Marsha Cook was the first black teacher for Warsaw schools.
She taught for 45 years – 44 of them at Leesburg Elementary – before retiring in 2011. At the 27th annual Committee to Commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ceremony in January, she will be the featured speaker. She will talk about education, the impact King and his legacy had on her life, and how she was able to tolerate some of the injustices that came with being the first black teacher in the Warsaw school system.
The ceremony starts at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 19 at the Manahan Orthopedic Capital Center, Grace College, Winona Lake. The public is invited to the 90-minute event. It is free and lunch will be provided, but donations are welcome.
Committee Secretary Rachael Hoffert said it’s open to all ages. “There will be a specific opportunity for kids to interact with Dr. King and his legacy,” she said.
The Grace College Black Student Association also will participate.
The Committee is still seeking donations for the event, which may be sent to Lake City Bank, c/o Edna Bruner, 202 E. Center St., Warsaw, IN 46580.
The application deadline for the Academic Excellence and Community Service Award, a minority and first-generation college student scholarship, is Monday. Students interested in applying should talk to their guidance counselor. The scholarship is open to Kosciusko County students.
The theme for the 2015 ceremony is “Inspiring through Education,” which is a reason Cook will be the featured guest.
“We’re privileged to have Marsha speak on behalf of our committee as a local civil rights pioneer,” said Dr. David Hoffert, Warsaw schools superintendent and committee member.
“Because I came from a town that was basically segregated, my schools were segregated, most of my experiences revolved around what was happening in that small town,” Cook said during an interview Monday. “And Dr. Martin Luther King came on the scene when I was ready for high school, college; and his non-violent theme was very important as I attended school, it was very important as I started working. I really believed in that and I believed in his legacy.”
As she grew up in a Christian home in Tennessee, her parents were teaching the same thing as King.
“It was very important that I followed through in my life with what I was being taught at home and with what I was hearing Dr. Martin Luther King preach as well,” she said.
Her first teaching job was to help integrate Fort Wayne Community Schools.
“That same legacy was important as I took on that new job because I had basically grown up in a segregated hometown and now I was going to be in a city that was integrating for the first time in the school system. And they wanted more teachers on board,” Cook said. “So in Fort Wayne, I was able to follow through with that same legacy – non-violent, working with the students.”
After she married and applied for a job in Warsaw, she ended up in “the same situation but just the reverse of how I had grown up – predominantly white. And being in the school system, I felt that it was important to also pass on Dr. King’s legacy even though I knew I was going to encounter some people who were probably not in favor of having a teacher who was black, some parents who were probably not in favor of having their child in a classroom of a black teacher.”
She felt it was still important to teach something about non-violence and that the children understood who she was, what she stood for and that not all black people were bad people.
“Because at that time, basically, what were they seeing on TV? Most black people were being put in jail. Most black people were being shone in a negative light. So I felt like it was my job to be like an ambassador for the black community,” Cook said.
She did have some questions as she started working for WCS. She felt maybe she should teach in a black community as opposed to a predominantly white one. However, her family advised her to stay with Warsaw so the children and families can learn more about black culture from her and that “not all black people are negative people and we had something to share, and as a team we could work together and pass on Dr. King’s legacy. That you wouldn’t be judged by your color, but by the content of your character.”
Her goal was to be like a lighthouse and pass on what Dr. King taught.
This year there have been protests in Ferguson, Mo., over an unarmed black teenager being shot by a white police officer who was not indicted. In New York a cop choked a black man to death and he, too, wasn’t indicted, stirring more protests.
“I think in education we really need to continue to teach tolerance,” Cook said. “I think we need to help children understand other cultures; that we’re all people underneath that color of skin. The blood runs the same, there’s no difference. If we learn more about each other, then we can probably eradicate ignorance. But there’s always going to be people within each culture, people outside of your culture, who are going to be prejudiced. I think it’s going to be difficult to eradicate it totally, but we can really make a big dent if we help children learn tolerance.”
An important key to learning tolerance, she said, is family.
“My family, extended family and community members were very important parts of my life because that influence was there no matter where I went in my community. I knew in my church, in my school, in the community where I lived, there were people who cared about me. There were people who cared who I was, what was happening in my life and my safety. So the family unit was important, the extended family with grandparents and other relatives and then the community – I think we all need to work together with the schools to help with some of these issues,” Cook said.
The root of so many issues is the breakdown of the family, she said.
Because the school system has so many diverse cultures represented, she said it would be helpful if they looked at helping children understand other cultures. They need to look at diversity and see what they can do to have role models within the schools or come into the schools of other cultures with a positive attitude to help children understand that no matter what color you are, you can be successful.
Since retiring, Cook has continued to be involved in her community and her church, Warsaw Church of God. She’s served on the CASA team and board and the Kosciusko County Community Foundation board. She taught children at her church, but is looking to get back into the schools to help any way she can.
“I don’t feel what I felt years ago because these children have grown up in a society where they are a lot more tolerant of other people, but they do need to know who you are and what you’re all about,” Cook said.
She also enjoys working with her grandchildren, and teaching them about tolerance as well.
“One thing I always ask is, what you’re doing, is it helping or is it hurting? Think before you speak. Think before you act. If you’re not helping, you seriously need to think about what you’re getting ready to do or say,” she said.
In general, she said, “We need to look in the mirror and see what we’re doing to help in society to further Dr. King’s legacy. Are we helping or are we hurting?”
The Committee’s Facebook page can be found at www.facebook.com/ccmlkwarsaw
(Story By The Times Union)