First kindergarten teacher in Greenfield taught more than school

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Princess Reeves in 1967.

Most times, I try to keep myself out of the stories I write.

They’re not about me, and I don’t want to take focus away from special people with their own things to say. I also strive to stay neutral; to not let my own opinions be part of the story.

Once in a while, though, I want to step inside here and explain why I chose a particular topic to share with you.

Today is one of those times. Today I get the privilege of sharing a special lady I don’t know well — the only time I’ve met her, in fact, was when I interviewed her for this story — but who I have heard of periodically throughout my life.

This lady’s name is Princess Reeves, and she has lived in Greenfield for more than 60 years. She’s a retired teacher. She’s also African-American — and in the 1960s, she was hired as Greenfield’s first kindergarten teacher.

I heard of her from my dad, who grew up in Greenfield, one of umpteen generations of our family to be in Dade County. He didn’t have her as a teacher, since public kindergarten didn’t start until he was past that age. But Greenfield is a small town, and so, once in a while, Mrs. Reeves came up in conversation.

She was always spoken of fondly. But in recent months, I began to wonder.

It’s a sad yet indisputable fact that the Ozarks was not a utopia for race relations in years gone by. Was Greenfield an exception?

At one time, there was a fairly large population of African-Americans in the area. But the sad fact is that a chunk of them were there originally as slaves. A fact that horrifies me is that my Dade County ancestors were some of the people who owned them.

After emancipation and generations came and went, descendants of those slaves continued to live in and around Greenfield. I have heard the shameful fact that part of Greenfield was known as “colored town,” even in recent years.

Despite this history, this tiny town hired a teacher who was African-American to teach its youngest children at a time when discrimination and inequality were still rampant across the country.

She was their first “real” teacher, and at least initially, was the only kindergarten teacher in the district.

Those facts make me believe Mrs. Reeves’ work made a massive impact on how generations of Greenfield’s children saw other races.

So I wrote her a letter and asked if she’d let me chat with her. She called and said she would.

We met at the local library, where Mrs. Reeves helped start the story hour program years ago, and sat in the conference room to chat. I’ll admit, most interviews don’t make me nervous. This one did. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, or ask something in an unintentionally insensitive or inappropriate way.

As I said, however, this isn’t my story.

It’s about a story that started in the 1930s, when Princess Henderson Reeves was born in northern Missouri. And, yes, that’s really her name.

“I have people ask, ‘Is that really your name?’ and I say yes,” notes Mrs. Reeves. “I was named after my mom’s sister.”

Even from a young age, she knew she wanted to be a teacher.

“I love working with children,” she says with a smile. “I still do.”

That interest led her to college, which ultimately led to the realization of more than one monumental life moment.

“I met my husband when I was going to college,” she says. “His brother was a boyfriend of a friend that I had in high school, and he was in the Army.”

That marriage in 1958 led her to Greenfield, where Jim, her husband, was from.

She and her husband moved in with her in-laws, some of a dwindling number of African-Americans in town.

“There were the Tripletts. Where we lived, Jim’s mom lived right next to us, and his grandmother lived on another corner,” she says. “There were three families that lived behind us. It had several here, and several lived out in the country, too.”

It was also the seat of Dade County, a town of a few thousand people. And although she was still in Missouri, in some ways Greenfield was a completely new world.

“It was different from how I was raised,” she says, citing a couple of examples.

“The people’s behavior. They didn’t talk like me, which they still don’t. It was just different.

“I didn’t think like them. Didn’t behave like them.”

She talks about one particular restaurant. “You couldn’t even go in to eat,” she says, because of her color.

She likens how things were in Greenfield to something she was instilled with as a child.

“I was taught that some people you don’t want to be seen with or associate with. And (here),” she says, with a pause, “that was me.”

After coming to Greenfield, Mrs. Reeves soon became a mother, but didn’t expect to fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher.

That changed for her and the town in the mid-1960s, when Greenfield decided to add a kindergarten program.

From newspaper accounts, it appears that Greenfield was suddenly given a windfall — more than $70,000, the equivalent of nearly $580,000 in 2019 — of federal money in the middle of the 1965 school year.

The requirement: It couldn’t be spent on programs already in place.

