bussey.”
Purnell credits Bussey and other educators for providing quality education “against the odds” and a foundation to become successful adults. For example, she said, her kindergarten classmates include a neonatal intensive care professor, a nursing researcher, a retired military colonel, entrepreneurs and teachers.
Manly Taylor’s 1958-59 PTA list, showing nearly 500 names, is a testament to the parental support Bussey fostered, Purnell said.
“Mrs. Bussey organized the community,” she said. “… It’s almost like she ran social services.”
And construction services. Bussey’s leadership enabled Manly Taylor to finally have a proper cafeteria built, Purnell said.
“Every time it rained, the cafeteria flooded,” she said, “which means that we didn’t have lunch for that day.”