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First Person > Dorothy Pryor

Dorothy Pryor - 1945-Present: Teaching in Springfield, Massachusetts

Having graduated from Fisk University, Dorothy attended graduate school in Chicago, Illinois, and began a teaching career which would eventually bring her back home to Springfield...

Learn more about Dorothy Pryor: View a timeline of her life and listen to her full interview.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/pryor1945_school, alt: b/w photo of Technical High School, Springfield, MA

Technical High School, one of several secondary schools in Springfield, Massachusetts, was photographed by the Detroit Publishing Company sometime between 1905 and 1915.

Following her undergraduate work at Fisk University, Dorothy earned a Master of Arts degree in English from the University of Chicago. She and her husband Albert Pryor were teaching at the Kentucky State College for Negros, in Frankfort, Kentucky when Albert was summoned to teach in the Springfield, Massachusetts, school system. In the 1960s, Dorothy Pryor began teaching English at Technical High School, where students repeatedly honored her with the distinction “most popular teacher”. Following thirteen years at Technical High, Dorothy took a position at the Springfield Technical Community College, located on the grounds of the Springfield Armory. She remembers of her career, “I loved teaching. I loved my kids. I had a good time.”

Detroit Publishing Company, Technical High School, Springfield, Mass., c. 1905-1915. Library of Congress, Prints + Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Reproduction Number LC-D4-71981 (b+w glass neg.).

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/pryor1945_williams, alt: portrait of Daniel Hale Williams

African American physician Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931) opened the nation’s first interracial hospital and nursing school in Chicago, Illinois in 1891. Dr. Williams performed the world’s first open heart surgery in that city two years later.

Dorothy believes that “you don't teach anybody what you know. You teach people who you are and where you've been.” In her classroom, she did not tolerate students’ disrespect for fellow classmates. Nor would she tolerate the false belief that one can judge mental ability by skin color, gender, or sexual orientation, an assumption which breaks down in the face of the life stories of real people. So, Mrs. Pryor would tell her students about individuals such as Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who was a pioneer in the field of heart surgery at the close of the nineteenth century.

Daniel Hale Williams, c. 1900. Photograph in the public domain.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/pryor1945_pano, alt: panoramic photo of Springfield, MA in 1913

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A panoramic view of Springfield, Massachusetts, was photographed by the Haines Photo Co. around 1913.

In 1905, Eugene C. Gardner suggested that city of Springfield might be considered Massachusetts’ living room,

bright, cheerful and sunny, free to all well-behaved comers, unhampered by troublesome conventionalities, with room and opportunity for industry, study, recreation and social enjoyment - what the generous living-room with its hospitable hearth and ready welcome is to the private dwelling, Springfield is in the larger home of the grand old Commonwealth.1

Due in part to the presence of the Armory and the number of well-paying jobs which it brought to the city, during the nineteenth century Springfield, Massachusetts, became known as “The City of Homes.” A community affairs discussion paper written in 2009 outlines the economic decline of Springfield in the second half of the twentieth century. According to the report, manufacturing had been the dominant industry in the city before 1960 and the city’s average family income had topped the national average by 6%. By 1980, Springfield families were earning, on average, 83% of the national average; by the year 2000 they were earning only 73% . The report identifies the closing of the Springfield Armory as a significant factor in this economic decline:

Among the challenges faced by Springfield in the twenty years between 1960 and 1980, one of the most important was the closing of the Springfield Armory in 1968. The Armory employed over 2000 workers at the time of its closing. It had been a source of technological innovation for metal-working manufacturers in the Springfield area for roughly 200 years.2

In the early twenty-first century, the city of Springfield continues to seek ways to regain its former prosperity.

1Eugene C. Gardner, “The visible charm as it was, is and may be,” in Springfield Present and Prospective (Springfield: Pond and Campbell), 1905. http://explorewmass.blogspot.com/2007/05/springfield-present-and-prospective_27.html Retrieved, April 2, 2010.

2Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Community Affairs Discussion Paper, “Toward a more Prosperous Springfield, Massachusetts: Project Introduction and Motivation” http://www.bos.frb.org/commdev/pcadp/2009/pcadp0901.pdf Retrieved April 2, 2010.

Story Clip #1:

Dorothy speaks about her teaching philosophy

Wait for each file to download, then click the arrow to play the audio.


Q: Now what do you mean when you say you have to teach not only what you know, but who you are?

You do the...you ha...it's your demeanor, your...your attitude about other people. About...about life's circumstances, problems, whatever, you know. I remember when I was teaching at Tech ...

Q: You're referring to Springfield Technical High School?

