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Ulysses Byas, a Pioneering Black School Superintendent, Is Dead at 88


Dr. Ulysses Byas

Dr. Ulysses Byas

A steady champion for black schools, he came to national  prominence as a skilled manager and who could work across lines

Ulysses Byas (M.A., 1952), a pioneering black school superintendent on Long Island and in the Deep South, died earlier this month at 88.

Born in Georgia, Byas – whose life story has been captured by Emory University professor Vanessa Siddle Walker in her book Hello Professor: A Black Principal and Professional Leadership in the Segregated South (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2009) – twice dropped out of high school and served as a journeyman carpenter and a cook in the U.S. Navy before excelling at an all-black college. He went on to earn his master’s degree in Educational Administration at TC, the only school in the country that would admit him without prior teaching experience.

“I came seeking, and TC came teaching,” Byas said. “I learned that even the best schools were 50 years behind in their philosophy. And in Georgia, they must have been 200 years behind.”

Byas later served as principal of all-black Fair Street High School in Gainesville, Georgia, where he convinced the white public that the school—supposedly among the best black institutions in the state—was woefully under-resourced on every level. He came to national attention in 1970 when, as schools superintendent in Macon County, Alabama, he became the first African-American in the 20th century to head a racially mixed school district in the southeastern United States. He achieved further fame by eliminating the school’s deficit in less than two years – a period during which he also earned a doctorate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, commuting part-time, by dint of a Ford Foundation fellowship.

Byas served as Superintendent of Schools in Roosevelt, New Yorkfrom 1977 to 1987, where he solved another major budget crisis, and subsequently led the Hempstead district until his retirement in 1991.

In an obituary that ran in Newsday, William Powell, the son of a former Roosevelt school board trustee, said, "Long before there was Barack Obama saying 'Yes, I can,' there was Ulysses Byas. He knew how to deal with people by building coalitions and getting things done."

See a video of Dr. Byas's acceptance remarks for medal of excellence at TC's Academic Festival 2010.previous page