Innerviews: Trail-blazing teacher built fruitful life on hometown values

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Innerviews: Trail-blazing teacher built fruitful life on hometown values
By Sandy Wells, The Charleston Gazette

In the category of trail blazing, Jada Hunter cut a swath as wide as an interstate highway. A coal miner’s daughter reared in humble but loving circumstances, she lives in the town she was born in, a tightly-knit community near Williamson called Chattaroy. She recalls a seamless transition to school integration in a place where blacks were relegated to movie theater balconies.

She earned a teaching degree from West Virginia State College. When she couldn’t land a teaching position in her home county, she filed a discrimination complaint through the Civil Rights Commission. She won. She went on to break ground as the first black school administrator in Mingo County and the county’s first female high school principal.

She was the first black to enter the Miss Eastern West Virginia Pageant. She won. As a preliminary contest winner, she advanced to the Miss West Virginia Pageant, the first black contestant. She made it to the semifinals. Pageant experience later inspired her to open a modeling school.

Today, she’s a staunch community activist. She dedicates her efforts primarily to promoting opportunities for black women.

During the Manchin administration, she earned an award from the state Civil Rights Commission. In January, she won the Governor’s Martin Luther King Living the Dream Award.

A joyful personality spills from a prideful, confident demeanor. Her life reflects values instilled by her parents in that caring coalfield community -- the importance of education, hard work and a responsibility to help others.

“I grew up in Chattaroy. It is so warm and dear to me, that little community.

“My dad was Elijah Hunter and mom was Annabelle. I’m a coal miner’s daughter. We were poor, but our parents instilled in us such pride and dignity. We were proud to be Hunters.

“My mother was from Mossy. Back then, children were sent to work with another family to help out. My mom came to Chattaroy to work for a family. She was 9.

“When she was 17, she met my daddy. He came from Virginia to work in the mines. Mom dropped out of school in the 10th grade to marry.

“She was very bright. And she had such a work ethic and such a conviction that education was the way to go. She would tell all of us, ‘When you go to college...’ It wasn’t if, it was when. She was a maid. I used to rub her knees when she got home after standing up all day. She would say she was doing this so none of us would ever have to.

“My parents were religious. We weren’t allowed to curse or play cards or drink in our house. It was just this pure life we grew up in.

“Our surrounding neighbors were white. One of the white families behind us had six kids like my parents did. At the end of the month, this other family never had enough food. So mom would cook a pot of pinto beans for us and a pot for them. Next day, a pot of chicken and dumplings for us and a pot for them.

“She was always doing things for people. And that’s the way I grew up. You look out for everybody else.

“I went to a two-room school from first through fifth grades. I went to a black school until the seventh grade. When the schools integrated, my mom informed me that the black parents had a meeting at our church without our knowledge. They agreed not to tell us any of the negative things about integration, just that it was decided that black and white children, since they played together all the time, should go to school together.

“At Chattaroy High School, there were seven or eight of us black kids walking together. It was the beginning of a new year. When we got to the corner, there were loads of people. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, a lot of people came out to see us go to school.’

“They came out and said to go to the gym. The principal wanted to talk to us. He said, ‘The courts have decided we are all going to school together, black children and white children. You had better get along or you will come to my office.’ Not a thing ever happened.

“In high school, I played piano for graduations. We always had to go borrow a piano. They would tell one of the kids to take a truck and get the piano. We stopped at this place and ordered six hot dogs. The counter guy said something like, ‘We don’t like your company.’ They didn’t want me there. Those kids decided to hide that from me. They said, ‘Let’s get on back, and we can stop somewhere else.’ That was the only personal incident I remember.

“We couldn’t go to the swimming pool. We swam in the creek or the river. If we went to a movie, we had to sit upstairs. There were no signs. It was just understood.

“I graduated in 1961. I was 16 when I went to West Virginia State College. I got the money from my mom, and my sisters sent money. After the first two years, I worked each summer and paid for it myself.

