The theme of Black History Month for 2021 is The Black family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity. If you can read this thank a teacher. If you can calculate percentages thank a math teacher.
Mary Sanford Abernathy is a 34-year veteran teacher of math and science. She was born in Scottsboro to John Willis Sanford and Nettie Sherman Sanford. She was their youngest child with 15 brothers and sisters. All are deceased at this time.
John Willis was respected on both sides of the tracks by both black and white citizens. Her father traveled extensively throughout the South and Southwest as a plasterer and concrete finisher. Her mother a housewife.
Mary went to Carver School “under the hill” until it burnt down. She remembers after the first school burned students attended school at the local black churches until the new Carver High School was built. Elementary students attended Joyce Chapel UMC, middle school students attended St. Paul AME, and high school students attended St. Elizabeth Baptist Church.
She recalls that as a grade school student two of her substitute teachers were her older sisters. She promised herself at that time she would never teach her own children because of that experience. Mary’s first desire was to become a nurse but after much consideration she decided to become a teacher so that she could be on the same schedule as her three small children.
After graduation from Alabama A. & M. University she got her first teaching position in Birmingham, Alabama at segregated Ullman High School. She taught there only a year and then received a position in Bridgeport, Alabama all of this occurred before integration.
After the schools in Jackson County were integrated she was hired as the first Black teacher to integrate the teaching staff at a mixed school in Bridgeport. She recalls on her first day as a teacher, the KKK gathered at the Chicken Basket Restaurant in Scottsboro. However later that day, she got a call from the FBI and they told her they were aware of the gathering and were on top of it.
Mary also remembered that as she arrived at school an older white gentleman walked up to her and told her, “No one will bother you and you are going to be okay.” Mary and her father are important parts of the Scottsboro story. Her father John Willis testified at the “Scottsboro Boys” trial as a key witnessed.
Some of her fun memories of childhood were going to the movies/theaters with just 25 cents and being able to see a movie and also buy a bag of popcorn and a coke. The two theaters were the Ritz and the Bocanita. The Black patrons had to sit in the balcony. The floor seats were reserved for White patrons only.
In spite of the restrictions she remembers the good always outweighed the bad. As a teacher she taught Math/ Science 34 years before retiring. She also taught summers in the migrant schools in Dutton, Fyffe and North Sand Mountain locations.
During the six summers she taught Mexican students in the migrant schools she taught everything from math to hygiene. After serving the students in our community and then retiring she was appointed to the Jackson County Board Of Registrar Office by Kaye Ivey and served our community there for 6 years.
Mary’s greatest legacy are her four children, three of whom have served in the military with two retiring from military service, one retired from TVA and one continues to work as an RN. They live in Washington State and Florida with points in between. Pre-COVID days she would normally travel frequently flying to visit her children and grandchildren all over the country.
Educationally, her most memorable moments was when students finally understood what she was teaching. Mary was the first Black Highland Ambassador helping open up businesses and stores. Her Brother Ben Sanford was the first Black city councilman in Scottsboro. Mr. Sanford campaigned three times before winning on his last effort. The Ben Sanford Youth Center is named in his honor.
Initially, before starting the interview for this article, she was apprehensive about what she would remember and contribute. After starting, she recalled many interesting facts about her life, career and our community.