Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and student
Mrs. Maggie Comer ( picture: African American Museum of History and Culture 9/2016
Over the week end, I re-read the book, “Maggies American Dream” a story about the Comers an African American family who migrated from the deep south to my hometown of East Chicago, Indiana in the 1920s.Narrated through voice of family matriarch Maggie Comer as written by her son,Dr. James P. Comer M.D., who became Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale University Child Study and has been a Yale medical faculty member since 1968.During these years, he has concentrated his career on promoting a focus on child development as a way of improving schools. His efforts in support of healthy development of young people are known internationally.
Dr. Comer, perhaps, is best known for the founding of the Comer School Development Program in 1968, which promotes the collaboration of parents, educators, and community to improve social, emotional, and academic outcomes for children that, in turn, helps them achieve greater school success. His concept of teamwork has improved the educational environment in more than 500 schools throughout America.
To say the Comers as a family are remarkable is not mere hyperbole.
After a visit during opening week of the African American Museum of History and Culture I was reminded of just how inspiring and sterling an example the Comer family set for students growing up in the rough urban industrial terrain of East Chicago. The AAMHC exhibit on the “Great Black Migration” to the north beginning after WWI includes a section devoted to selective stories of individuals and families from the period.I’d lie, if I were to say “my chest didn’t swell with pride” seeing among the photographs a picture of the Comer matriarch, Mrs Maggie Comer exhibited along with written narratives of illustrious persons’ or families personal quest in succeeding at attaining the “American Dream making significant contributions and innovations along the way.
The “Comer Family” saga for me is personal and visceral. A number of references in chapters of “Maggies American Dream” are devoted to my third grade teacher Louise Comer one of two daughters of the five Comer siblings.The museum entry for Maggie Comer simply states: “Maggie Nichols Comer was born in Woodlawn, Mississippi and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, with her mother and stepfather. In 1920, at age 16, she moved to East Chicago to join her sister and brothers. There she unsuccessfully tried to balance working and going to school. She eventually married Hugh Comer and had five children, all of whom graduated from college.” (Courtesy of Dr.James P. Comer)
What the book “Maggie’s American Dream” does so powerfully and adeptly through sharing a family’s rich oral history is provide context for Maggie and husband Hugh Comer’s struggles to educate, raise and train five children whom would each reach the pinnacle of success,and effectiveness within their given professions, community service,and leadership within their respective fields.My third grade teacher Louise Comer and I reconnected and remained in touch over the years.She had tutored me as she had generations of third graders. After her retirement she remigrated to live near her large extended Comer family near Comer, Alabama on her palatial Alabama estate.My mom,gospel singer Irene Day-Comer eventually remarried a family member, Richard Comer a relative of Hugh Comer .
The Comers of Alabama are a tightly knit family with southern roots who love God, life, family and value academic achievement.I was pleased my mom and Richard spent many of their happiest last days together traveling, visiting and reconnecting with their own southern roots. I didn’t get to see my third grade teacher,but we’d talk by telephone and she assured me a standing invitation to visit her like other former students and my mom, and Richard had. And based upon the book’s oral descriptive account, she achieved her own”American Dream” to own a beautiful home; a fete teachers seemed to somewhat more easily attain “back in the day”.
But more than aspirations for material success Louise Comer imparted a lifetime of invaluable skills in the bright eyed, eager children she taught. She believed in her students; and she knew and understood the challenges poor and aspiring upwardly-mobile middle- class black kids would face during the pre-civil rights era of “Northern Jim Crow” tactics.
She taught at Columbus elementary school, which was built to educate black children in the New Addition neighborhood comprised mostly of black steel-workers’ families and served as a “fire-wall” against the increasing population over-flow of black grade schoolers attending the pseudo integrated Washington Elementary school and being taught in a separate “But in an un-equal equal wood constructed annex located on the school property near the integrated predominately white middle and secondary school. Like Maggie Comer, daughter Louise refused to believe that we as African American students were any less capable than others. In her eyes we could achieve anything we set out to do.She believed we could over-come any obstacle encountered along the academic chain to achievement emerging into the “world of work” with study and discipline as our tools for success.
As I reflect on this important presidential election tomorrow, and stories like those of the Comers and more currently, individuals like astrophysicist, Dr.Neil deGrasse Tyson, I’m reminded just how important creating and sustaining equal educational opportunity is for our children.
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson had been an excellent athlete, and found that he was not only lauded, but his qualifications and abilities were never questioned. Besides his accomplishments on the Harvard wrestling team, he was part of the rowing team and a gold medal-winning ballroom dancer. These activities didn’t conflict with society’s perceptions of where his talents should lie. However, in his academic pursuits, he often found himself faced with questions and disbelief; he had transgressed against the recognized order of things, and his path became a difficult one. But he wasn’t deterred from his goal to become a world class scientist.Pictured below Neil deGrasse Tyson as a college student at Harvard pictured after a dance contest in college.
Society sorely needs teachers like Louise Comer as well as engaged parents like Hugh and Maggie Comer along with effective and committed political and educational leaders to lift up, guide and encourage our students being left behind without hope, dreams deferred and void of direction for a better future. Maggie Comer knew back then that “It Takes a Village” to develop and educate healthy successful, children possessing solid self-esteem in their academic and vocational pursuits; the Comer Model has a proven track record engaging parents, students, teachers, communities and administrators through engagement of each entity and making the whole enterprise accountable. (D.Day Media 2016) Top two pictures: Dr.Neil deGrasse Tyson, Mrs. Maggie Comer, below Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson as a student at Harvard and Dr. Tyson at work as an Astrophysicist