Sam Abram’s story written by Lauren Bishop-Weidner
Sam is 78 years old
My father, Lonnie Abram, was the most efficient picker on the Money, Mississippi, cotton plantation where he sharecropped, a distinction that earned him $1.00 each week as well as permission to travel to Greenwood and to cut hair on weekends. In 1940s Mississippi, a person of color still needed permission from a plantation owner just to be on the roads. My father was valuable enough to the landowner that he was given the privilege to travel as well as to earn a little extra money barbering. A car accident left him with an injured right hand, poorly cared for in an outbuilding behind the hospital. As a result of the injury, he couldn’t pick cotton or use the barber chair on the street outside a business owned by a relative of the landowner.
We moved to Muncie in 1944, staying with relatives until he got a job and could buy a house. Although my mother stayed in Mississippi, my father never let us lose touch with her. My father drove the nearly 1400 mile round trip in a weekend, making sure we got to Memphis by 6:00 a.m. in order to buy gas—any later, and we might not be served. Once we hit the Mississippi line, his caution increased greatly—remember, Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi. We’d head back to Muncie in time for my father to be ready for work at 6:00 a.m. Monday. From a very early age, I saw the sacrifices my father made for his family.
Leroy Ash, a neighbor several years older than I, was like a big brother. He helped with homework and encouraged me to try new things. Kids from Mississippi didn’t just automatically fit in. We looked different, we sounded different. Some of the local boys took advantage, but Mr. Ash helped me to gain the confidence I needed. He worked at the Branch YMCA on Madison Street, and I’d go there after school. When I was new to softball, I wasn’t a very good hitter. After two strikes, someone would usually beg for my last strike. Seeing this, Mr. Ash asked me:
“How many strikes do you get?”
“Three,” I answered.
“And how many are you taking?”
“Sam, you can’t give away the opportunities you’re given.”
That advice stayed with me all my life.
I used to follow Mr. Ash around the Y, helping out wherever I could. When I was a little older, I applied for a job there. Mr. Roy Buley, Director of the Branch YMCA, hired me because he’d seen me helping out and he trusted Mr. Ash’s recommendation.
In the mid-1950s, the city planned a new building for the Madison Street YMCA, but it was to remain a segregated facility. Many in the neighborhood were overjoyed, but not Mr. Buley. Well known and highly respected, he’d walk through the community talking with people. He included me in these conversations, as he explained that we needed to desegregate the downtown Y if we were going to have equal access to facilities and programs. Mr. Buley’s logic escaped most, and plans for the new building came to pass. History proved Mr. Buley to be right. I was privileged to learn from his example of courage, dignity, and leadership.
My first dream was to be an Air Force pilot, the result of stories I heard from one of my elementary teachers, Mr. Dygert, who had been a fighter pilot and a real hero. I enrolled in Ball State’s ROTC program, majoring in Social Studies, Driver’s Education, and Business. Halfway through my junior year, I passed everything I needed to in order to continue—except for the eye exam. I needed a new goal. With my major, high school teaching would have been a logical path. Unfortunately, Muncie was not hiring high school teachers who were Black, and I didn’t want to leave Muncie. At that time, Muncie had five Black teachers, all at one or the other of the two Longfellow Elementary buildings. After petitioning to take a double overload in order to complete the necessary credit hours for an Elementary Education license, I graduated on time.
I was deeply committed to learning as much as I could during my student teaching at West Longfellow. I typed my lesson plans and organized my materials carefully, hoping my efforts would lead to a job offer for the following school year. I knew if I wasn’t hired at Longfellow, I wouldn’t have a teaching job—no other school in Muncie would have even considered my application. Mr. Burl Clark was principal, and we met twice that spring. The second time, he told me that he wasn’t going to recommend me because he was pushing for schools other than Longfellow to open up for teachers of color. Thanks to Mr. Clark, Doris Faulkner transferred from Longfellow to become the first African-American teacher in Blaine School, and I began that fall of 1960 teaching fifth grade at East Longfellow.
While teaching, I continued my education and in 1966 became principal at Longfellow, a job I cherished for four years. When I wanted to transfer to a larger school, I was told I would not be transferred, and not to ask again. The excuse given was that I was the youngest elementary principal. The truth was that I was Black. I looked for a new job. I accepted an excellent upper administration position with Marion Community Schools and tendered my resignation.
Then I got a phone call on a Sunday evening from Dr. Robert Freeman, who had been hired that weekend as Superintendent of Muncie Community Schools. I was abrupt with him, telling him I already had a job. He was patient with me, explaining that he wouldn’t have called me if he hadn’t already spoken with the Marion Superintendent. I accepted the position he offered as his Administrative Assistant, and he continued to mentor me, modeling and teaching necessary skills. After three years, I took a leave of absence to complete my doctorate, and in 1989 I became Superintendent of Muncie Community Schools.
God has blessed me with many mentors, and my path grew clear as I learned from every one of them. My father, Mr. Ash, Mr. Buley, Mr. Dygert, Mr. Clark, Dr. Freeman, and so many others, Black and White—without their leadership and guidance, I would not have become the man God intended me to be. I pray that God has used me in the same way, to help shape the lives of others.
This story originally appeared in Facing Racism in Muncie, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by R.A.C.E. Muncie in Muncie, Indiana.