Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part series written from interviews with Colorado Springs resident Peggy Shivers, who shares a behind-the-scenes story of the Tuskegee statue that decorates the grounds at the United States Air Force Academy, the first eight years of her life in an all-Black community in Center Point, Texas and her outlook on community life and bringing people together through the arts. Look for Part 3 in next week’s edition. See Part 1 here: bit.ly/3mUUqRJ.
Community forms us. When we’re small, the people we’re around, the messages we hear about ourselves, the encouragement we receive (or don’t) all contribute to who we become.
In Texas, after she was born in 1939, for eight years little Peggy Shivers grew up surrounded by music and protected from some of the racism of the time.
In a rural part of northeast Texas, nine miles from the slightly larger town of Pittsburg, residents of a small, self-sufficient Black community called Center Point governed themselves, did business, created quality educational opportunities and had fun.
Shivers’ love for music began and flourished in school, at home and at church. She recalls, “This cousin (of mine), her brother was a fantastic pianist. While other kids were playing in the yard, we were gathered around the piano (listening to him play).”
Her cousin was Barbara Smith Conrad. The brother, Dinard Smith, “went on to New York as an accompanist.”
Conrad was the subject of the 2010 PBS Independent Lens documentary “When I Rise” about her career as an opera singer but also about her experience of racism at the University of Texas. An occasion of injustice and pain for Conrad, she was ousted from an auditioned role in the school’s opera in 1957 and the story became national news. The young woman was caught in a media maelstrom at the time.
In one news interview about the film, she spoke about how during the making of the documentary over 50 years later, she belatedly felt and processed some long-suppressed anger and grief associated with the incident. Her voice was literally silenced, and Conrad says she felt betrayed in the decision by a professor whom she liked. But she chose to stay and graduate and then went on to New York and had a long, worldwide opera career.
Conrad also speaks about Center Point in the film saying, “That community just infused you, with dreams … If you had any talent at all, you participated.”
Shivers said of Center Point, “Oh, I love to talk about that community. Because it’s such a special community.”
Conrad goes on, “Being a part of a community that says, ‘You are someone special, you’re loved, you’re protected.’ I can’t think but one way, when I think of Center Point, and that is: I’m going home.”
In fact, Shivers relates that, “Once a year, since the early 60s. my grandmother started a program that they called homecoming and everybody would come back for a weekend.”
The community was not only about music, but also education.
More of Shivers’ family members were involved in that arena.
“My uncle and aunt were the ones who built it up from a one-room school to a fully accredited grade and high school and college extension. It had a girls’ and boys’ dorm and kids who came from all over the country and lived in these dorms. There was great emphasis on music and the band. And the marching girls, the majorettes I thought were the neatest thing,” Shivers says.
“Mr. J.C. Brown was the manual arts teacher and the buildings were built by the students, made of huge colorful stones. Just gorgeous. Everybody had so much pride down there. We were, we just felt a feeling of success …”
States the Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas, “By the 1935–36 school year, the school had become, in many respects, one of the best schools in the county. Its physical plant included four buildings with ten classrooms and was valued at $14,000. Nine of the ten teachers who taught in the Center Point school had at least B.A. degrees, and, despite the fact that Black teachers were typically paid less than White teachers with the same education and experience, the average teacher’s salary at Center Point was higher than that at any other Camp County school, White or Black. Many of the high school students came from other districts that did not offer the upper grades.”
Shivers’ aunt, Christine Cash, was, “one of the first African American females to receive a doctorate degree. At that time there were no schools in Texas that allowed her to get this degree. (She went to Wisconsin.) She was an education genius, really and truly. She’d grill me about what was happening in education in Oregon (after Shivers moved there),” Shivers said.
The Handbook details Cash’s influence: “Facilities included a library, which was open to the public, a cannery, a farm shop, and a home economics building. The school raised crops on its own acreage and on other land that it rented. During Cash’s tenure the value of the physical plant increased from $100 to $100,000. She was responsible for the installation of rural electrification; health, sanitation, and home-improvement projects; and cultural enrichment programs.”
Shivers says about the Center Point community, “To this day, there is a closeness. There are a few of the original families left. This last year, since about 1961 this is the first year we didn’t have homecoming. Thankfully one of the younger people arranged for us to have a Zoom meeting together.”