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Celebrating Our Black History

February 1–March 1, 2024

JPS Celebrates Black History Month

Know Your Namesakes

Gladys Noel Bates

Gladys Noel Bates

Gladys Noel Bates was a native of McComb, Mississippi. Bates was an African-American civil rights pioneer and educator who led legal action for salary equality for African American teachers and principals in the 1950s. The case was a landmark and forerunner for school desegregation cases of the 1950s. The fallout from her action forced Bates and her family to leave Mississippi. She and her husband moved to Denver, Colorado, where she received numerous awards for her achievements as an educator and community leader. She was the only living school namesake on opening day at Bates Elementary on September 14, 2010. She passed away one month later, on October 15, 2010.

Thomas W. Cardozo

Thomas Cardozo

Thomas W. Cardozo was born in Charleston, South Carolina, to a freeborn African American and a Jewish journalist. After he was married, he moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he became involved in building up the education, economics, and political power of African Americans in Mississippi. He was the first African American to serve as superintendent of education for the state of Mississippi. As state superintendent, he was interested in the education of all children even though the public schools were segregated. The statewide adoption of uniform textbooks was a reform that he supported. After serving as state superintendent, he moved to Massachusetts, where he died in 1881.

Henry J. Kirksey

Henry J. Kirksey

Henry J. Kirksey, a native of Lee County, Mississippi, was an outspoken civil rights activist and one of the first two African-American men elected to the Mississippi Senate after the Reconstruction Era. The election of more than 600 African-Americans to public office in the state can be credited partly to Senator Kirksey’s service as a plaintiff, expert witness, and community organizer. He was primarily responsible for bringing the state of Mississippi into compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. His work also led to the City of Jackson changing its form of government and adopting single-member legislative districts in the state government of Mississippi. Later in his life, Kirksey continued his advocacy work and was an adjunct professor at Tougaloo College, where he lived on campus. He and his wife, Audrie Mann Kirksey, raised three children in Jackson.

Drs. Aaron and Ollye Shirley

Aaron & Ollye Shirley

Drs. Aaron and Ollye Shirley were selected as namesakes for Shirley Elementary on December 6, 2021. The couple was well-known in Jackson as healthcare and education advocates.

Dr. Aaron Shirley (January 3, 1933–November 26, 2014), dedicated his life to others as a pioneer of rural and urban health care for the state of Mississippi. A native Mississippian, he became the first African-American resident at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in 1965. Following his residency, he helped to establish the Jackson Hinds Comprehensive Health Center. He also established a comprehensive school-based clinic to provide health and counseling services. It was his commitment to the medical profession that inspired his vision for a one-stop-shop healthcare facility for the underserved. That concept became a reality with the Jackson Medical Mall Thad Cochran Center, acclaimed as one of the nation’s most unique community healthcare endeavors.

Dr. Ollye Shirley (January 10, 1934–September 10, 2016) was an accomplished leader in public television, children’s programming and advocacy, civil rights activism, public education, community service, and more. As a long-serving member of the JPS School Board, she assisted in a significant School Board referendum that allowed the District to expand and improve its facilities. She was also instrumental in expanding Mississippi Educational Television's programming in this area to include Sesame Street, despite initial opposition because of its ethnically diverse cast of adults and children. 

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells was born enslaved in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862. She gained acclaim as an investigative journalist, educator, and early civil rights movement leader. After losing both of her parents to a yellow fever outbreak when she was only 16, Wells dropped out of school and began teaching to take care of herself and her remaining siblings. Wells began writing about racial prejudice and the conditions of segregated schools. She became a publisher and owner of two newspapers. Wells also co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Throughout a lifetime dedicated to combating prejudice and violence and the fight for African-American equality, especially for women, Wells arguably became the most famous black woman in America.

Do You Know...?

Smith Robertson School

Jackson Public Schools

Smith Robertson School (established in 1894) was the first public school for black children in Mississippi. Smith Robertson, the school's namesake, was the first black Alderman in Jackson and a successful barber. The school was originally named the West Jackson Colored School and became known as the Mother School. One of its most famous students was renowned author Richard Wright.

Jackson Public Schools was once named the Jackson Municipal Separate School District. It was separated by race into all-black and predominantly white schools. Brinkley, Jim Hill, and Lanier high schools served only black students, while Murrah, Central, Provine, and Wingfield served predominantly white students. After the Civil Right Act of 1964 students were allowed to voluntarily integrate white schools in Jackson.

Mother and son walking up to Davis school

Hezekiah Watkins arrest photo

Davis Elementary (now Barack Obama Elementary) was first integrated in September 1964. A first-grader held his mother's hand as he arrived for the first day at the previously all-white school. While black students could voluntarily integrate white schools, thanks to the passing of the Civil Rights Act, it would take until 1970 before local public schools would fully integrate.

Hezekiah Watkins was a 13-year-old student at Rowan Junior High School when he was arrested on July 7, 1961. Watkins was the youngest Freedom Rider, a group of civil rights activists who took bus trips throughout the south to protest segregated terminals. He was sentenced to death row but Gov. Ross Barnett released him at the behest of President John F. Kennedy.

The Fearless 11 - Provine High School

Lanier championship basketball team

In the fall of 1965, 11 black students volunteered to integrate John W. Provine High School. After attending three years at Jim Hill, the students decided during the senior year to break barriers on behalf of future generations of students in the capital city by enrolling at Provine. They followed through in spite of extreme opposition. The Fearless 11 has been made into a documentary film recounting their experiences.

Lanier High School holds a national championship in basketball. The 1964-1965 Lanier High School basketball team, coached by Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Orsmond Jordan, completed a perfect undefeated season (43-0). The Bulldogs averaged 102 points per game and won by an average of 40 points. They went on to win a national championship, beating a team from Virginia in a post-season tournament in Montgomery, Alabama. 

Black History Moments

Watch each short video as some of our administrators share the stories of some famous black Mississippians.

Joseph Sarpy, First Black Deaf Actor/Artist presented by Dr. Kathleen Grigsby, JPS Asst. Supt. Elementary Div. 1

Leontyne Price, Black Soprano presented by Dionne Woody, JPS Asst. Supt. Elementary Div. 2

Richard Wright, Author presented by JPS Superintendent Dr. Errick L. Greene