The City I Love: Margaret Hart: An elegant minority hire
M argaret Hart had every reason to be angry, bitter and disillusioned. By all accounts, she went through life being none of the above. Were I mayor for a day, and had a bit of extra cash in the budget, I’d find an appropriate place to have a statue or plaque that recognized Hart as the first black teacher in Pittsfield Public Schools.
With minority hiring at the forefront of city discussion in recent days, Hart’s life story is truly "Hart-warming." We’d be remiss if the woman didn’t get a mention while the discussion at hand continues to simmer. Hart passed away 10 years ago at age 92, but left quite a legacy.
Hart was profiled in The Eagle a few years back when the newspaper was celebrating the city’s 250th birthday. I had the pleasurable task of profiling daily a different Pittsfield citizen and their contributions to the city. Hart was Day 4. It would have been a huge oversight to let her story fall through the cracks.
It didn’t, and I take great joy in reprising it in greater detail today.
I don’t have all the facts of Hart’s life, but there was little, it seems, in the way of drama. She was hired by Pittsfield Public Schools in 1949, when she was already in her late 30s. Hart was named after her grandmother, Margaret Curry, who came to Williamstown from North Carolina in the 1800s.
Being the first black teacher in Pittsfield was a "been-there, done-that experience for Hart, who after graduating from Williamstown High School became the first black student at North Adams Normal School, which would later become North Adams State College and now Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
If Hart bristled at all, it wasn’t because she was stressed breaking down color barriers. There were other battles to fight. The city on the heels of World War II voted by a 4-to-1 margin to allow equal pay for male and female teachers. I’ll give you one guess who had been on the short end of that educational stick prior to that vote.
The city also gave the nod to allow married women the opportunity to teach. Hart never did marry and it’s mind-boggling to think about the women of the day who had to make that decision -- marry or teach.
I know, pretty scary stuff.
Hart must have felt a pull for the South, because she taught in Virginia prior to returning to the Berkshires. Perhaps it was her grandmother’s stories or maybe a couple of rough local winters that segued her from one commonwealth to the other. Like the Berkshirite she was, Hart returned home.
A petite woman, Hart was the only girl among seven siblings. Her brother, Billy, was a prolific and multitalented athlete in North Berkshire circles.
I had seen neither a black student nor a black teacher by the time I reached the hallways of North Junior High (now Reid Middle School) during the mid 1960s. Those were the first and last times I ever saw Margaret Hart, and while she was no taller than many of the students, she measured out much higher.
There was no "buzz" on Hart. She was on no one’s list of teachers to "make sure you don’t have." I believe she taught history, and I think back now to what must have been a treat to hear about the Civil War through the eyes of a black teacher. Certainly, in retrospect, an opportunity lost. I never had Hart as a teacher.
Those had to be troubling times for Hart, who no doubt followed the tenuous Civil Rights movement in the South from afar. I don’t know how much latitude teachers had decades ago when it came to offering their own perspectives, especially in a history setting. But a savvy student would have been wise to pepper Hart with pertinent questions.
I’m sorry I never found a reason to interview her all those years later. Sadly, a great opportunity missed for an otherwise enterprising journalist.
Hart was voted "Most optimistic" in her high school yearbook. Her class quote was "Who will walk with me on life’s merry way." So, maybe, we can do something on Margaret Hart’s behalf one day. No time limit, just something to think about.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com.
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