Last fall I interviewed educator, Mrs. Juanita Harris, Gardner in her childhood home in our hometown, Albany, Georgia.

“During the Albany Civil Rights Movement, our house was a freedom house;
the white SNCC students slept on the floor, they ate here…”

AGJ: Today is September 20, 2017 and I’ve just finished a delicious soul food lunch with Mrs. Juanita Harris Gardner, a retired elementary school teacher and civil rights activist. We are sitting at the dining room table in the house on Whitney Avenue in Albany, Georgia where she did most of her growing up. I’m grateful to Mrs. Juanita, for agreeing to this interview.
This interview is necessarily long. There was little to cut, so treat it like a serial novel, come back and savor over time…

JHG: I am the Daughter of Rev I. A. Harris and Katie B. Harris. When I was born, we lived at #812 Pine Avenue in Albany, Georgia. My father was a preacher and a contractor. He built this house where we are sitting right now on Whitney Avenue. He said if we were to live in a parsonage and something happened to him we would have to get out, and he didn’t want his children to be homeless. He called our mama Sister so he said, “Sister, I’m going to build us a home so if anything happens to me you’ll have a place to stay,” so I spent most of my growing up in this house, until I married and went to Atlanta.

AGJ: What year were you born?

JHG: I was born in 1929 and went to the Mercer Street Elementary School, I was born in a segregated city and went to a segregated school and that was very joyful and educational to me because I had some good, good teachers. We didn’t start with kindergarten; we started with the first grade and went to the 7th. At Mercer there were two buildings: one for 1,2 and 3 and the other 4,5 6, 7 and after I finished we didn’t have 7th promotion during those days, so I went on to high school. 8, 9, 10 and 11th. We didn’t’ have 12 grades then. I went on to Madison High School and Miss Ruth Kimbrough was my principal—Mr. Heard had been principal but he had gone to the army—so Mrs. Ruth Kimble was the first lady to be principal at Madison High School. She remained principal until they built Monroe High.

AGJ:  I graduated from Monroe in 1972 and never even knew about Madison High. Where was it located?

JHG: The school was on South Madison between Lincoln and Cotton, I went there and my brother and sisters did, too.

AGJ: Let’s stop right here and have you list your siblings in birth order—and with nicknames, cause you know how we southerners love our nicknames:

JHG: The oldest was John Henry Harris, we called him John H. Next was Rosetta B., we called her Bae and I’m next, Juanita and they call me Neet. My next brother was Alphonzo, we called in Fonza, then McCree and we called her Cree, then Eliza Joseph Harris and we called him Peter Rabbit and then Rutha Mae Harris, we call her Mae, and then my youngest brother is Emory Leon Harris, we call him Emory.

AGJ: How many still with us?

JHG: Only three out of the eight: me, Rutha and Emory.

I graduated with honors in 1947. I had some of the most loveable, understanding teachers: Mrs. Burnie Nelson, Mr. A. C. Heard, A.C. Searles and others. Oh—and —I played basketball!

AGJ: Yes you did! You mentioned earlier that it was half court—

JHG: Yes, half court and we played on the ground. And my oldest sister Rosetta went to Madison. Rosetta was a girl that loved to sing and loved that piano. My brother John H played football and finished at Madison, too. We had a very good time. Miss Anne Wright, who taught music and you always had to apologize to her when you did the wrong thing.

AGJ: Oh my goodness—Miss Wright was at Monroe when I was there, too! I sang in the choir all four years. She was a lot older then and the sweetest most demanding teacher: held us to very high standards.

JHG: That’s right, somethings never change. Then Mrs. and Mrs. Reynolds taught us Home Economics, and boy was that good.

AGJ:And they were still at Monroe when I graduated—in ’72.

JHG: But daddy didn’t want me buying too much material to make skirts because he said “you wasting money,” but our mama would always give us the money.

AGJ: Oh—she would slip it to you?

JHG: Yeah, cause my daddy was tight on money. He was a preacher and they weren’t making much during those days but he saved for his children and provided for us. He built this house. And when I was growing up I remember Whitney Avenue was a dirt street—red dirt—and there were homes on both sides and in front of us. Right next-door was Shiloh Baptist Church parsonage. Rev E.R. Circe lived there. Then Rev. Blue came next, and Rev. Calhoun and the latest one was H.C. Boyd. Across the street was Rev E. James Grant, pastor of Mt. Zion so w had a neighborhood of good families.