“The law specifically provides that the money must be spent on programs that the school needs and does not have,” noted words in article in the Greenfield Vedette newspaper.

“Since the program is new and has never been in operation before, starting to try and use the money has been a tremendous task. The local school administrators, with School Board approval, have been putting forth every effort to try to use the money to improve the local school. The program is not of a political nature. The money received will come to the local Board of Education the same as state school money.

The article continued:

“One of the first projects asked for was a kindergarten. A room is available in the grade school. The program calls for two sessions each day, morning and afternoon. Mrs. Princess Reeves, a qualified elementary teacher and graduate of Lincoln University, has been contracted to teach the classes. Transportation will be furnished by the school. There will be no cost to the parents for this program.”

The information was presented matter-of-fact: Mrs. Reeves had the job. She isn’t 100 percent sure how the reality came about, although she does have her suspicions: A Greenfield school board member — Mr. Small — whom she met while still a college student.

“He used to come up on the campus, and that’s how I met him,” Mrs. Reeves recalls. “I think he’s the one that really got me in with my job.

“I don’t know, but I always suspected that.

“But I’m thankful I was chosen.”

Mrs. Reeves with her class, shown in a yearbook photo from the late 1960s.

Regardless of how, Mrs. Reeves began her teaching career in January 1966.

“Monday saw twenty-eight young ones enrolled in what is Greenfield’s first public school kindergarten program,” reported the Vedette. “The youngsters are divided into two groups of fourteen each under the teaching of Mrs. Princess Reeves who is currently being assisted by Mrs. Louise Toler.”

Initially, she taught children in the grade school building. Later, she moved across the street to a small, orange-brick building with a simple stone above the door.

Washington School and 1947 are all it says, but it means so much more.

In a twist of irony, the building was the former black school, which saw segregated students just a few years before Mrs. Reeves started teaching.

Greenfield’s former black school, which at one time housed the kindergarten.

Her first day in 1966 started a 30-something-year career at Greenfield, the only place Mrs. Reeves ever taught. Most of that time was spent in kindergarten, but she did teach second grade as well for a number of years.

But regardless of where she was, Mrs. Reeves taught more than lessons.

“I had a rule,” she recalls, which smacks of golden: “If you don’t want it done to you, don’t do it to anybody else.”

“Some of the people were ‘naughty,'” she says. “The parents made comments. I made a bulletin board, and I had things trying to inspire the parents on what they were supposed to do.

“When I went to second grade, things really did change because if the kids didn’t get what they were supposed to accomplish, I made them stay in. I had calls from grandparents who opposed me keeping them in and doing things, even going to the cafeteria to work on stuff while other kids were outside. Some of them were nasty, yes.”

She doesn’t know for sure if comments and complaints were made by parents because of her race. But in a time when parents are thought to have commented less on teachers’ methods and teaching styles than today, she’s not sure they weren’t, either.

“I don’t know. I’m not going to say. But they didn’t approve of it.”

What she does know is that the children she taught were very important to her.

“When I had the kids, they were ‘mine,'” she says. “There were some kids, I could tell — I didn’t have to really see their faces — I could tell by their walk if they were at a distance to me.”

“I had a habit that if the kids did everything they were supposed to do all week, the only thing we did on Friday was a spelling test. Then we would have parties in the afternoon. I would bring different kinds of foods down from Kansas City, like ocean foods. We would have things like that to eat. I got them involved in a lot of stuff.

“You just have to make reading fun. When you read a story to a child, you have to use facial expressions and all that kind of stuff. Goofy noises.

“Cooking is the first place you take a child if you want them to learn math. Dividing, How many ways can you cut a pie? I love crazy stuff — that’s just me.”

And while a small child isn’t likely able to articulate the difference, I also believe she taught them another crucial fraction.

The importance of equality.

Princess Reeves in 2019.

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“First kindergarteners for Greenfield,” Greenfield Vedette, Jan. 20, 1966

“Hoped for federal funds will benefit local schools,” Greenfield Vedette, Dec. 22, 1965

“James (Jim) Reeves,” obituary, Greenfield Vedette, April 17, 2003

“Monday marked radical changes for schools,” Greenfield Vedette, Jan. 20, 1966