But though they rode each day past white schools so much closer to their homes, and though their textbooks and football uniforms were often hand-me-downs from the whites, students at Terrell rarely, if ever, complained about the quality of their education. It was almost as if those black students felt themselves in on a secret they were determined to keep. Terrell High, named for one of Fort Worth's first black teachers, Isaiah Milligan Terrell, was not "separate but equal," to use the catchphrase of the segregation years. Their high school was separate but superior. Every generation of Fort Worth blacks who crossed Terrell's threshold felt the same way.
And Titus Hall eventually did, too. On that late summer day in 1940, wearing Thom McCann shoes and a red pullover shirt, he took his seat in the basement homeroom of Mrs. Juanita Bates, who led the Terrell High science department. Mrs. Bates was a small woman, dressed that first day as she was every other day for the next four years in a prim business suit. Her hair was combed to one side. In four years of schooling, Hall could not remember Mrs. Bates smiling, not even once. She tolerated no shenanigans. She assumed that her students would attend college. But Mrs. Bates also promised that her door was open to them no matter what the hour, no matter what the problem. Most nights found her in the Terrell library, tutoring students past midnight if that's what it took.
And Mrs. Bates had plenty of company in that library, for most of her fellow teachers were her equal in terms of achievement and dedication. Back in those days in the South, Jim Crow foreclosed professional opportunities for even the most talented black people, so the best and the brightest often became teachers, earning graduate degrees from the finest universities in the North. Mrs. Bates, for one, had done graduate work at Columbia University and the University of Colorado. Hazel Harvey Peace, the dean of girls, studied at Columbia and Ohio University. The Terrell science teacher, C.T. Tinsley, took graduate courses at the University of Iowa. Others received master's degrees from Stanford. They were teachers who should have been out curing diseases or splitting the atom, but they were at I.M. Terrell teaching Shakespeare, calculus and history to students like Titus Hall.
Yet perhaps their most important lessons were not found in textbooks. They were what Mrs. Peace always called "the graces."
In those days, black children were forced to ride with their parents in the back of city buses, could not attend the State Fair or the Stock Show or play in white parks except on special "Negro Days." They were seated in the balcony if allowed in white movie theaters at all. In the department stores downtown, black youngsters learned to drink from the fountains marked "Colored," part of a system calculated to keep black people in their place by depriving them of their dignity.
But the teachers at Terrell worked to restore it. Rarely in the classroom did they ever address the realities of Jim Crow. Instead, they tried to show the way by example, to teach the graces dignity, respect, compassion, hope by living them. Every female teacher wore a business suit or floor-length dress in the style of Mrs. Bates. Every male teacher wore a starched white shirt and tie. The men always opened doors for their female colleagues and students, and the teachers always spoke to each other with formality and deference. They were usually in the front pews on Sunday morning. They generally lived in the nicest black neighborhoods and listened to Mozart in addition to the blues. They always kept their lawns trimmed and their rose bushes pruned. There was never a whiff of scandal surrounding a teacher at Terrell High.
In those days in black society, only preachers were more exalted than teachers, who ranked above even physicians in terms of respect. Not even "Gooseneck" Bill McDonald, the millionaire who opened the state's first black bank on Ninth Street downtown and who lived in a pillared mansion on the south side, could compete with Terrell teachers when it came to prestige. And those teachers shouldered that mantle proudly, teaching Shakespeare and calculus to be sure, but also the graces.