And by the way, when my father came to Albany in 1928, he was the pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church.

AGJ: Where did he come from?

JHG: He came from Jacksonville, Florida where he met this beautiful girl, Katie B. when he went to her church to run a revival meeting and he fell in love. They always tell the story of this little girl, walking down the aisle and he said to himself, “That’s gon’ be my wife,” and he grew up with her and she grew up with her children. Many of us were delivered by a midwife right here in this house. Her name was Mary Crowley so we’re all Mary Crowley’s children. My mother didn’t go to the doctor until after the children were born. The doctor was William Reese who lived a few doors down. That house is still there, too. Next to him was a school teacher named Mrs. Montgomery.

AGJ: Lots of upstanding folk in your neighborhood.

JHG: Yes, we lived in an educational and historical place. When SNCC [Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee] was here those students would stay here. I remember once, in the alley behind this house, the Ku Klux Klan came on a horse, wearing the hood and mama would say, “Do not go outside. The white people want to know why all these young whites were at our house.”

AGJ: So this was one of the Freedom Houses—white students and come from the north and other parts to work in the Albany Civil Rights Movement, correct?

JHG: That’s right, they slept on the floor, they ate here and down the alley behind this house, the KKK would come on the horses, wondering why all these white children and blacks were together.

AGJ: Wow.

JHG: So mama always told us not to go in the back, don’t say nothing, pretend you don’t see them. At that time I was in my mid-thirties—much older than the SNCC students. I was teaching and had moved to Atlanta in 1960 so I was not active in the Albany Movement, but my sisters and brothers were. When I came home on weekends I would go to the mass meetings at Mt. Zion. And in Atlanta. Ralph Abernathy was my pastor: West Hunter Street Baptist Church.

AGJ: Oh—Rev. Abernathy worked very closely with Dr. Martin Luther King.

JHG:I babysat for his daughter, Juandalynn, and used to take her around to the white churches to sing. That’s why she became an opera singer. I still hear from her, thanking me for carrying her into that.

AGJ: Albany was very segregated back then.

JHG. Very—and still is. When I was in elementary school the white school bus would pass us every morning as we were walking to school on Mercer Street because during segregation buses were not offered to the black students. And the whites would yell the N-word out the window. Our daddy said, “don’t say a word. They’re not calling you because that’s not your name. Don’t’ worry about what people say, because you are somebody.” He always told us that. Told us we could do anything you wanted to do. Just trust in God and you can make it.”

“We couldn’t go to the movies at Albany Theater because blacks had to walk down the alley and go to the back door. My daddy didn’t let us go. Said he wasn’t paying good money for that treatment. But as I got older I told him, ‘You know, Daddy, those seats up north are the best ones in the house.'”

AGJ: You called the balcony, “up north”?!

JHG: Yes, blacks had to sit in the balcony and you could see everything was going on. But during those days, my daddy said, “It you can’t go through the front door I won’t allow you to go at all.” So—we didn’t go to the movies.

AGJ: And if you had, nearly everybody on the screen was white.

JHG: That’s for sure—and then television came out! My older sister, Rosetta said, “Papa we need a television so we can do our lessons.” So he bought us a television, then a record player that played what I call the “big wheel music” so he told us that was our entertainment because we couldn’t go to the movies.

AGJ: Do you remember any T.V. shows and what songs you played on the record player?

JHG: Well, I don’t recall any shows but most of the songs were religious, of course, and I believe that’s how my sister, Rosetta learned how to sing—listening to Mahalia Jackson.

AGJ: A lot of beautiful memories in this house.

JHG: We called that front room in there the study. That’s where our daddy studied his sermons. And we always sat down to dinner right in this dining room—every meal, breakfast, dinner and—we had supper in those days. Each person had to have a Bible verse.

AGJ:  My father wasn’t a preacher but he had the same requirement at our house. Even for visiting heathens! They’d have to come up with a Bible verse.

