February is Black History Month — an opportunity to showcase the role cultural diversity and civic leadership plays in local communities.
Spring ISD recognizes and honors the achievements and contributions of all African-American pioneers who played a major part in the history of the district. One such notable contributor is Benjamin F. Clark, former principal of Southwell and Wunsche, whose commitment to education and leadership helped guide the district through desegregation.
That accomplishment was detailed in an article published in March 1985 in the Spring Times Newspaper (Vol. 10, No. 3) for the Spring ISD community. The story, reprinted below, not only highlights Mr. Clark’s many achievements but chronicles his inspirational journey from custodian to principal of Southwell School, which served African-American students in the old Spring community prior to the district integrating its high schools in 1964 and all other grades by 1966. The district’s commitment to educating all students made it the first in the area to integrate all of its schools.
Take a journey with us as we go back in history and salute Benjamin F. Clark as our Black History Month spotlight.
Former principal recalls his days at Southwell, Wunsche
“For a year my wife caught the bus from the old Wunsche gas station up to Huntsville. I drove over from Groverton to pick her up, and we went from there to Cold Springs where my mother was keeping our young son. This became tedious, so when an opening came up in Spring, I applied for it, and started work in the fall of 1951.”
That’s how Benjamin F. Clark, retired Spring teacher, came to Spring. Clark was discharged from the Army in 1946 after four years teaching in Groverton. His wife Berniece joined the District in 1950, teaching at the black school named Southwell, a year before Clark was hired. Mrs Clark’s brother was principal of Southwell. When he moved on to another district, Clark applied for the position of principal and was hired in August 1951. Superintendent John Winship hired him, Clark said, because he was in favor of a husband and wife team working at the same school.
When Clark first joined the staff of Southwell, he wasn’t sure how he was going to like it. But, he said, the community was very cooperative and helpful, and he began to like it more and more.
Southwell is located on Nelson Street. At first called Spring Junior High, Winship changed the name to Southwell, after a former teacher/principal who pioneered the school 25 years earlier, Clark said. It served all the black school-aged children of Spring ISD. Prior to 1950 the school only served grades one through seven. Secondary students attended schools in Houston or Aldine. Grades eight, nine and 10 were added in 1950, bringing the number of students attending to 130. Around 12 to 14 juniors and seniors were transported to Carver High in Aldine, with the same number being transferred from Aldine to Spring. The arrangement was made because the facilities at the time didn’t have the necessary personnel or equipment needed to provide an education for the two higher grades. Beginning in 1960, black students being transferred to Carver were charged tuition, which was paid by Spring ISD.
During the 12 years Clark was principal of Southwell, availability of basic supplies, not to mention items considered luxuries, was a daily concern. Southwell received very few new school books. The books they did have were secondhand from the white school. The school was allotted a certain amount of money by the District for salaries only. The first money they received over the amount budgeted was used to buy a piano.
However, lack of money didn’t stop the staff at Southwell, Clark said. They charged a minimum fee for basketball games and put this in their school fund. No uniforms were available for the teams the first one or two years, but through money-making projects, the school was able to buy uniforms for both girls’ and boys’ teams. Equipment for the basketball teams and classrooms were purchased through the efforts of the staff.
Clark said discipline was never a problem. Corporal punishment was practiced then,he added. “We never had to use it, though,” he said, laughing. “There were some scuffles, but the children knew the punishment was waiting if they got out of line. They were very cooperative.”
Not only did Clark serve as principal, he also drove a bus for the District. The driver quit suddenly one morning right before Christmas, and with no time to report it to Winship, Clark simply drove the bus himself that day. Later, Winship asked him if he would continue, which he did because of the extra income.
In 1964 Spring ISD integrated the black and white high school students, incorporating the other grades by 1966. Clark said the District was the first in the area to totally integrate. When the decision to integrate was made, Winship reassured the Southwell teachers of teaching positions. “Clark (as he was known by Winship), this is the last year we’re going to have separate schools,”Winship said. Clark said the teachers stayed with the District until most of them retired.
None of the children moving to the new high school had problems adjusting. Clark remembered. The students participated in everything, and in some instances excelled. Smiling, Clark recalled Winship commenting that he didn’t know Clark was doing such a good job as he was at the black school.
As for Clark, he became a counselor and math teacher at Wunsche and textbook custodian for the entire District. The year he retired from the District, he was named Teacher of the Year.
Clark hears from former students on a fairly regular basis. Most have settled in the area, with quite a few having gone on to become teachers and nurses, with a few ministers sprinkled in. Of his three children, his daughter is a registered nurse at Hermann Hospital, and his youngest son is an accountant. All three children graduated from Spring.
When Clark retired, his former students gave him an appreciation banquet. He admits he was a little suspicious when they pulled up outside the Holiday Inn, but he remembers it as a happy time when he saw so many of the students he had befriended and counseled through his years as a teacher.