Edna O. Campbell: an educator for the ages

October 05, 1994|By R. B. Jones

THE RECENT death at age 91 of Edna O. Campbell, my high school principal, was nearly impossible for me to believe. A veteran of nearly 50 years in the city schools who touched the lives of thousands, she seemed like an eternal force of nature to me.

As a wide-eyed sophomore entering the then-revered Frederick Douglass High School in 1967, I was in awe of her.

In those days of social upheaval, Mrs. Campbell -- then one of a dwindling number of old-style black educators in the city -- made it clear that regardless of the revolution in the streets, she was in charge at school.

Then she seemed terribly out of date to me. Women had started wearing miniskirts and pants; Mrs. Campbell continued to don conservative dresses that fell below the knee and low-heeled pumps. She addressed each student individually as "Mr." or "Miss" followed by their last name, to underscore that all people deserved respect; in a group we were "gentlemen and ladies."

She insisted upon proper diction and decorum. Moreover, she implored us to strive for academic excellence. She wanted her students to be ready to take advantage of the opportunities that the civil rights movement was helping to create.

When Mrs. Campbell learned that I would attend Princeton University, she was as proud of me as if I were a member of her own family. In a way, I was -- as a member of the Douglass High School family, which had a tradition of excellence that produced thousands of black lawyers, doctors and other professionals.

Today, it's unlikely that someone of her background would consider becoming a classroom teacher. She would have made an excellent lawyer with her stern gaze and analytical skills. She clearly loved education; she held degrees or had taken courses at five colleges and universities, including Columbia and Johns Hopkins universities.

But she never appeared bitter that her sex and race had kept her from doing anything other than what she apparently loved to do: work with young people.

As a holdover from the days of rigid segregation in the Baltimore City public schools, and like many of the other black educators who lived through that unpleasant experience, she stressed that we had to be twice as good as our white competitors to get ahead.

As a teen-ager, I wanted to challenge every aspect of the establishment that I considered oppressive, but somehow Mrs. Campbell and other traditional educators at Douglass commanded my respect. Despite political disagreements and differences over style, I knew that they deeply cared about their students.

It was out of that respect that I decided to run for student council president -- a position that Mrs. Campbell insisted was tailor-made for me. I balked at first because it didn't fit my vision of myself as anti-establishment. However, after a half-hour conference with her I was in the race. I won.

She wasn't just persuasive one-on-one, either. At least one time during my high school years, she even quietly convinced an auditorium full of somewhat rowdy students to abandon a protest and return to class.

It was in 1968, that we decided to hold an in-school protest over the dress code which forbade anyone to wear jeans and girls to wear pants.

The rally was in full swing when Mrs. Campbell returned to school, entered the auditorium and took to the stage. She spoke in that calm tone that was punctuated by her perpetual smile. She referred to us as young gentlemen and ladies, told us that education was our priority and said that she would take our concerns under consideration. Since we respected her, the only thing to do was to return to class. And we did.

When other city high schools were having major problems -- such as a race riot that occurred at Eastern High School in 1969 -- Douglass was calm under the leadership of Mrs. Campbell.

The last time I spoke with Mrs. Campbell was in the 1980s. On a bus headed for downtown one day, I quickly noticed her because she looked exactly the same. When I began to identify myself, she said tersely, "Young man I know exactly who you are." I didn't doubt that for one moment. I just hope that she understood what the example she set and her leadership meant to so many of her students.

R.B. Jones writes from Baltimore

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