Belisles memoir recounts integration of MHS

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 13, 2007

MONTEVALLO &8212; As a child, Barbara Belisle would walk by Montevallo High School each morning and dream that she could one day go to school there.

But because she was black and it was Alabama in the 1950s, Belisle instead had to attend Almont, a much poorer school across town.

&8220;I wondered why I wasn&8217;t good enough to go to school there,&8221; she said. &8220;Their school was so pretty compared to what we had.&8221;

Years later, Belisle would finally walk the halls of Montevallo High, not as a student, but as Shelby County Schools&8217; first black teacher.

The retired educator and author has written a short memoir on integrating the county&8217;s public school system some 40 years ago this summer. &8220;A Long Time Learning: The Story of Change in a Small Town&8221; details Belisle&8217;s first few tumultuous years at Montevallo and her lasting impressions after decades of work in education.

Belisle started teaching at Shelby County Training School in Columbiana in the fall of 1964.

Fresh out of Miles College, she taught economics, history and seventh-grade English at the all-black school.

She settled into her job, balancing work between a husband and three small children.

But that world would be turned upside down when she was transferred to Montevallo High three years later.

Students wouldn&8217;t integrate until 1969, so the move made her the only black person at any white school in the county.

&8220;They called me in and wanted me to be the &8216;token black&8217; in Shelby County,&8221; she recalled. &8220;It wasn&8217;t because they wanted it. It was forced.&8221;

After all this time, Belisle still isn&8217;t sure why she was chosen to be the first black teacher.

&8220;It was hard at first,&8221; she said. &8220;I had to live with the fear of what might happen.&8221;

Dr. Elaine Hughes, a UM professor of English, has known Belisle for more than 30 years through the school system and community theater.

&8220;She was the first, the pioneer in Shelby County,&8221; said Hughes, who made history herself by being the first woman elected to the county school board in 1974. &8220;She had some pretty tough times. There were threats.&8221;



In her book, Belisle recalls her first day of school and interaction with white students.

Amid flashing police lights and crowds of spectators, Belisle had to march into the school by herself.

&8220;People screamed &8216;ain&8217;t no n—– going in this school,&8221; she remembers. &8220;I had to walk through them like I was walking down an aisle. They were so close I could smell them.&8221;

Though the situation would gradually improve, Montevallo and other Shelby County schools struggled with integration through the early &8216;70s.

&8220;People don&8217;t realize what violence we had here in Shelby County, with riots and near riots,&8221; said Hughes. &8220;There were many attempts to destroy the school system.&8221;

Hughes said the school board and teachers like Belisle worked constantly to bring the white and black communities together.

&8220;Barbara was one of the key forces keeping things together. She was one of the mainstays,&8221; said Hughes, who recalled a &8220;womanless wedding&8221; in 1971 as a turning point for the city.

The &8220;hair-raising&8221; event brought together men from throughout the community &8212;

politicians, doctors, lawyers, principals and ministers for good-humored fun.

&8220;It was hysterical. It was so successful in uniting everyone, and Barbara was instrumental in the production,&8221; said Hughes.


In the early years, many parents refused to let their children take Belisle&8217;s classes, but that changed as time went by.

&8220;I think we fell in love with each other,&8221; she said. &8220;Parents got to know me and respect me, a level of respect that some white people never thought possible.&8221;

By the time she retired in 1995, Belisle had become one of the school&8217;s most beloved teachers. For example, once students found out she loved yellow roses, her desk almost always had the flower on it.

&8220;She had such an impact on my life,&8221; said former student Ruth Boyd, class of 1982. &8220;She was so very genuine and strove to make sure she connected with students.&8221;

Today, Boyd is a team leader for a consulting firm in Dallas, but said she still stays in touch with Belisle, sending her baby pictures and occasional e-mails.

&8220;I was shy but very smart in high school. She helped motivate me to excel, and I love her for that,&8221; said Boyd.

Belisle said it was hard to walk away from the school and her students, but nagging health issues forced her to retire. &8220;I felt I needed to be there,&8221; she said. &8220;I had a special kind of relationship with that school.&8221;

Today, the 70-year-old continues helping students, working part-time at the University of Montevallo&8217;s Carmichael Library. She has also published several books and is currently working on a grammar handbook and a children&8217;s novel called A Wish Away.

A Long Time Learning is available for $9.67 (tax included) at the House of Serendipity bookstore in Montevallo.