DP: No, I'm teaching at Technical High School now. I'm talking about Technical High School. There were a couple of kids in the class who, uh...we would now call them "gay" - they were homosexual. And ...the kids were...you know, kids can be real mean. And these...these two young fellows came into the class and the kids start...I said...I stopped class. I said, you know what? You don't treat anybody in my class with disrespect. Or you'll be in trouble. And they calmed down...'cause they knew I meant it. And those...later on, one of those kids, you know, got in touch with me, to thank me. Hey! You know, give me a break! Human beings are human beings. And, and you know, give'em a chance! Do what you have to do. It's like...it's like having somebody think you...you aren't smart because your face is brown. And you look at the...Who's that guy on the...who does the weather? The atmospheric stuff, and then I have to tell'em, you know...I used to tell my students, you know...the first doctor to operate on a heart was a...was a black man. And I'm trying to remember his name right now. I'm, I'm suffering from, you know, eighty-five year old...uh...[both laughing] memory uh...impairment...but, whatever. But um, I'm trying to think who he was. I'll get...the name will come to me when I don't need it. You know. [Dr. Daniel Hale Williams - July 9, 1893]

Story Clip #2:

Albert Pryor becomes the first black high school teacher in Springfield


Well the pastor's council here in Springfield, which was a group of black pastors, had been trying to encourage the Springfield school system to hire more African-American, more black, more Negro - whatever - teachers. And um, but it...it you know, they weren't giving...there were two...there were few. But...but there were none in high school, and ...we had...I remember the name of the, the...the superintendent was ...William Sonders, and Esther Skelly was his...his assistant.

Q: Can you say that name again?

Esther Skelly. I think I'm right.

Q: Esther Skelly. Okay.

I think I?m right. Better check it.

Q: When I transcribe later it helps if we repeat it clearly.

Yeah. Um...they...when, ...they were saying that they were going to have to lower the...lower the standards for hiring teachers, (excuse me), in Springfield, because they didn't have enough qualified applicants. And the pastors...the black pastors council said, Oh, I beg your pardon! There are people here who have all kinds of degrees, you know. Well, that made them think they had to hire...they didn't hire anybody who was...who was already here. That's when my pastor, Pastor ...Charles Cobb, who was pastor of St. John's, and who had known us when we were down in Kentucky, um...called us and asked...said Al should apply to teach here in Springfield. And, my husband sent in an application. We were both teach...on the faculty at what was then the Kentucky State College for Negros, is now Kentucky State University in Frankfort. But we were perfectly happy there, but...He said, you know, you could do this. And so, Albert applied, and ?cause with the...he was already admitted to candidacy for his doctorate at the University of Chicago, so they couldn't really say he didn't have his...didn't have the education. Um...so he applied, and they interviewed him for a job at Classical, and then sent him out to what was then Trade High School. And if you know about the movie, you know, Blackboard Jungle, where the...the high school where the kids were so terrible the teachers couldn't teach...Well, they sent him out to Trade. However, as it happened, the principal of Trade High School at that point was a man of principle. He had been in the Nav...he had been a Navy commander; he knew human beings when he saw them - he knew men, he knew good people - and that was Edmund P. Garvey. And ...he, when Al got there...my husband was real...older than the usual...He, he liked people, and he would...when the kids would act up in class, he'd grab'em by the ear and take them down to the principal's office and say, you can't come back until you bring your parents with you. But he...they...they knew that he liked people, and that he liked them, and that he was a good teacher. He was...he was a sociology professor, but he knew psychol...he knew...he was...he was good, good at what he did. And, Mr. Garvey would not sign the negative evaluation papers that, um...William Sonders and Esther Skelly would bring to him. He said, Oh, that's not true. I'm not gonna... And if he didn't sign it, it didn't become official.

Q: So those were negative evaluations of your husband.

Negative evaluations of my husband, which had nothing to do with fact, and um, Mr. Garvey wouldn't sign'em. And when Albert had been there three years, of course, the rule was, he was...he became tenured. At which point, Mr. Garvey gave my husband all his classes in the morning, and said, now go on down to UConn and get your...and finish getting your doctorate. Which he did. And 'course, when Al got his doctorate, ...all of a sudden people said, Oh! And they hired...they changed him, and he became a counselor at...at Duggan, and he was...then he worked for special student services, and eventually...'cause he'd been teaching around other...other places, anyway. He'd been teaching night courses at Western New England, teaching night courses at, ...Westfield State. So he was...he loved what he did, and he loved students. And they knew he was good. And he knew life as well as, you know. He was excellent. So he...you know, he was great!

