Pioneer, Optimist

Howard County educator hasn't been stopped by losing her mother as an infant or by discrimination - and she doesn't mean to be stopped by cancer, either

Profile -- Natalie Woodson

June 24, 2007|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun Reporter

Long before integration, No Child Left Behind legislation and the discussion of achievement gaps, Natalie Woodson learned the importance of educating African-Americans.

At age 8, Woodson, who is now the education chair for the Maryland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, attended her first NAACP meeting with her grandmother. The agenda item? Woodson's cousin Donald Gaines Murray, who was in the midst of a civil rights battle led by his lawyer - Thurgood Marshall - over admission to the University of Maryland School of Law.

Bigotry, raising a family, losing a husband, retirement from a career as an educator, and now her greatest challenge - battling a terminal illness - have not slowed the 79-year-old advocate, who accepted her current position in 1989. Woodson takes the challenge of educating African-Americans very seriously.

Born Natalie Wise to a hotel maitre d' father and a mother who died shortly after giving birth, the future advocate said she was inspired by her extended family, who took an active role in her upbringing.

An aunt, Sadie Dorsey, was a teacher in Baltimore City who became the city's first African-American movie theater censor. Woodson lived with Dorsey shortly after her mother died. Woodson said her "dynamic" aunt inspired her to become a teacher.

"I sort of came up in a family that was about doing things, productive things," Woodson said. "It's in the genes. You do what you can to make the world a better place."

Woodson excelled in school: She skipped two grades, and jumped at the chance to leave high school early by being one of the first students in Baltimore City to receive a GED in 1945. Shortly after, she attended Morgan State College - now Morgan State University - where she had gone during summer enrichment programs throughout elementary and junior high schools.

"My primary focus was education," Woodson said. In fact, education became the mantra for most of her extended family. At one point during her employment as a principal in Baltimore City, five of her cousins were also principals; four more worked as teachers.

"We were all instilled with the importance of education," said Woodson, who paid her way through college working as a clerk and later as a control clerk at the Social Security Administration.

While in college, she met her eventual husband, Cornelius Woodson, at a social hosted by colleagues.

"We fell in love instantly," she gushed. "It was love at first sight. He was a wonderful person; he was very supportive."

The couple married in 1954. They eventually had two daughters, and alternated between attending school and working. The years of struggle paid off. Cornelius became an attorney; Woodson became a teacher in Baltimore City after receiving a bachelor's degree from Coppin State Teachers College in 1960. In 1968, she received a master's degree in education from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Woodson quickly ascended through the Baltimore City education hierarchy. In 1963, she was chosen to be one of three African-American teachers to work in the newly integrated Fallstaff Elementary. She was promoted to assistant principal in 1970 and was once again called upon to break the color barrier at Leith Walk Elementary, a school where African-Americans accounted for 25 of the 1,450 students. In 1972, she accepted a position as an assistant principal at Hamilton Elementary, a school with a majority-white student population.

"Every experience I have had has been wonderful," Woodson said. "I learned so much from each one of those experiences. It was marvelous."

Amid her ascension through the education ranks in Baltimore City, Woodson, her husband and their two daughters, JoAnn, and Veronica, moved to Columbia.

"The promise of Columbia and its philosophy of being in a community where everyone would be welcomed, irrespective of their race, was quite exciting, " she explained. "We really bought into the [James] Rouse dream."

After moving to Columbia, Woodson continued to work in Baltimore City. In 1977 - the year her husband died of a sudden heart attack - she was promoted to be principal of Patapsco Elementary in Cherry Hill, where she had worked as an assistant principal since 1973.

She retired in 1988 but continued to volunteer at Patapsco Elementary until 2005. "I promised that community I would never leave them," Woodson recalled.

Woodson's retirement proved to be just as engaging as working fulltime.

In 1989, Woodson was recruited, by then-president Elhart Slurry, to become the education committee chair for the Howard County branch of the NAACP.

"It [retirement] didn't last at all," Woodson said with a laugh.

Many of the Howard County education initiatives launched during the early '90s were the result of startling 1989 data that revealed that the median grade point average for the county's African-American high school students was 1.8.

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