Bernard School was more than just a building to the students who attended there. It was a piece of history.
Mary Fannie Gwyn Biles describes its loss as one of sadness.
“It was really sad to see it be demolished,” said Biles. “I believe it was a historic school for the black community. It held a lot of history. It had a piece of my life in it. Not really sure the year, but I want to think it was demolished around 1974.”
Biles graduated from Bernard School in 1954. In that same year, the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated schools were unconstitutional. The Brown v. Board of Education decision was historic but the move to desegregate schools came after her graduation.
“We were still in a time of segregation so it was an all-black school, but during that time it was called an all-colored school. They had grades kindergarten through the 12th grade. We had hot lunches every day that cost 25 cents each day you ate.”
Remembered fondly were cooks Mrs. Vanley Rowan and her sister, Kerry Mae, and that specifically, Wednesdays were liver and gravy with mashed potatoes and Fridays were fish and coleslaw.
History provided Biles with insight.
“History was easy for me, and I learned about the past. At that age in high school, I thought we had it bad during that time in the ’50s, but other places were worse and other blacks had it a lot harder than me. I enjoyed Home Economics. We were taught how to can foods, sew and mostly, how to do domestic work. At that time, it was assumed that was the only job a black woman would get is doing domestic work as a housekeeper, maid or sitter for other families.”
Learning those skills also provided insight.
“I know in school that I wasn’t good at sewing,” said Biles. “Whatever I made I could never wear. It would never fit.”
Basketball was offered her senior year.
“My senior year was the most memorable. It was the first year of the girls basketball team. We traveled to games against other black schools. We had a lot of fun traveling and won several games. Playing ball and just graduating from high school was most memorable.”
Best friends were Betty Jane Brown and Kay Frances Woodard. The trio all played basketball together.
It has been 65 years since graduation. Biles was 20 years old.
“Back then, my brother and I took turns going to school so we could take care of our grandma,” said Biles, explaining her late departure from high school. “He dropped out so I could finally go full time. We had a graduation class of 14 students: seven boys and seven girls. The ceremony was held in the school chapel. Mostly family members attended. My graduation gift included a cedar chest, pocket book and some money. Not a lot of money, but it was enough. Money was hard to come by back then.”
To honor February as Black History Month, Black History Museum of Warren County is sponsoring a 2020 Black History Month Town Hall meeting at Magness Library beginning at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 29. At 10 a.m., local authors Wayne R. Wolford and Mickey Gwyn will be offering a book signing.