Story Clip #3:

Dorothy teaches English at Technical High School in Springfield


Q: Um. Now you have a Master's degree in English?

Mm hmm.

Q: And where did you get your Master's degree?

At the University of Chicago. Yeah. And that's why I got hired. That's really why he got hired. We had our Master's degrees in our discipline. That's why we got hired at, at...at STCC [Springfield Technical Community College]. You couldn't teach at a state...you can't even...I think, even now, you can't teach ...a subject matter at a state institution, state school, unless you have your advanced degree in your discipline. Didn't help to have a...a Master's in education. Uh-uh. I had my Master's in English, and another guy who was hired...we were both hired in the 70s, in '72 or 3, from Technical - we were teaching at Technical High - was a guy named Jim Curran, who ironically, also had his Master's degree from the University of Chicago. He was a biology teacher, and I was a...I was an English teacher. They were opening...expanding STCC, and everybody in the public schools wanted to be there, and nobody...he onl...they only hired two of us from the area because we were the ones...everybody else had gotten degrees in...in education. That was...wasn't what they were looking for if you wanted to teach in the high...in, on the higher level in...Massachusetts, I 'spose, and...you have your advanced degree in your discipline.

Q: So when you say STCC, you're referring to Springfield Technical...

Technical Community College. Mm hmm. And he...I was teaching at Tech - Tech High School, and for a number of years, two or three years, I was voted the most popular teacher until somebody complained.

Q: Why did they complain? Who complained?

Well, some of the teachers. I don't know what they thought, but, you know. The interesting thing is, you know, I was invited back to the 40th reunion of the class of 1964, and I am...I was told I might get invited again, but we had...they honored me as a special teacher. Oh, I loved it. I...I liked kids and they knew it. And I taught the children. I didn't teach the subject. I taught them, and tried to encourage them to use the subject, because language is important. English is so important. Your ability to express yourself in many ways. You can get over a whole lot of things, if you know how to express yourself. We know about it now, because of, you know, the media...But, hey...

Story Clip #4:

"And...you know, I just, I like people. And it has...always stood me in good stead."


And, and I, you know, I just...I like people. And it has...it's always stood me in good stead in my classes, you know. The...the kids, you know, ...as I told you, Well, he never told me! I said, In my class, my kids are not concerned about what color I am. They, they want to get rid of that pen. [both laughing] You know. And it...it was great. And I had a marvelous experience when I was teaching at Technical High School. Um...the one thing Don Gifford, ...understood that I was doing a good job in the class. But there was one...I remember he had...

Q: Now, who was Don Gifford?

He was the presi...He was the principal of Technical High School when we had almost three thousand students. It was the biggest high school in...in the city. And I was down there and...some child who - one young woman - who couldn't do her work, or didn't do her homework, or whatever, had told her...her parents that I was prejudiced against her. So, they came to class...came to school to complain about this Negro teacher, black teacher, whatever, who wasn't doing right by their daughter. And ...Mr. Gifford sent the assistant principal up to the room, up to my classroom, and told me to come and bring my record book. And I wondered what was going on. I got down there, and...they wanted to know, um...she said you gave her bad grades 'cause you didn't like her. I said, Huh? And I said, Well now she...she missed...she flunked this test, she missed...she was absent from class, and so on and so on. And then, what was terrible, the parents turned on the child. I said, Look. Don?t do that. She's maybe got other reasons why she didn't do well, but she was never disrespectful to me. She didn't do some of her work, but there may other reasons why. But don't get mad with her. You got mad with me. See what the trouble is. And Mr. Gifford winked at me, gave me my...and said, I knew you were the one - she had other teachers - but I knew you were the one who could tell them what was going on. Uh, it was...it was lovely. And ...you know. I got a chance to teach at...at Tech, at STCC, because Mr. Garvey had remembered my husband, and remembered, you know. And, I didn't want to leave my kids at Tech. I liked them. I enjoyed them. I had the honors English class.

Q: You were there for thirteen years?

Yes, I was there for thirteen years. I loved it. And they...they used to...they used to vote me my, their...their most popular teacher. [NM chuckles] You know that, I remember that...and, and you know, fifty cents will get you, maybe, an ice cream cone, whatever. [NM laughs] Don't get cute. [laughs] My...I remember my mother, "Don't get cute. Everybody puts his britches on one leg at a time." But, you know, it was nice. And they repeated that honor about four or five years ago, 'cause I was honored at their reunion. Got a standing ovation. I said, Oh Lord, you know. You have to...you have to keep yourself...I keep remembering what my mama used to tell me, 'cause she...Keep yourself, you know, grounded.

Related Resources

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