JHG:But my daddy would say, “Give me a Bible verse that begins with the letter ‘T’,” that would usually be “Thou”—then going on around the table he’d ask for one beginning with ‘B’. That’s “Blessed,” the B-Attitudes.

AGJ: Ah yes, I remember them well from my 2nd Mt. Olive Baptist Church upbringing. Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

JHG:And Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted, and on and on—The B-Attitudes. And my daddy would sit at the head of the table at all times.

AGJ: Are you sitting in your father’s chair right now?

JHG: Yes I am. And if you put food on your plate you had to eat it. No food was wasted because there are people right here in this city that don’t have food. And you didn’t get dessert if you didn’t eat your food. But we had a good time.

AGJ: What year did your dad pass?

JHG: February 1951—

AGJ Oh my—the year you graduated from Albany State College.

JHG: That’s right, like I told you, the president A. Brown said, “Ms. Harris, your daddy is proud of you now. I know he’s looking down on you.” Because, when I went to Albany State there were no student loans, you had to have the money. My daddy was paid on a Sunday when he went to churches. One time, Mrs. Helen Mays, the registrar would not let me register, pulled me out of the line because that was the rule. I didn’t want to go back to school, but my daddy went down and demanded to see the president. He explained that his children don’t work. They have to get the money when he gets the money. President Brown said, “Well preacher, we’ll take that you at your word,” and that was the last time Mrs. Mays pulled me out of line because I didn’t have the money. And by the way, she’s still alive, living near here.

AGJ: You mentioned earlier that you really enjoyed college.

JHG:Yes, we had a very good year at college. My friend Christine Daniels (Blaylock) would say, “Hey Neet, let’s meet!” and we’d meet at the corner of Whitney and Jackson to walk to campus across the ‘Old Bridge’—there was no New Bridge yet— and walk down Hazard Drive carrying our lunches in tin boxes—cause we didn’t eat in the dining room cause we didn’t live on campus. We took leftovers and put them on the radiator to get them heated.

AGJ: I grew up on Hazard Drive. It’s College Avenue now and all those houses are long gone, even Hazard Laboratory School was lost in the flood of 1994—but it was an amazing place to grow up; across the street from the ASC campus. Back then no one was calling them Historically Black Colleges and Universities but Albany State is an HBCU.

JHG: It’s Albany State University now, but those were the days.

AGJ: After college what did you do?

JHG:My first job was teaching third grade in Jessup, Georgia. Frank Robinson was my principal and we didn’t get along and I’ll tell you why: During that time teachers were living in people’s homes. One day the lady allowed Frank Robinson to go into my room to search for cigarettes and whiskey, because teachers had to have outstanding character back then, beyond everybody else.

AGJ: Well, I’d say the principal wasn’t of very high standards, searching your room behind your back.

JHG: That’s right and I don’t drink or smoke so—being that I was Juanita Harris, the next day I went to his office and asked why he went into my room? I told him, “My daddy didn’t search my room.” He said, “Well, Miss Harris we were searching all the teachers’ rooms to make sure they aren’t drinking or smoking.” I asked if he had seen me doing either?” He said “No, but we had to check,” and I and told him he had no business in my room and left there. Went to a school in Mt. Vernon Georgia and that principal, Jacob Freeman lives in Albany right now. We had a good time at Mt. Vernon School; faculty and staff had a good relationship with the students. But then my husband wanted me to come home so I put in an application in Atlanta and was sent to Forest Elementary teaching first grade. And at that time Atlanta had a policy to send their best teachers to white schools. And I was among that group—they took me out of my classroom and sent me to teach kindergarten at another school (is it Mr. Vernon? She says so but I wonder if she confusing it?) . I was the only black teacher.

AGJ:What year?

JHG: 1962 or 63. And everybody at the school was white. Even the cooks in the kitchen were white!

AGJ: Can’t get any whiter than that!

JHG: The first day, I wrote my name on the board in manuscript and I told those white kids, “I am Mrs. J. H. Gardner. I am your TEACHER. I am not your maid, not your maid. I am not your washerwoman. I am your tea-cher.” And when my students did well I gave out apples—not candy like other teachers.

AGJ: What was the thinking behind this policy to move you to the white school?