“I majored in education with French and business as my fields. We didn’t have a foreign-language teacher at Chattaroy. I wanted to learn French so I could come back to Chattaroy and we would have a foreign-language teacher. When I went to the Board of Education to apply for a teaching position, he said they didn’t need any teachers. I told him I knew there was no foreign-language teacher at Chattaroy and the business teacher had retired. He said, ‘Our kids here in Mingo County don’t need no French.’ He wouldn’t even hand me the application.

“I went to the Human Rights Commission. I knew there was a law against not hiring people because they are colored. (If you were nice, you called us colored. If you weren’t, you called us the N word.) The commission took my case, but they said it wouldn’t be easy.

“Liberty High was still open. Only six kids graduated the previous year. That was because they never placed any black teachers in the white schools.

“I got a job in Mineral County at Piedmont High School. I was there a couple of months when the commission contacted me that we had won the case. They ordered Mingo County to close Liberty and place all those black teachers in the white schools, which they should have done 10 years before.

“I taught in Mineral County for four years. One of my students was Dr. Henry Louis Gates. He was an excellent student. We email each other every week.

“After two years at Piedmont, I went to the Mineral County Vocational Technical Center and became head of the business department. The director suggested I enter the Miss Eastern West Virginia Pageant. He said they’d never had a black girl enter that. You have to have a talent. I was already singing in a rock and roll band. We were Jada and the Hunters. The guys in the group named it after me.

“I won Miss Congeniality first, and then I won the whole thing and went on to the Miss West Virginia Pageant. It was like, what do we do with this black girl? They asked the homecoming queens from West Virginia and Bluefield State, both black girls, to enter. I was the only one who had won a preliminary pageant. I made it to semifinalist.

“After the pageants, Playboy magazine called me three times. They were interviewing women for their first black centerfold. I said, ‘Oh, no! I’m a school teacher!’ No way would I do that. How could I go back to Chattaroy? Mom would whip my behind.

“I moved to Connecticut and taught there. When my ex-husband and I moved to San Antonio, I didn’t teach at all. I came back to West Virginia in 1979. I opened a modeling school and had that for a few years while I was teaching school.

“I taught first at Varney Grade School as a permanent sub, the only position open. The next year, I got a job in business at Lenore High School, and I had one French class. They had me teaching everything. I was there four and a half years. I taught at Chattaroy, a junior high, one year. Then I went to Williamson as a French and business teacher.

“Dean of students became available. I had a master’s in vocational and technical education. I went back for my administrator master’s degree. I was assistant principal, and five years later, I was principal at Williamson Middle School. It was the first time they’d hired a black person as an administrator in Mingo County. After three months, I got the job at Matewan High School. She said I was the first one. I thought she meant the first black. She said I was the first female high school principal in Mingo County.

“I went to Burch High School in Delbarton as principal in ’99 and retired two years ago.

“I’m a member of the American Association of University Women and president of Links Inc., in Huntington, an international professional organization to uplift the cultural and educational opportunities for women, primarily women of color.

“My ex and I divorced years ago, but he has been the best dad in the world. That’s Larry Kenon. We met in 1974 when he played for the New York Nets. He played with Julius Erving, ‘Doctor J,’ and later with George ‘The Iceman’ Gervin when he went to San Antonio.

“I have been blessed beyond belief. I had parents who gave us all unique names. I always felt special. There was a time when black people put their heads down when they passed a white person. Mom came in from work one day in her maid uniform. She had just seen a girl in school with me do that. She said, ‘Jada Hunter! When you pass people on the street, you’d better have your head held high and smiling.’

“I believe I can assist with what’s happening now socially, this resurgence of hatred that started, I think, when President Obama became president.

“We should respect each other as people and be kind to each other. There is a certain way to act if you want to be respected. A lot of the black children need to realize that it was the way we carried ourselves that made other people treat us better than some of the things happening now.

“I can go into a black community and talk to the kids about just doing things that will uplift them and give them better opportunities, like what to do for a job interview. I’m not done yet.”