As a black child growing up in Cherokee and Calhoun counties in the 1930s and ’40s, that wasn’t the only thing Garrett, now 81, couldn’t do. And while the limitations imposed on black Americans in the South were known to him as a child, he was taught early on that he could overcome them through education.
“If you get an education you will be able to go wherever you want to go and do whatever you want to do,” his mom, Luella Garrett, used to tell him.
Still a Piedmont resident, Garrett has the speaking voice of a radio broadcaster, the height of a professional basketball player and a career in education that proves his mother was right.
Garrett graduated from Bethune High School in 1950, earned four academic degrees and last month completed his final term on the Piedmont Board of Education, wrapping up 27 years on the board and his career in public education.
Garrett earned his first collegiate degree from Tuskegee Institute, he earned his first graduate degree from Columbia University in New York and then two more from the University of Alabama. He has been on several boards, served as a representative to the Alabama Department of Education and has been recognized for his work with students, but it might not have happened if it weren't for Sally Caldwell, one of Garrett’s primary school teachers from Piedmont.
“She said Tuskegee would be the best thing for me to do if I wanted to go to college,” Garrett said.
Caldwell told Garrett’s family about the university’s five-year work study program, which allowed him to afford a college education. He left Piedmont for Tuskegee shortly after graduating high school and once there his desire to become an educator grew as he found more teachers to emulate.
One of them, Katie Dixon, under whom he was a student-teacher, taught him a lesson that he still remembers.
Nearing graduation and the end of a six-week student-teaching requirement, he had left a bulletin board project undone in the classroom. On his last day Garrett hadn’t completed the project.
She told him if he didn’t have it finished by the time he returned the next morning, she would give him an incomplete, which would have barred him from graduating on time. He spent the rest of the night working on the billboard with friends so it would be ready the next day.
“I liked the way she worked with students and I liked the way she worked with me,” Garrett said. “She was not the kind of person that was going to push anybody, she was going to tell you what to do and that’s that.”
Even after he began pursuing his education he faced discrimination, which forced him to be circumspect in some situations while attending the teachers’ college at Columbia University.
“I had to stop telling people I was from Alabama,” Garrett said. “I had to do too much explaining.”
Once while attending a summer education program at Emory University, he encountered discrimination from an Ivy League professor from Tennessee. Despite past academic successes she consistently gave him C’s until he sat down to talk to her.
“We had to come to grips with the fact that I was a human being,” Garrett said, adding, “It turned out to be fine.”
Garrett was the youngest of five children and the son of Luella, who was a housekeeper, and Oscar Garrett, who was a farmer. Garrett’s father died from kidney stones before he was born and the future educator was raised by his mother and family members.
“I had nothing,” Garrett said, remembering his days in Cherokee County.
He credits the role models he grew up around — his family and his teachers — with motivating him to succeed. Garrett can cite almost half a dozen people who helped him achieve his goals, but he references his mother’s guidance more than any other person.
“My mother was not an educator, but she had a lot of wisdom,” Garrett said.
After graduating from Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, Garrett took his first job in Arkansas, where he worked for three years. He came back to Alabama to take care of his mom and work for Anniston for his fourth year in education.
He planned to stay for one year, but ended up staying until 1995 when he retired from Anniston public schools.
Garrett’s career in Anniston began at Cobb High School, where he was an English teacher. He was hired as the assistant principal of Anniston High School in 1967 when 98 percent of its students were white, then moved back to Cobb to be principal after it was converted to a junior high school during integration.
His introduction into administration in education came at tumultuous time, but Garrett was able to earn respect from members of both races, said Archie Bone, who became a first-year educator in 1973 when Garrett hired him to work at Cobb Junior High.
“He had students from the most elite families in Anniston coming together with students from the poorest projects in Anniston. He dealt with all of it in the most professional way,” Bone said. “I don’t know of anyone else who could have done the job he did at Anniston schools at that time.”
“It took a lot just to hold school, much less to advance the cause of education,” Bone said. “Everywhere he turned he had to bring people together.”
During the course of his career Garrett became a mentor to many young teachers, many of whom went on to advance their careers and become administrators. He still keeps in touch with several of them, such as Bone, who served as a superintendent for two school systems.
“He was my role model from the beginning,” Bone said. “The lessons that I took from him were many going back to the people skills that he had. I tried to emulate that but I never could duplicate that.”
Garrett also became a mentor to Sarah Stinson, who hired to work at Cobb Junior High in 1980. Stinson said Garrett was a motivator.
“He always encouraged us to go further with our education,” Stinson said. “He didn’t just want you to settle.”
Garrett stayed at Cobb until 1985 when he was named the system’s assistant superintendent, and served for a brief time as the interim superintendent of Anniston City Schools during construction of Anniston Middle School, which opened in August 1987.
At the same time, Garrett was elected to his first term as a Piedmont City School Board member. He retired from the Anniston school system in 1995, but remained on the Piedmont school board until last month.
“It was something I enjoyed, were it not, I could have done something else,” Garrett said. “I felt like they need to have the opportunity that I had. I’ve no regrets.”
Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.