JHG: Decision came down from the white superintendent to put all the best teachers at white schools and lasted about 2-3 years. Then they began integration in 1964. That white school where I had been closed and I was sent to W. J. Scott Elementary on Hollywood Road, which was in the hood. I taught third grade and stayed there until I retired in 1996. One principal died; another one retired and that third one, a woman, was there when I retired. I was known for getting the job done—they called me “The Governor”. I was ruling, I would tell the principal what to do. I was a knock-out!”


AGJ: I bet you were —you still are!

JHG: The children respected me; the parents, my colleagues and superintendent all respected each other. And I always wore the color that we were working on that day. The children liked that.

AGJ: So today we’re working on orange! [Laughs] —and by the way—I noticed your shoe collection around the corner—so I’m sure the shoes always played a vital role back then.

JHG: Ooooh yes. Love myself some shoes.

AGJ: What was your secret sauce as an educator? What were you doing then that’s missing in schools now?

JHG: The teacher being in charge. Knowing what to do, how to do it and don’t back down for nothing. You know what the children need and you know what they have to do to get it. For example: at that school we were getting the white folk’s left over books. I went to the principal and told her I wasn’t going to use them anymore.

AGJ: So you were standing up for the children?

JHG: Yes, I was standing up. My mother was a school teacher here in Albany. And she’d talk about her “new books” and I’d say, “What new books?”

AJG: That was rare at the time, black students with new books.

JHG: My students’ books had names and scribbles in them, bent pages. So I refused to pass them out. Since we’ve integrated, we need to have new books and that’s when they called me “The Governor.” I enjoyed my teaching career. I had fun. Loved it.

AGJ: I’m sitting here holding a compelling piece of history from Madison High School: The Tamarack Year Book 1946.

Madison High School, Albany, GA

Miss Ruth Kimbrough, Principal, Madison High School, 1946

JHG: Yes, that book belonged to my husband, R.B. Gardner. I held on to that. A lot of people lost many things in the flood. What a piece of history

lived on McKinley, father. JC Gardner who had the barbershop across from Carver School. We began courting and married he was transferred to Atlanta.

AGJ: What’s your message for young folks today?

JHG: I would tell them to believe in themselves, love themselves, know that they are somebody. Regardless of what their friends and sometimes even their teachers say: believe in yourself. And respect and obey your parents. They are the reason you are here.

AGJ: That was sound advice fifty years ago when you began teaching and it’s still sound advice.

JHG: Advice hasn’t changed, but we got younger parents now who have not been taught by their parents. And they are buying friendship with their children who are doing what they want to do when the want to.

AGJ: Gone are the days when you and Christine Blaylock had to walk down the street past the women sitting on porches —the neighborhood communication line—getting on the phone reporting back to your parents.

JHG: Oh yes. Those were the days. And don’t get caught holding a boy’s hand. You didn’t court in the streets. By the time you got home your daddy would know and you couldn’t deny it! Then he’d ask if you’re calling a grown up a lier.

AGJ: I know that’s right! So we’re missing the community that we used to have.

JHG: People don’t even know their next door neighbors these days, but back then I was getting a triple dose: my parents, the neighbors and the church! I couldn’t get away with anything.


AGJ: To wrap up, I’d like to know if you think integration hurt black folk?

JHG: I’ve always believed that. Cause good teachers taught us about black history but with integration we couldn’t. For example: because my family was active in the Civil Rights Movement I had first hand experience with this part of history as it unfolded, but I couldn’t teach it. But when I got to the black school I taught beyond what was in the books—George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington—both heavily sponsored by whites so they were the only ones who made it into the history books. Later I became interested in black inventors and started collecting items and I do an exhibit at Mt. Zion church during February and March for the children to learn about black inventors.

She brought out this small music box sewing machine—invented by Elias Howe, a black man, in 1846—along with  her bag of index cards with African-American Inventors 1845-1980.

AGJ: It has been a beautiful pleasure to interview you, Mrs. Juanita.

JHG: Thank you for interviewing me.

AGJ: You should be interviewed by radio and T.V. hosts the world over—your story is an important part of American history. I thank you for this time together.

JHG: You’re welcome. Come back any time—