Lambda Zeta Omega hosts virtual Unity Day

Published 9:00 am Tuesday, January 18, 2022

LANETT — Four retired educators from the Valley area were recognized with Pioneer in Education awards in Monday morning’s Unity Day program presented by the Lambda Zeta Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha. The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day program was presented virtually on Facebook and Bee TV.

The four education pioneers include Catherine Crook of LaFayette, Essie Mae Harris of Lanett, Pearlie Gibson of Valley and Jo Frances Jackson of West Point.

Phyllis Stiggers said it was exciting, pleasurable and joyful for her to recognize these four local women for what they have meant to the local community and the field of education.

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Catherine Pitts (Crook) was born on a Chambers County family farm in August 1922. She’s on her way to a 100th birthday.

“She was the youngest of four children,” Stiggers said. “She was not afraid of hard work and had chores to do every day on the farm. She walked five miles every day to Chambers County Training School in LaFayette where she graduated in 1943.”

Catherine’s family could not afford to send her to college, but she was determined to earn a degree and be a teacher. “She moved to Chicago and lived with her older sister,” Stiggers said. “She saved her money and moved back home to Alabama. She enrolled at Miles College in Birmingham, where she earned a B.S. degree in English and social studies in 1948. She returned to Chambers County and taught at the Liberty School and at a school in River View.”

In River View, she met a young male teacher named Milledge Crook. A whirlwind courtship began and the couple married in six months. Mr. Crook would go on to be a principal in the Chambers County School System. The Crooks would have lengthy careers as educators and in the Chambers County Retired Teachers Association. Everyone loved Mr. Crook’s jokes when he hosted meetings as president.

Mrs. Crook earned an M.S. degree in science at Alabama A&M and was teaching at LaFayette High following a 45-year career in public education when she retired. She was once named the county school system’s Teacher of the Year and taught adult education classes for the system.

“She used her work ethic to participate in civic organizations,” Stiggers said. “She joined the Theta Xi Omega of Alpha Kappa Alpha in LaGrange in 1975 and the Lambda Zeta Omega chapter in Lanett in its founding year (1976). She has been a faithful member of Mount Calvary Baptist Church for many years and has held many leadership positions in the church. She is a God-fearing woman who believes in the power of prayer. She is 99 years old and still values hard work.”

Stiggers said that Essie Mae Harris had distinguished herself as a teacher, principal, social reformer and civil rights activist.

“She grew up in Lanett, graduated from Lanier High and earned her teaching degree from Alabama State University. She retired from the Lanett City School System after 40 years of dedicated service,” she said.

Harris has done much in the way of community service over the years including having fundraisers for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and serving as a board member for Valley Haven School and the Valley United Fund. She has been an advisor to Chattahoochee Hospice and served as treasurer for the local chapter of the Alabama State University Alumni Association.

“For many years, she has been a faithful, active and dedicated member of Mount Hermon Baptist Church,” Stiggers said. “She loves her church and is willing to do whatever is needed. She has held many leadership positions in the church. She has also held many leadership positions with the Bowen East District Baptist Center.”

In 1986, she was honored with a “This Is Your Life, Essie” program at Mount Hermon Baptist Church and in 1995 was honored at an appreciation banquet at L.B. Sykes-Lanett Junior High. Harris has received many community service awards from many state officials and from the NAACP.

Pearlie Gibson was born in Hope Hull, Alabama, the eleventh child in a family of 12 siblings. She was the fifth of six girls in the family. Pearlie learned early in life how important a good education was.

“As she was growing up, she saw her older brothers being made fun of because they couldn’t read and write,” Stiggers said. “She was determined to be the change for her family.”

She would go on to graduate from high school and earn a B.S. degree in science from Alabama State.

Gibson taught school in Mississippi for a few years before returning to Alabama to teach at Rehobeth High in Chambers County’s Fairfax community. When the schools integrated in 1971, she was the first Black teacher hired to teach at Fairfax Elementary School. She later went to Troup County, where she taught at Ethel Kight in LaGrange, at Center School and at West Point Elementary.

“She has been a faithful member of the St. Stephens CME Church in the River View community for many years,” Stiggers said. “She has also held many district-level positions for the CME church. She believes that education is the key for anyone to be successful. She has been blessed with four daughters and three grandsons.”

Jo Frances Fannings (Jackson) grew up in Lanett in a family with nine children.

“At an early age, she learned the values of humility, regular church attendance and trusting God,” Stiggers said. “She was always bright for her age and enrolled at Lanier High when she was only five years old. She was double promoted several times and graduated from Lanier High when she was 13.”

Jackson attended Clark College in Atlanta for two years before transferring to Alabama State, where she earned her B.S. and M.S. agrees in education. She completed all the coursework for a doctorate except her dissertation.

“She had a long career as an educator,” Stiggers said. “She had 49 years in systems in Alabama and Georgia. She started playing the piano when she was a young girl at Goodsell Methodist Church in Lanett. She would play there for many years and was often a guest pianist at other churches. She tutored students in the after-school hours at Goodsell and was a volunteer for George H. Lanier Memorial Hospital. Jo Frances is a proud member of the Shaver’s Pride Order of the Eastern Star, a golden alumnus of Alabama State and has been a volunteer for the West Point Senior Center. She’s the proud mother of five children, 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.”

Stiggers said that Jackson’s teaching philosophy included the values of hard work, self discipline and the pursuit of academic excellence.

“On this special day, I want to thank Catherine Crook, Essie Mae Harris, Pearlie Gibson and Jo Frances Jackson for what they have meant to our community,” Stiggers said. “You have given your time, your talents and your services to the people of our area. We applaud you for your efforts. May God continue to bless you.”

Monday’s Unity Day program concluded with a check presentation. The Lambda Zeta Omega chapter of AKA presented a $300 check to the youth department of the Bowen East District.

Norma Williams served as the program emcee, and Mrs. Bessie Jackson said some opening remarks to start the 9 a.m. program.  Musical selections were provided by organist LaShandra Banks-Knox and the Myron Fears Ensemble. Prayers of concern were spoken by Dr. Fredrick James, pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church, Lanett; the Rev. Dr. Tanda Canion, pastor of Assembly of Truth Ministries, Atlanta; the Rev. Richard Carter, pastor of the Washington Chapel AME Church, Tuskegee; Pastor Amy Messer, the Revenant Worship Center, Valley; the Rev. Dr. Wendell Jones, pastor of Mr. Zion AME Church, Opelika; Bishop Bertha Hodge, pastor, O.H. Ministries, Lanett; the Rev. Gerald W. Ledbetter, pastor of the West Point Presbyterian Church; and the Rev. Fredrick A. Davis, pastor of First Calvary Baptist Church, Durham, North Carolina.

Scripture and prayer to open the Unity Day program was spoken by Dr. Jesse Walker II, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Lanett. The Rev. Eric Dowdell, pastor of St. John’s Community Baptist Church, Lanett, gave the benediction.

Mayor Jamie Heard thanked the Lambda Zeta Omega chapter for presenting the virtual program. “We are proud to have this chapter based in Lanett,” he said.

“We appreciate all you do for the community and what you are doing today to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King will always be remembered for his ‘I Have a Dream’  speech and for his involvement in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.”

The theme for the program was “Prayer is the hope and light in a world of darkness.”

It was based on a statement attributed to Dr. King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that, and hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”