Marie Tarver: Galesburg High School's first Black teacher

by Norm Winick

The Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision 50 years ago which determined that "Separate but Equal" was unconstitutional didn’t make much of a difference to the students in Galesburg. The City had but one public high school.

And for the first hundred years of its existence, every teacher was white — until 1954. Maybe related to the goal of integration encouraged by "Brown," or maybe because she was a competent instructor, Marie Tarver, an African-American, was hired to teach English at Galesburg High School that Fall.

Tarver was 28 years old and had come to Galesburg with her husband, Rupert, in 1952 when he assumed the post of Executive Director of the Carver Center.

Tarver, who now lives in Poughkeepsie, N.Y, remembers: "I was the national editor of my sorority magazine and after we moved to Galesburg I had to find a place to get it printed. I got to know William Moon at The Labor News printer. He knew about my education and competence and he was on the School Board."

Tarver, who had a BA from Southern University in Baton Rouge and a Masters from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was hired in 1954 and remembers it mostly for being uneventful. "It wasn’t controversial at all. I felt accepted. The people were pleasant. There was some curiosity, perhaps, and some teachers were more cordial than others but nobody was abrasive. I got a good deal of welcome from the community. I had a lot of visits from parents my first year."

She feels that the biggest impact of her hiring was that it led the way for others. "There hadn’t been any African-Americans working for the school district at all when they hired me. Soon afterwards, they hired a black maintenance person."

"Willabell Williams was working with my husband at the Carver Center and later went on to become a teacher for many years. I think my hiring helped her realize that she could do it, too."

Tarver left Galesburg in 1956 when her husband accepted a position in Poughkeepsie. She’s been there with him ever since. She went on to teach at the college level and was the first African American on the Poughkeepsie school board and later its president. She was director of the local Model Cities program and stayed in municipal government and active in civic affairs until she retired in 1990. She has headed the local United Way and was honored by the local AAUW chapter in 1982 as "Woman of the Year."