Gainesville leader fought for equality while breaking barriers at Fair Street High School

Ulysses Byas during his time as professor at Hutchenson Elementary and High Schools in Douglasville.

For The Times

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By Ashley Bates
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POSTED April 25, 2010 5:30 a.m.

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When Ulysses Byas arrived at Fair Street High School in 1957, he expected to see an institution at the forefront of education.

At the time, Gainesville was a progressive community, and Fair Street High was regarded throughout the state as one of the best schools for black children.

But quickly, Byas, now 85, who moved to Gainesville after serving as principal at Hutchenson Elementary and High School in Douglas County, realized the school was lacking in almost every area.

“It was perceived as an excellent high school, and I was disappointed by that,” Byas said. “The school was really poor, and it had not been supported by the board as it should.”

The city had provided a new high school for the black children in the community, but the school lacked funding for the curriculum and facilities, among other things.

For 10 years, Byas stood his ground and rallied the black community around the high school and fought for the school’s necessities.

Which is why Vanessa Siddle Walker, a professor in the division of educational studies at Emory University, took an interest in Byas and how he forged his way through the education system in the pre-integration and Civil Rights era.

“Hello Professor: A Black Principal and Professional Leadership in the Segregated South” took Walker 10 years to write and was recently published through The University of North Carolina Press.

“The book is a story of this individual biography as it intersects with the systemic structure,” said Walker of her fourth book. “He was someone who had grown up in very difficult circumstances but had managed to become the first black superintendent in the South, and I was just baffled by that. How does something like that happen? So, in the beginning, I was simply trying to understand his world, but the more time I spent with him, the more I discovered how little we really understood about his world. And thus, began to uncover not just more about him and how he came to do it, his resourcefulness, his resilience, his mom, the mentorship, the opportunities he was given.”

On Saturday, because of Byas’s lifetime service to education, he was awarded the King Medal from Columbia University.

“I feel honored,” he said. “Columbia University is where I earned a master’s degree in New York before starting my teaching career. They choose five graduates they deem outstanding, and then they award them for their contribution to education.”

Nahas Angula, Prime Minister of Namibia, will also be honored at the ceremony and deliver the keynote address. Byas could not attend the function in New York but delivered a recorded speech to the crowd.

But even though Byas has received many high honors over the years working in the education field, his biggest achievement always has been watching students excel. From small Douglas County to Gainesville and beyond, Byas always wanted bigger and better.

“I made a reputation in Douglasville of improving the schools so much that my work spread, and so they recruited me to come up,” he said. “I went up there (to Gainesville), and they offered me a job, and it paid significantly more money, but Douglasville is where it all started.”

Byas had only been at the school for two months when he set out to increase the funding at the school. He started a nine-month survey to bring awareness to Fair Street’s lack of needs and improve the curriculum.

“When I started the survey, I convinced the parents and everybody to cooperate,” he said. “I gained confidence in a hurry in the community; that’s why all of these honors are coming now.”

Byas kept working tirelessly to improve the education he provided for black children, but within 10 years, the honeymoon was over.

“I was disappointed with Gainesville and the board of education because at that time, Gainesville High School did not have a person who had experience as a principal, and I had 10 years,” he said. “They wouldn’t integrate the schools, so I protested and quit, and the public was upset because I quit.”

Today, Byas lives in Macon with his wife, Annamozel, with whom he has been married for 57 years and has four children.

Byas said the Gainesville community was ahead of the curve as far as race relations go in the 1960s. He said the superintendent and the school board had problems with integration.

“I called the superintendent a segregationist, and we disagreed, but he wanted to give me a job that was not in keeping with my skills and experience. They named a person who was on the faculty of the white high school who had never been a principal, and I quit,” Byas said.

His students were affected most by the move, but it was expected, said former Fair Street and E.E. Butler High student Emory Turner.

“A lot of people were upset, but it became the acceptance of the times,” Turner said. “We really would have slowed down if they had given him the principalship that he deserved, which would have been at Gainesville High School, and that was out of the question.”

Turner said he was happy to have Byas as a principal because he cared about his students.

“He fought hard to ensure we got all the things we needed,” Turner said. “He was a very stern man. One of the things I remember was that he made sure that we did when we got to the new Butler High School, as we spent a lot of time cleaning the school when we would dirty it up. Part of our punishment would be cleaning the school … the baseboards, the windows, the walls.”

Other notable Gainesville residents that were former students of Byas are former Hall County Commissioner Deborah Mack and Gainesville council member Myrtle Figueras.

After Byas left Gainesville, he became employed with the All-Black State Teachers Organization as the assistant executive secretary.

“Through the professional development activities in which he engages, it also shows us this world of very intentioned, professional development, this network of black educators,” Walker said. “So, I think in so doing, he brings to life this whole world and helps us understand how we got the kind of education that we got throughout the South.

“He becomes a prototype for black professors that are unnamed, across the South, but who managed to create schools that communities remember.”

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