Mary B. Neal students learn about their school’s namesake
Neal students learn about their school’s namesake
Students at Mary B. Neal Elementary School traveled back in time Friday to 1908, the year their school’s namesake was born.
“I’m going to tell you who [Mary B. Neal] was and why she was so important that Charles County Public Schools decided to name a school after her,” Shemika Berry, a local actress who portrays historical figures for schools and the Accokeek Foundation, told the students.
Dressed in 1940s period clothing, Berry portrayed Neal as the teacher she became in her adult life who spent her career in Charles County.
The assembly was the first of a planned annual event the school will host educating students about their school’s namesake.
Kemberly Blake, a Parent Teacher Organization board member and parent volunteer coordinator, said she came up with the idea to teach students on who Neal was.
“Many of our children don’t know why their school is named after her,” Blake said. “I feel it’s important for our children to know who she is.”
Born in 1908, Neal lived in Pennsylvania before moving to Charles County to teach. She received her Bachelor’s degree from what is now called Bowie State University and her Master’s degree from New York State University. She began her teaching career in 1929 at Oak Grove Colored School, a segregated one-room schoolhouse in Nanjemoy. She taught every subject to 60 students from grades 1-7.
Berry spoke of Neal collecting firewood outside during winter so the schoolhouse would be warm enough for the school day and staying the night at students’ homes when her meetings with parents would run too late for her to go home in the dark. As Berry described the conditions of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse at the time, the students gasped as they were asked to imagine going to school with no air conditioning, water fountains or
bathrooms inside the school.
Berry illustrated Neal’s career moving from teacher to principal to the first African American woman named superintendent of Charles County Public Schools in 1961.
“I loved my students and I always say, always do right,” Berry said imitating Neale. “Education is the most important thing.”
She married Clayton “Bus” Neal and had one son, Clayton David Neal. She died in 2005 at the age of 96, three years before the elementary school opened in her name.
“Remember, you represent me, the legacy and this school. Can I count on you to remember you are the legacy of Mary B. Neal?” Berry asked to a chorus of “Yes,” replies from the students.
A veteran of portraying historical figures in schools, Berry said she finds many
students remember stories told in front of them rather than reading them from a textbook. The costumes and the voice changes are what helps trigger students’ memories of someone they learned about and why they’re important.
“If I were Mary B. Neal,” Berry explained, answering a question from a student, “I would go around to schools and make sure the students know and appreciate their teachers and know how important their education is.”
A picture of Mary B. Neal presides over the front office of Mary B. Neal Elementary School in Waldorf. Students received a presentation about the school’s namesake Friday.
Shemika Berry, a local actress, answers questions from students as Mary B. Neal. Berry gave a presentation to students at Mary B. Neal Elementary School in Waldorf about their school’s namesake Friday.
A collage of Mary B. Neal watches over students in the cafeteria of Mary B. Neal Elementary School in Waldorf. The students received a presentation about their school’s namesake Friday.