HEFLIN — During 22 years as an educator and principal in Cleburne County, Jesse Montgomery Jr. bridged the gap between segregation and integration with respect, discipline and a calming attitude, friends and former students say.
Montgomery, who also coached basketball, died two weeks ago at the age of 89.
“He was a great man who had a pure heart and a sweet and sensitive spirit for people,” said former student John Merrill — now Alabama’s secretary of state.
Montgomery had been principal at Heflin Training School, a segregated school for the area’s black students, for four years when the time came for court-ordered integration at Cleburne County High School. Transferred there, Montgomery was given the job of assistant principal and math teacher.
“He was like a father to all of us,” said Mary Harrington, who taught at Cleburne County Elementary School during Montgomery’s tenure. Harrington was one of only five black employees in the school system in 1974 when she started teaching, she said.
“He came up in terrible times when it was forced integration — white people really didn't want you there,” Harrington said.
Harrington said Montgomery’s calm demeanor and ability to bring people together during the early days of integration as a “peacekeeper” earned him respect from both blacks and whites.
“White kids found him to be peaceful, personable,” Harrington said.
Merrill, a student at Cleburne County from the fall of 1976 through his 1982 graduation, called Montgomery “one of those people who always made sure you were doing what you were supposed to do, the way you were supposed to do it, whenever he was around because he was a strict disciplinarian — but he was also someone who led by example.”
Merrill said he entered first grade in the fall of 1970 and by that time the school system was in its early years of integration.
“We had black students in our class ... I never knew anything other than that and thought that was the way it was supposed to be — it was the way it was supposed to be,” Merrill said.
Merrill said Montgomery was a strong and firm presence who was supposed to be respected and admired.
“The older that I got and the more that I got to know him over the years the more that that was validated for me very clearly,” Merrill said.
Merrill also suggested during his comments that Montgomery was employed in a position that was below his true abilities, “but he was committed to our students, our community and our school.”
She said Montgomery should have been principal at the high school when the training school was shuttered. Instead, in addition to his duties as assistant principal he was required to teach six math classes each day. He also took a pay cut.
“He was the link between segregation and integration. A lot of people could have been bitter. I would have been bitter to go from being a principal to an assistant principal with six classes but he was never bitter,” Harrington said.
Another former teacher at the school, Mary Merrill — mother of John — credits Montgomery with the smooth transition from segregation to integration.
“He was a super fine man in all ways,” Merrill said.
Montgomery’s widow, Annie Montgomery, 86, taught for two years at the Cleburne County Elementary School and recalls that no matter what happened at the high school during the trying times of integration, her husband always came home with a smile.
“He was a humble person, he goes along with everybody too, he was just a peaceful person,” Montgomery said.
Reuben Hill, a student at Cleburne County High School in the early 1980s, recalls the educator as a “big figure.” Hill said there was a limited number of black instructors at the time to interact with and Montgomery was a “solution to the problem.”
Hill said one day he broke in line in the cafeteria line and sat down in the dining hall, ate his lunch and thought nothing of it.
Montgomery was the dining hall monitor at the time and said, “Come by my office. I need to see you,” Hill said.
Hill said Montgomery had seen him break in line and offered to call Hill’s parents or paddle him. Hill said he assumed the position and took his paddling for something he thought no one saw — Montgomery never spoke of the incident again and never told Hill’s mom.
“Even when you think nobody is watching somebody is always watching, so you have to do what’s right at all times,” Hill said.
Montgomery wrote an article for The Anniston Star in August of 1964 announcing the opening day for the all-black school with the hope that everyone would be eager to start a new year.
“School heroes should be those of high academic attainment and not necessarily those who gain the most yardage on the gridiron or throw the most balls through a hoop. We are looking forward to having a good school program during 1964-65,” he wrote.
The old Heflin Training School fell into disrepair when it closed in 1969 but was restored and repaired in 2005 and became the Heflin Arts Center.