Mary Kennedy Carter: Chalkboard Champion and Civil Rights Activist

334_AuntLillianDadUncleJoeAuntMarysmMany talented educators are often passionate about social causes and work to make the world a better place. Such is certainly the case with Mary Kennedy Carter, a social studies teacher from Ohio who became involved in the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. Mary is pictured here, on the right, with three of her siblings.

Mary was born on January 13, 1934, in Franklin, Ohio, the youngest of six children. Her father was a barber and her mother was a teacher. In her home, a great deal of emphasis was placed on getting a good education, and the Kennedy children were taught to take pride in their African heritage. In school, however, they were taught that Africa was a continent of savages and that blacks were inferior to whites. As a child, Mary made friends with both black and white children, although she was raised in a segregated community and therefore was subjected to racism all around her. Mary felt the sting of racial prejudice first-hand. When she graduated from high school, she qualified to be the valedictorian of her class, but was not given the honor because of this bigotry.

The sting didn’t keep her down, however. Mary enrolled at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Once she earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education and history, she taught for several years in predominantly Polish elementary schools in Dayton, Ohio, and in San Diego, California.

In 1963, Mary was granted a teacher’s fellowship from Teachers for East Africa, an organization affiliated with Columbia University in New York City, where she had earned her master’s degree in Curriculum and Teaching. This fellowship allowed her to travel to Lira, Uganda, to become a trainer of educators at Canon Lawrence Teachers College. Mary said she enjoyed the opportunity to return to the continent of her ancestors, to learn from her heritage, and to finally be part of a majority, as she described it. In Uganda she came into contact with African people of power: presidents, diplomats, and officials of many African countries. She also supervised Peace Corps student teachers and served as an assistant to the director of teacher preparation in the East Africa Orientation Program. At the end of her fellowship, the remarkable educator was asked to stay in Uganda; however, she declined the invitation and returned to the United States.

Once she returned home, Mary moved to New York City to work as an editor and writer for the textbook publishers McGraw-Hill. There she met her husband, Donald Carter. Mary left McGraw-Hill when offered the opportunity to create Black History program for the Roosevelt School District in Long Island, New York. At that time it was an elective for seniors. During the time she worked for Roosevelt Schools, she was able to arrange many prominent speakers to come to the school district, including Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League Baseball, and Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcom X. In time, Mary went on to teach in Rockville Center schools in Long Island, where she established popular after-school youth clubs that promoted diversity, multiculturalism, and anti-violence. This talented teacher promoted equality and diversity everywhere she went.

After retiring, Mary became a field supervisor and adjunct professor at Hofstra University, where she worked closely with student teachers. She also worked with the New York State Council for the Social Studies as part of a team that developed and field-tested an anti-racism curriculum entitled New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance. In 2005, the curriculum won the Program of Excellence Award from the National Council for the Social Studies.

In her later years, Mary Kennedy Carter was a member of the New York State Amistad Commission, an organization established by the state legislature to research the best way issues of race could be taught in America’s social studies classrooms. Near the end of her career, Mary became a professor at Hofstra University in Long Island where she supervised student teachers, conducted workshops, and taught social studies methods and educational issues classes. Most of her students were white and were raised in largely white suburban communities, so a major focus of her courses involved helping them to recognize the importance of diversity. “All students need to know the history of Africa and Egypt and the contributions they have made to world history,” Mary once expressed. “This is not just something to be taught to black children. They also all need to understand that many white people played important roles in the struggles for minority rights.”

Mary Kennedy Carter was also a published author. In 1970 she published the book On to Freedom, a 55-page narrative about a slave family planning to escape to freedom. In addition, the talented educator contributed to some editions of Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study.

This chalkboard champion and Civil Rights activist passed away on December 14, 2010. She was 76 years old.