Singing the song of an unsung hero

Justin Ashley and his students at McAlpine Elementary School are helping to uncover one of North Carolina’s unsung education heroes.

Students in Justin Ashley’s classes organized facts about Lockhart on the whiteboard. (Top right, from left) Ashley, Matrena Hunter and Patrick Phillips. Hunter is Lockhart’s 93-year-old daughter.

Students in Justin Ashley’s classes organized facts about Lockhart on the whiteboard. (Top right, from left) Ashley, Matrena Hunter and Patrick Phillips. Hunter is Lockhart’s 93-year-old daughter.

When college friend Patrick Phillips of Harrisburg told Ashley, a history teacher at the school, about his great-grandfather and the pile of old newspaper articles, personal letters and certificates he found, Ashley was surprised to find the story of John Clegg Lockhart had been forgotten and lost throughout the years. With a few glances into the files, he quickly realized Lockhart was a true leader and education advocate in North Carolina – someone to be remembered and someone whose story should be cherished.

That’s why Ashley, the North Carolina History Teacher of the Year, asked his 70 fourth-grade students for help. Together, for the past five weeks or so, Ashley and his students have sifted through the files and uncovered Lockhart’s story. Now, they’re working to bring honor back to his name.

“It all started when I was talking to my friend Patrick this summer and I was telling him about teaching North Carolina history this year,” Ashley said. “I said ‘Give me the files and we’ll see what we can do.’ We realized that this guy changed the game in the North Carolina educational system. The kids and I talked about it and decided that maybe it was our job to sing the song of an unsung hero.”

With help from parents, teachers assistants and other volunteers, the kids got to work researching Lockhart’s life. They were stunned when a simple Google search only retrieved a birth and death certificate. They first started by creating “Leader Gold,” folders highlighting key aspects of what constitutes a great leader – another aspect of the project Ashley hoped to teach his students.

Students were able to create a timeline of Lockhart’s life after dissecting the files and interviews with family members like Phillips. They searched the North Carolina State Archives for background information and eventually organized their facts on Ashley’s whiteboard. They found Lockhart was a leader in school consolidation, building 17 new schools in Wake County with state and local funds and money from President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal while superintendent of Wake County Schools from 1918 to 1940. He advocated for construction of five black high schools and a transportation system for black students.

He also changed the welfare for teachers and educators, advocating for the creation of the State Retirement System for teachers and other state employees, and was part of the adoption of the 12th year of education and nine-month school year term.

“He consolidated one-room school houses into larger schools,” Ashley said. “He lobbied for school funding during the Great Depression. He was fighting for Civil Rights before it was even a movement and that’s one thing the kids really admired about him. Everything he touched turned to gold.”

Lockhart also served as superintendent of what was then Mecklenburg County Schools from 1940 to 1943.

“I think that it is very interesting that he gave his whole life to education. How did he not get recognized for doing all those things?” 10-year-old Roch Guertin said. “He was an amazing leader. His first wife died shortly after childbirth, but he eventually remarried. I thought it was amazing that he didn’t give up. And thanks to Mr. Lockhart, teachers have a better life.”

The students currently are working to raise money for several plaques to be placed around the state in honor of Lockhart. Each plaque costs around $1,500, the first of which has already been purchased and will be placed at Lockhart Elementary School in Raleigh, named after Lockhart, though no one at the school knew his story, Ashley said.

Phillips said Lockhart’s family is thankful for the recognition.

“For me personally, the biggest thing I learned were the types of adversity and obstacles that John Lockhart encountered. I thought it was very impressive he was able to do the things that he did during a time where it was very unpopular,” Phillips said. He never met his great-grandfather, as Lockhart died in 1964.

But his grandmother, Matrena Hunter, 93, daughter of Lockhart, knew her dad very well. Now in a nursing home near Raleigh, Ashley’s students will visit her May 23 to share their findings and present her with a song.

“She’s aware of what’s going on, though she’s not as (sharp) as she once was,” Phillips said. “She has been very ecstatic and touched. She was a daddy’s girl; she loved everything he was about, not just in his professional life, but his personal life, as well.”

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