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From one-room school, teacher left a legacy

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Burns Forsythe said he didn’t know his mother was making him a better man with her firm discipline and gentle manner as he grew up as son of the teacher at Holy Cross-Faith Memorial School.

Forsythe shared some memories of his late mother with an audience gathered Tuesday for her induction into the Georgetown Women’s Hall of Fame at Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church. The ceremony was held within sight of the one-room school where Miss Ruby taught as many as 60 students with the motto “Don’t say I can’t. Say I’ll try.”

Burns Forsythe said he came to the school for the first time in 1938 when his mother joined his father, the priest in charge of the Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Church and School, after spending the early years of their marriage caring for her aging parents in Charleston. They came by bus to Georgetown and by ox cart to Pawleys Island, he said. Ruby Forsythe admitted to friends that she cried for a month after her arrival.

She found her way soon enough. As a graduate of Avery Institute, Ruby Forsythe didn’t have to take the qualifying exam for teachers in South Carolina. She had taught for over a decade in Charleston before she came to Pawleys Island. The Rev. William Forsythe had himself the finest teacher he could ever hope to hire.

Author Marguerite Worth Parks wrote of watching Miss Ruby at her school. “There were two Little Ones asleep on the floor at her feet,” she wrote. “I don’t believe I have ever seen such a look of contentment on anyone’s face. Not just content with the day, but with the school, with her life, with herself. Miss Ruby had no doubt about who she was or what she did. She respected herself.”

Parents enrolling their children at Holy Cross-Faith Memorial School were warned that there would be discipline. “Obedience is the first thing you have to teach a child,” she would say, “and then honesty and responsibility. I’m not going to kill them but I am going to put it on them enough.” A word from her usually brought silence to the classroom, but she kept two rubber straps on the lid of her piano: a section of tire for the older children and a piece of a fan belt for “the babies.”

Burns Forsythe said he learned many lessons from his mother. He remembered getting a whipping — not a paddling — for pushing a boy into a hole in the schoolyard. The boy had struck Burns with a stick but he cried and tattled on him. Miss Ruby assured the boy’s mother that she would handle the situation, and Burns got the worst of it. He was sulking in his room, feeling that he had been unfairly punished.

“I was very angry,” Burns said. “I felt justice had not been administered.” He refused to come down for supper. His mother convinced him to come and sit at the table anyway. “She sat me down and said things are not always the way you think they ought to be,” Burns said. Young Burns told his mother that the boy hit him and he hit him back. She answered that people can’t always do what they think is justified.

Those larger lessons of life are Miss Ruby’s legacy, according to Dr. Valinda Littlefield, a history professor and director of African American Studies at the University of South Carolina and guest speaker at Tuesday’s induction ceremony. She found out about Miss Ruby when county librarian Dwight McInvaill invited her to Georgetown to participate in an oral history project.

That opened the door to a study of black women teachers in the South and their role in ending the Jim Crow era.

“These women,” she said, “had become a quiet, potent force for change. The white community didn’t want black children educated out of their place. Classrooms were spaces where the outside world did not intrude. Within these spaces, Miss Ruby nurtured dignity, self-awareness and obligation to God. She served as a light to others and worked against the mental and spiritual boundaries imposed by Jim Crow. She challenged the students to succeed and understand they were part of a larger world and develop independence and self-sufficiency. She did not call attention to herself while preparing generations of students for their futures.”

Miss Ruby achieved national recognition during her career. Life Magazine and “60 Minutes” featured her. She was a guest on NBC’s Today Show and on ABC’s Good Morning America. She also appeared on the Tonight Show with host Johnny Carson. She received four honorary degrees — from Winthrop, University of the South at Sewanee, the University of South Carolina and Coastal Carolina University.

When she was very ill, she was visited by her close friend, Bishop Fitz Allison, who was accompanied by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Allison said she was the perfect host. “I think he found as much dignity in that room as in Buckingham Palace,” Allison said.

Ruby Middleton Forsythe is the fifth inductee into the hall of fame. Others include: Elizabeth Allston Pringle, Eliza Lucas Pinckney, Genevieve Wilcox Chandler and Mabel Leffingwell Mercer Hamilton.

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