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Long Story Short

Ulysses Byas was a pioneering principal in the segregated South
In the late 1940s, a journeyman carpenter and former Navy cook with the resonant name of Ulysses Byas (M.A., 1952) left New York City because he couldn’t find a decent paying job.
“They did me a favor, and I’m glad of it,” Byas, now 85, says in his deep Southern accent.
The beneficiaries would ultimately include thousands of southern black children and their families. To make a long story short—a phrase Byas often uses—he returned home to Georgia, excelled at an all-black college despite having twice dropped out of high school, was offered an elementary school principalship, went back to New York City to earn his master’s degree in Educational Administration at Teachers College, and eventually became 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.
Byas’ odyssey has now 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). His story is not one of heroic civil disobedience and facing down racist mobs, though what he did took enormous courage. Instead, it’s about a man whose efforts distill those of an entire network of black educators and advocates in the pre-Civil Rights era South to skillfully and steadfastly navigate a system in which whites held all the power and improve education for black students.
When Byas arrived in Gainesville in 1957, he was shocked at the sorry state of the Fair Street School, where—as just one example—the “equipment” in the school’s chemistry lab consisted of a corner sink.
When his superintendent denied his request for additional resources, Byas “surreptitiously” persuaded him to let the school conduct a curriculum survey, partly as a way of delaying demand for a truant officer. Byas then gave the survey results, which exposed the bleak conditions of the high school and its limited curriculum, to the Gainesville Daily Times, which published it to shocked readers. Community pressure ultimately forced the superintendent to hire new teachers and offer more advanced courses at the high school, which went from having no electives to 45.
“The community was much further ahead than the superintendent,” recalls Byas. “I considered him a segregationist.”

Walker draws the title of her book from a moment during Byas’ interview for his first position as an elementary school principal. His questioners called him “professor”—a title he liked so much that “I decided then and there if someone thought I could be a principal, I should learn what it was all about.” The incident proved prophetic, because Byas, throughout his life, would continually broaden his own skills and perspective both through continuing education and by becoming active in state and national professional societies.
His years at TC—the only school in the country that would admit him without teaching experience—were a critical part of those experiences. “I came seeking, and TC came teaching,” he says. “I learned that even the best schools were 50 years behind in their philosophy. And in Georgia, they must have been 200 years behind.”
After more than a decade working in Gainesville, Byas resigned and became superintendent of the Macon County, Alabama, school system, where he made a name for himself by eliminating the school’s deficit in less than two years. Simultaneously, he earned a doctorate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, commuting part-time, by dint of a Ford Foundation fellowship.
In the early 1970s, Byas was recruited to work as Superintendent of Schools in Roosevelt, New York. “To make a long story short,” he says, “they wanted someone with experience eliminating a deficit.”
He stayed in Roosevelt at the Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School for more than a decade, until his retirement in 1985. When he left, he says, the budget had long been in the black. At the last school board meeting he attended at the school, he received what he felt was an incredible honor.
“They renamed the school from Teddy Roosevelt to Ulysses Byas Elementary School, and I ain’t dead yet,” he says. “It was one of the crowning moments of my professional career.”
The newly retired Byas and his wife moved back to Macon. As he approaches his 86th birthday, Byas revels in the accomplishments of his children and four grandchildren. As for his own, he uncharacteristically summarizes them in a single sentence: “My greatest accomplishment was to be a champion of black students.”

Published Friday, Dec. 4, 2009