"A Place of Hope" by Raphael Harris Morgan, Class of '71
Graduating high school in 1970 was a tremendous relief.
My mother no longer had to struggle to pay the $20.00 monthly tuition. I no longer had to dodge the school office personnel who always had a monthly late notice for me. I developed a strategy in my senior year. My homeroom was on the first floor at the opposite end of the office. I would take the stairs right outside my class to the second floor to avoid passing the office. Everything was an extreme expense for my single mother with four children. Most times I was conflicted by her decision to send me to a private school for six years. I knew the district junior high school had a reputation for discipline problems and not providing the best learning environment. My mom didn’t want me to be a part of the problematic school system.
I often wondered how she reared four children alone. I resented the fact that she took care of other families and was not home with us until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. When she returned home we were getting ready for bed. For too many years my school nights ended with her asking how was my day and did I do my homework. I knew my mom loved us and she was doing the best she could.
Most of my young life consisted of living in poverty. We moved frequently. We were professional rent dodgers. We usually moved by the end of the month. Electric services were interrupted often due to lack of payment. We had a connection at Cusimano’s. Mr. Cusimano and his wife, Doris, owned the corner grocery. They gave us store credit for milk and bread. They never made us feel ashamed as we signed the credit notebook.
College was not in the plan for me despite the excellent college preparatory classes in high school. The summer after high school I started working as an elevator operator. For the first time I could financially help my mom with my meager $75.00 bi-monthly salary.
By September of 1970, my mother had a better job. She was a receptionist in the office for Parkchester Apartments. She primarily answered incoming calls from residents requesting repair. She heard about Adult Education Center from one of the maintenance workers. Mr. Kelly Regis heard about the center from his wife who was the secretary at my former high school. My mom was excited to tell me about the school that was training women for the workplace. The only expense was a $40.00 book fee. Mom explained that I would receive extensive training in typing, shorthand, math, and other business related classes. Was a window of hope opening for me? I certainly hadn’t thought too much further than my current job. The floodgates of worry began to make me question if I could handle it all. I had a high level of worrying skills at such a young age. What would I wear? I had worn a uniform for the last six years.
I was accepted at AEC.
Eventually, I pulled out my sewing machine and began to sew clothes that would be appropriate office attire. I could always find a sale on fabric at Krauss Department Store. I bought a pair of black patent leather shoes with chunky wooden heels and I had my white graduation shoes. My wardrobe was set.
Additional worry surfaced. I lacked basic business skills. I could type my class reports, but speed was not a strength. Shorthand was foreign. What would the Math class include? Was there really only a $40.00 book fee?
AEC became a place of hope on November 9, 1970. It was a professional environment. Once inside the building I had to check in by using a time clock. The typing class was beautifully equipped with IBM electric typewriters. Shorthand became less foreign with practice. All of the teachers wanted us to succeed.
I recall that music was therapeutic for me in those early years. I regularly tuned in to WBOK on the radio to hear Shelly Pope spin the latest records. He was an expressive dj who began his commentary with “This is the one and only Shelly Pope.” The smooth sounds of Aretha Franklin, Issac Hayes, and Marvin Gaye nourished my soul. While typing this story I thought about one of my favorite songs, A Place in the Sun by Stevie Wonder. The lyrics summarize my journey at AEC.
“Like an old dusty road,
I get weary from the load.
Moving on, moving on.
There’s a place in the sun
where there’s hope for everyone.”
During my six-month training Mrs. Geoffray met with students often and discussed what was expected beyond the doors of 112 Exchange Place. I will never forget her and the instructors. My typing certificate is signed by Mrs. Geoffray. I was so proud that I had achieved more than 40 words per minute. I had been a “hunt and peck” typist, but I became able to type with speed and accuracy without looking at the keys.
Before training was completed at AEC, we started the interviewing process. During most interviews I was told I lacked experience. I thought this could not be another obstacle after all my training. I questioned whether I would get hired. I thought about what I was told, but I had to move beyond a mindset of worry. I had to remind myself that I would get experience when someone hired me.
Employment became a reality in July of 1971. Opportunity was there for me at New Orleans Public School as a stenographer for School-Community Relations under the direction of Robert Wall. The starting salary was $419.00 monthly. I was overwhelmed with excitement. I had not been offered that amount of money during any prior interviews. I could financially help my mother more than I ever had. I could now cover the $100.00 monthly rent.
I worked for eight years at NOPS. Eventually I took a leave of absence to complete a Bachelor’s degree in elementary education. My eight years of service gave me four years of experience as a teacher. I taught school until I moved from New Orleans in 1986.
Forty-seven years later I received an invitation to a reconnect reunion for AEC for all classes from 1965-1972. I had not attended a reunion in many years. As I prepared to travel to New Orleans, I had to acknowledge that divine intervention was a part of my young life. I heard about the school through a connection to my former high school. That was God. It wasn’t until recently while scanning my graduation program from 1971 that I noticed that Robert Wall was listed as a member on the AEC program. I now believe that having AEC training had much to do with me getting that first job. Again, God was in the plan. At the 2018 reunion reception in New Orleans I was shocked to learn all that went into creating a learning environment for poor young black women in 1965.
When thinking about what makes me proud I can say that I fully understand the Lord’s plan: “to prosper me, not to harm me, to give me hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11-14). It has been an arduous process of moving beyond the 18 year old person who lacked hope when I began my life changing experiences at AEC in 1971. That person no longer exists and I am especially grateful for Mrs. Geoffray’s vision of excellence.