Education icon ‘Miss Hattie’ dies

Xavier Smith • May 1, 2018 at 5:40 PM

Wilson County education icon and longtime community activist Hattie Bryant, known to many as “Miss Hattie,” died Monday.

Bryant, 94, was the first African-American teacher to teach in a predominantly white school in Lebanon when she agreed to teach at Lebanon Junior High School in the 1960s.

Bryant, the sixth of seven children, was born Sept. 29, 1923 in Lebanon to James and Hattie Crutchfield.

She recalled her childhood during an event at Cumberland University in 2015.

Bryant recalled her two brothers getting up each morning, hooking up the horse and wagon, and going across town to pick up laundry from Martha Gaston Hospital for her mother to wash and iron.

Each of the children had their chores they had to finish before they walked across town to the school on Market Street and later to Wilson County Training School.

Bryant said her parents only completed the fourth and eighth grades, so they emphasized the importance of education.

After she graduated Wilson County Training School, Bryant went on to attend Agricultural and Industrial College, now known as Tennessee State University, in Nashville. She worked on campus during the week and returned to Lebanon on weekends to help her mother with the washing and ironing.

She recalled one particular bus trip between Nashville and Lebanon during this time. She said she was on the seat in the back of the bus, and the bus began filling with passengers until no more seats remained. She said the driver walked to the back to the bus and made her give up her seat.

“This was way before Rosa Parks,” she said.

At A&I, Bryant decided she wanted to major in home economics. She had already completed several courses in elementary education, though, when the superintendent from Lebanon called her up. He wanted her to leave school to return to Lebanon as a teacher at the Market Street school. 

She taught at the school for 20 years until she received a call from the superintendent Feb. 10, 1964 – the day the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The call resulted in Bryant transferring to Lebanon Junior High School, where she stayed for 13 years until her retirement. In a time known for its turbulence, Bryant described a fairly smooth transition.

“I was never mistreated to any degree by the faculty,” said Bryant. “Some of it was snubbing, but it was polite snubbing.”

She said that when she first arrived, teachers would often leave the room when she’d walk into the faculty room, but over time that stopped.

She said she never felt any resentment from parents.

Winfree Bryant Middle School is named in her honor, along with Cordell Winfree, who died last year.

“Although LSSD is saddened by the passing of Mrs. Hattie, we are delighted to have shared a longstanding personal and professional relationship with such a fine lady. Mrs. Hattie will always be remembered as a trailblazer and a wonderful educator that had a tremendous influence on so many in our community. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family,” said Lebanon Director of Schools Scott Benson.

As she spoke from the stage at the Bill and June Heydel Fine Arts Center at Cumberland University in 2015 – a school she, as an African American was not allowed to attend as a young adult – she said African-American youth need to take more advantage of the educational opportunities they have today.

“The biggest challenge that I see is making sure you get an education of some kind,” said Bryant. “You still have an obligation to yourself and to your community to better yourself.”

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