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John Leslie Patton, Jr.: Portrait of an Educator
The Formative Years
John Leslie Patton, Jr., was born in Dallas, Texas, on May 20, 1905, to John, Sr., and Ella Thomas Patton. His father, born near Paris, Texas, and his mother, from Tennessee, were descendents of slaves and farmers. John, Sr. moved to Dallas seeking employment in 1893. He married Ella Thomas in 1901.
In his youth, Patton was inspired by educators. He grew up believing that their mission was to uplift the race on all fronts. His upbringing was a prime example of a community effort to ensure the best educational exposure for its children.
John, Jr. and his older sisters, John Ella and Marqueriette, attended Dallas' public schools. At this time, all of Dallas operated under a system of segregation, in which employment, public accommodations, housing, and education were all determined by race.
Patton attended the old Colored High School. He was deeply influenced by Portia Washington Pittman, a teacher at the high school and the daughter of Booker T. Washington. He graduated in 1922, the same year the school was moved to a new building and named Booker T. Washington High School (BTW).
Separate But Equal
In 1896, the U. S. Supreme Court considered the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, that tested the constitutionality of an 1890 Louisiana law providing for separate railway carriages for whites and blacks. The Court ruled that "separate but equal" accommodations were reasonable. It further said that the Fourteenth Amendment "could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based on color." In so doing, the Court paved the way for segregation of blacks in all aspects of life. In 1954, a Kansas case, Brown v. Board of Education , came before the U. S. Supreme Court. This case challenged the practice of denying black children equal access to state public schools due to state laws requiring or permitting segregation. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that "separate but equal" facilities were "inherently unequal" and that segregation was therefore unconstitutional. The Court instructed states across the nation to ensure the admission of all parties to public schools "with all deliberate speed."
College Life and Early Career
Patton enrolled at Prairie View College in 1922. During his years there, he distinguished himself academically and militarily as an honor student and an officer in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). During his senior year, he served as a Major and commanded Prairie View's ROTC class. In 1924, he received a permanent teaching certificate with first-class status. After his graduation in 1926, he earned a teaching position in Dallas at J. P. Starks Elementary School, quickly gaining recognition as an outstanding teacher.
In 1928, Patton was hired to teach history at his alma mater, Booker T. Washington High School. Like so many other teachers, his commitment was to give back to the community that which had been afforded him. He became Dean of Boys shortly thereafter. While teaching, he developed a unique elective course in Negro history, which was first offered in the 1933 school year. The culmination of his work was the publication of A Student's Outline Guide for the Study of Negro History. In the 1939 revision of his curriculum, he and H. I. Holland, a fellow BTW teacher, described the purpose of the class. "The course in Negro History was intended to serve the following purposes: (1) to give Negro youth a better understanding of the struggles and problems which the Negro race has encountered in America; (2) to give a greater appreciation of the progress and contributions which the Negro has achieved; (3) to show that the Negro has formed an integral part of the American civilization; (4) to awaken a proper social consciousness and pride in the developments and achievements which the Negro has made; and (5) to stimulate in Negro youth a proper desire to achieve greater freedom and greater accomplishments."
African-American education in Dallas suffered greatly because of overcrowding--too many students were forced to attend too few schools. As Dallas' African-American population swelled during the 1920s, the situation grew worse. For many years, Dallas County had only one high school for African-American students: Booker T. Washington. To accommodate so many students, classes were held in shifts. Grades 9-10 attended classes in the morning and grades 11-12 attended in the afternoon. In 1939, Lincoln High School was established in order to alleviate the overcrowding and provide a better education to black high school students. Patton became principal at BTW as his predecessor, T. D. Marshall left to be the first principal at Lincoln.
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 and the American entry in 1941 caused many social and economic changes in the United States. Increased industrial activity and the expansion of the military offered more jobs and opportunities for advancement than had been available during the 1930s. At the end of the war in 1945, returning black soldiers refused to accept the discrimination of the pre-war years. Equal treatment for all people became their battle cry. Education soon became the tool for breaking down racial barriers.
In 1905, W. E. B. DuBois and other black intellectuals founded the Niagara Movement. Opposed to the conciliatory ideas of Booker T. Washington and his followers, the group called attention of the plight of blacks and demanded the abolition of all distinctions based on race. Though the Niagara Movement was short-lived, it was one of the forerunners of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP ). Organized in 1909, the NAACP embarked on a program of "litigation, legislation, and education" aimed at improving the lives of blacks throughout the nation.
