The Latin Teacher
George U. Alexander was a man who had clear objectives and the vision and methods to achieve them. In 1889 his objective was to marry Maria Gaines, which he accomplished on Christmas day in Lowndes County, Valdosta Georgia. They were my grandparents. I called him Papa. For most of his 76 years Papa was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Even though he was appointed to churches throughout the State of Georgia, Valdosta and Lowndes County was considered home.
My grandfather had a gifted, curious mind and the energy to seek answers. He also felt obligated to educate himself beyond the pages of Genesis and Revelation and to share that learning with his congregation. Using biblical phraseology as his preface, he told me, “And so it came to pass that my ministry always included a school.” Papa started gathering books on any subject, at first concentrating on the textbooks of English, mathematics, science, citizenship, and law. At its peak the library contained more than 2,000 volumes. The subject that engaged much of his attention and time was Latin. He counseled that learning to speak and write Latin would help me learn other languages and better understand and use English.
In 1939 Papa was back home in semi-retirement from the ministry. He had time to sit and read his books. Education was still his passion. Throughout our 11 years together, Papa often reminded me that “… the pathway to where you have the power to make your own decisions is paved with the bricks and mortar of education.” And after reciting that recipe he would hesitate to let me absorb his wisdom before adding, “You can get most of what you want in life if you’re educated and disciplined enough and work hard to get it, regardless of the social, legal or physical obstacles facing you.” We both knew his reference to the “social, legal obstacles “were the restraints of racial segregation. And being a teacher, he also took every opportunity to remind me, “The things you do when you don’t have to will determine who you are when you can’t help it.”
Papa was a subscriber for home delivery of The Valdosta Daily Times. Furthermore, my mother was a domestic whose employers also saved, and often delivered to Papa, their collected copies of The Atlanta Constitution and The Florida Times Union.
In 1939 I entered the first grade. At Papa’s encouragement I also read the newspapers, with the command that I reassemble the paper in proper order, because he might want to re-read a story. Otherwise, the paper would also be intact for our neighbor, the young white boy who came each day and asked, “Reverend, could my pa borrow your papers?”
His teaching skills were also still honed. There were days when I arrived from school to see Papa standing on the front porch among three or four white boys and girls, often commanding that they rewrite a passage in Latin. Some of them were students at the all-white-female Georgia State Women’s College, the forerunner to Valdosta State University, and the all-white -male Emory Junior College. They understood that the “tuition” for the private tutoring sessions would be a copy of the textbook for his library. One day I asked why he didn’t charge more. He informed me that the book had value that would outlast any money he could charge.
During a visit to my home in Bluffton, SC, the Director of the Lowndes County Historical Museum saw the remaining volumes of Papa’s library. When he examined the last six Latin textbooks I could feel Papa’s presence.