LIMA — Joyce Garrett introduced several generations of Lima Senior High School students to the Spanish language. She also introduced many of them to a part of their own history, a history of which she was a part.
In 1953, Garrett became the first black teacher in the history of Lima schools. In the late 1960s, with the city and the nation embroiled in racial discord, she shared that history with her students.
“The petite teacher never explained her experience breaking racial barriers at the schools to students until the racial violence that inflamed the nation in the 1960s came to Lima,” the Lima News wrote Feb. 27, 1983. “Her motivation, as always, was to educate her students.
“They (the students) were floored,” Garrett told the News. “Most of them have had a black teacher on occasion or seen them. They didn’t know we hadn’t always been permitted to teach here.”
Described by the News as a “quiet pioneer,” Garrett was born in Lima on July 12, 1926, the daughter of Leroy and Mabel Scott Jones. Her father worked as a chauffeur, and Garrett grew up on the leafy reaches of West Market Street near Fernwood Drive. “Joyce Garrett attended Roosevelt Elementary during the Great Depression and went on to Central High during a time when blacks were only allowed in certain places in Lima. She said the discrimination did not exist in the classroom,” the News wrote on Jan. 28, 2007.
“We had to sit in the State Theater balcony. We could not sit in the Kewpee,” Garrett told the News. “But in the schools, it was not like that.”
Graduated from Central High School in 1944, Garrett, described in her high school yearbook as “small and cute” with an interest in the romance languages, went on to attend historically black Central State University in Wilberforce. She received her bachelor’s degree with honors from Central State in 1948. She later received a master’s degree in Spanish from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and studied Spanish in Mexico.
In the late 1940s, she took a job teaching in Madison, Illinois.
On Jan. 29, 1949, in Madison, she married Forrest B. Garrett, but the marriage did not last. She filed for divorce on June 22, 1956. The couple had a son named Forrest Craig Garrett.
Garrett returned to Lima and spent some time substitute teaching before being offered a full-time position in 1953. According to some accounts, pressure was applied by Lima’s black community to force integration of the city schools teaching staff. In a county history written in 1976, Rolland R. Moxley wrote that blacks threatened opposition to a school levy if black teachers weren’t hired. According to other accounts, however, there was no organized effort to force the hiring of black teachers.
Whatever the reason, the levy failed — and Garrett was hired.
“Mrs. Garrett remembers the day well,” the News wrote on February 27, 1983. “She was substitute teaching at Central High School, where she had graduated not too many years before. The young woman was called into Superintendent Gordon Humbert’s office and he offered her a job teaching sixth grade.” Garrett recalled Humbert saying, “The job is yours if you want it.”
And with that, Garrett became a part of local history. “That was it,” she said of her meeting with Humbert. “He shook my hand and said, ‘Good luck.’ No big speech, nothing like, ‘You’re the first.’ I floated the rest of the day.”
The occasion also, apparently, did not cause much of a ripple with the News, which reported on Nov. 25, 1953: “Supt. Gordon G. Humbert’s personnel report section of his monthly report to the (Lima schools) board noted the resignation of Mrs. Shirley Daley, Irving teacher, effective Oct. 30. Mrs. Joyce Garrett, 2409 W. Market St., a Wilberforce University graduate, has been employed to replace her.”
With a degree in secondary education and certification to teach grade school, Garrett would spend the next several years teaching sixth grade pupils at Irving and Horace Mann elementary schools, schools where she had frequently substituted.
In 1959, Garrett got a chance to share her love of languages with a wider audience. “Elementary Spanish lessons will be telecast over WIMA-TV beginning in October under the joint sponsorship of the Lima and Allen County public schools,” the News reported in June 1959. “TV instructors will be Mrs. Rose Jefferson and Mrs. Joyce Garrett. Both teachers majored in Spanish at Central State College, Wilberforce.”
Garrett told the News in June 1981 that her interest in Spanish began during her days at Central High School. “My high school Spanish teacher would tell us of all the exciting places she had traveled,” Garrett said. Garrett herself would become a frequent traveler, particularly in Spanish-speaking countries.
She saw exposing students to a foreign language and culture as giving them a better understanding of the world. “If you can learn more about the world you live in, you can be a more tolerant, understanding and intelligent person about other human beings,” she told the News in 1981.
In 1966, Garrett began teaching at Lima Senior High School. She was chairwoman of the Foreign Language Department for the city schools from 1976 to 1984, when she retired after 31 years teaching in the city schools. Garrett, who was named 1980-‘81 teacher of the year by the Lima Education Association, was also active in the Hy Ho (Help Yourself, Help Others) Club and the Allen County Historical Society.
In May 2004, Garrett returned to Lima Senior High School, which from 1956 to 2004 stood at the end of South Pierce Street, just south of the Ottawa River. Garrett sat in her old classroom during an open house to allow former students and faculty to wander the halls for one last time before the school was razed.
“This is just a wonderful experience today to be able to see teachers I taught with and talk to some of the kids I taught,” she told the News. “I taught for 31 years, and the best years were right here.”
She died on July 29, 2011, at the age of 85 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.