The public schools in Dallas, as in the rest of Texas, had a dual salary schedule based entirely on race. That is, black teachers with the same educational background, experience, and number of students were paid a lower salary than their white counterparts. In the 1940s, the average salary for black teachers was $760, while that of whites was $1,244. Despite the obvious inequities, black teachers remained devoted to their profession.
Thelma Paige Richardson, a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, challenged the status quo. In 1942, she and the Negro Teacher Alliance of Dallas filed a lawsuit against the Dallas Public School System demanding equalization of pay based on merit and tenure. Political activist A. Maceo Smith and attorney William J. Durham served as Richardson's legal advisors. Smith was secretary of the Dallas NAACP and the Progressive Voters League and played a major role in gaining Negro participation in the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas in 1936. Durham, from Sherman, Texas, served as an attorney for the NAACP. The Dallas Board of Education filed a petition denying discrimination in setting salaries. Richardson and the Negro Teacher Alliance won their case, effecting a change in Dallas teacher salaries. Because of the case, there was an increase in public awareness of the issues surrounding discrimination in the school system.
Patton pursued graduate studies at New York University, where he immersed himself in modern educational thought. From his exposure to these ideas, he saw ways to change the curriculum at his own school to benefit his students. On his appointment as principal, he set about implementing these changes, which were adopted not merely at Booker T. Washington, but by other schools within the Dallas school system.
The changes Patton envisioned and implemented at his school centered around the need to encourage and advance African-American students in everyday life. During his years of teaching, Patton had developed a Negro history curriculum which was initially offered to students as an elective course. Upon becoming principal, Patton added his curriculum to the permanent class work for all students.
Other additions to the curriculum were college preparatory courses for returning soldiers on the GI Bill. Patton improved the night school programs to include business and technical courses, allowing graduates to go directly to college without remedial work or to jobs equipped with technical skills necessary to compete with more experienced workers. Vocational training, such as secretarial and office management and cosmetology, were also added to the curriculum to allow those students not wanting to continue on to college to go directly into the labor market upon graduation. In some instances students could enter a work-study program, allowing them to work at a vocational job and receive training as well as getting paid for their time.
Many of these innovations were Patton's ideas, yet he did not work in isolation. Numerous faculty members at Booker T. Washington, several of whom were BTW graduates, were nationally recognized as outstanding educators. Co-workers and graduates included: J. Mason Brewer, B. E. Dade, Ocie Mae Joiner, J. J. Higgs, Elizabeth Bradley Love, Alfred P. McKensie and Hazel M. Holloway. All considered teaching "a mission."
In recognition of his achievements and his commitment to enriching the community, a Testimonial Dinner was held in honor of John Leslie Patton, Jr. in December, 1962.
Patton became a noted speaker throughout the country. His experience in the Dallas schools attracted attention from urban school districts and the business community, where he was the featured speaker at many business and educational functions. A lay preacher, Patton spoke on numerous occasions at his church, Bethel A. M. E., and at national church functions. Patton's involvement reached into all areas of the community and his devotion and desire to help others was clearly visible. Not only was he involved in his school and as a national speaker, Patton served as chairman of the Circle 10, Silver Palm District, Boy Scouts of America and as a member of the Dallas Council on World Affairs, of the Board of Management of the Moorland Branch Y. M. C. A., of the Home Service Committee of the American Red Cross, and of the Educational Commission of the Grand Lodge of the Knights of Pythias of Texas.
He directed campaigns for the Community Chest, Moorland Branch Y. M.C.A., Maria Morgan Y. W. C. A., the March of Dimes, Planned Parenthood, and the United Negro College Fund. He held memberships in the Teachers State Association of Texas, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, Dallas School Executives Club, Knights of Pythias, the NAACP, and the American Federation of Labor.
In 1969, after 30 years at Booker T. Washington, Patton left the school to become Deputy Assistant Superintendent of Community Relations for the Dallas Independent School District (DISD). He served in this capacity for three years, then retired due to illness. He died on July 18, 1971, a few months after retiring.
The DISD established the John Leslie Patton, Jr. Elementary School in 1976 to honor his contributions to Dallas education.
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