Panther Hallway

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From 1925 when the school first opened until it closed to public school students in 1988, Pemberton High School cultivated a rich heritage that still lives on today in Marshall, Texas.

In 1925, a site on Rosborough Springs Road was purchased for a new school to house high school students only. The old Central School became known as Hillside School, and the new school opened as Central High School. Under the tireless leadership of H.B. Pemberton, who had founded the old Central School as the first school for African-American children in Marshall in 1895, the school quickly developed a reputation of excellence, and around 1940 was awarded the highest rating accorded to African American high schools. It was listed as one of the top six or eight schools in the state.

Due to Pemberton's diligent dedication to seeing education expand for all of Marshall's children during his career, the school board unanimously approved changing the name of the high school to H.B. Pemberton High School in 1941 after receiving a petition with over 5,000 signatures. Mr. Pemberton died on April 27, 1944, but left behind an iconic legacy for Marshall's public schools.

The high school bearing his name, with the mascot "Panthers," continued as one of two high schools in Marshall until Marshall schools were integrated in 1971. At that time, Pemberton began serving Marshall's ninth grade students until 1988, when a new wing to house freshmen was opened at Marshall High School. At that time, Pemberton High School ceased operation as a public school, and was sold to Wiley College. The building still stands today and houses the Pemberton Heritage Center.

*Below is an article written by Ms. Bridget Ortigo that appeared in the Feb. 15, 2016 issue of the Marshall News Messenger regarding a Pemberton High School class reunion and the Pemberton Heritage Center:

During a time when the black community of Marshall was limited by a national ideology that promoted segregation for people of color, the staff at Pemberton/Central High School made sure their young students received a strong educational foundation upon which to build their lives.

"The educational foundation offered at Pemberton was instrumental to the high rate of successful blacks that came from East Texas," 1946 Pemberton High School graduate Claude Williams said Friday.

Fellow Pemberton graduate Glenda Clay heads up the Heritage Center in the former all-black school's library, now a part of Wiley College.

Wiley purchased the Pemberton High School buildings in 1988 after integration led to the eventual closing of the school.

Now, the school's old library has turned into the Heritage Center, a museum of sorts for Pemberton High School graduates to display memorabilia.

"When people in town want to see it, see the history here, they give me a call, and I come up and show it to them," Clay said Thursday. "The items in here have been donated by graduates, staff and their families. This gives us an opportunity to share our history."

The history contained in the center varies from photographs of students, staff, diplomas, caps and gowns, letterman jackets and a portrait of H.B. Pemberton.

"He purchased the land for the school with his own money to build the first Negro school. Back then it was called 'Negro' and not 'black,'" Clay, a 1968 graduate, said.

"The original buildings stand as part of Wiley College today. We had grades eighth through 12th. You would come from one of the three black elementary schools in town to Pemberton for your high school."

The high school meant so much to the black community that they pitched in to pay Pemberton back for the money he borrowed to purchase and build the school.

"They started graduating people in 1905," she said. "They were teaching adults and children back then, with volunteers from Wiley and Bishop colleges. There were freed slaves learning how to read and write. It was first called Central High School, and Pemberton served as the principal. The name was changed to Pemberton High School in 1941."

Clay said Pemberton was a true, life-long educator, having never retired.

"He died on the job in 1944, and then Garfield Rosborough became the next principal," she said. "He was the principal when my parents were here and when I was here."

When integration started at the school in 1967, Clay said most students at Pemberton chose to stay rather than transfer to Marshall High School.

"There were a few that left, but most chose to stay here," she said. "We had a good foundation here. All of the teachers were black until my junior year, when we got our first white teacher. All of the teachers had bachelor's and master's degrees. We had cosmetology programs, auto mechanics, all of the arts and sciences, music club, business. We just all wanted to continue at Pemberton and graduate together. It was a just great time in our culture with people like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy."

The last graduating class at Pemberton was in 1970, and the school became an integrated ninth-grade campus, eventually closing and becoming part of Wiley College in 1988.

Williams was the editor of the school's first yearbook in 1946.

"We had gone to Wiley and Bishop colleges to research how they did their yearbooks so we could make sure we were doing everything like we were supposed to," Williams said.

The school had a close relationship with the two colleges back then, especially its neighbor, Wiley College.

"The church, Ebenezer United Methodist Church, which is associated with Wiley, is where I went, and it was the center of the black community then, along with Wiley College," Williams said. "All of our cultural activities were centered around Wiley and the church. Wiley had cultural plays, like Broadway-style plays, that would come in, and on Fridays, and you could go watch a movie at the Wiley auditorium for 10 cents."

Williams said black people were not welcome at that time at the Paramount movie theater in town.

"We also had the Harlem theater, which was a black movie theater," he said. "If you went to the Paramount downtown, you just didn't feel very comfortable. We knew not to go there. Our parents raised us to not go there; it was just something we knew."

Williams said the town was so segregated that black people were expected to walk on a separate side of the street from white people.

"You knew to always go to the bathroom before you left home and what side of the street to walk on," Williams said. "On the downtown square's northwest side was all of the black physicians, dentists and pharmacists. White doctors and dentists would not treat black people, or 'Negroes' as they called us at the time."

Despite the obvious degradation and racism, Williams said it wasn't something that black people dwelled on during that day.

"That's just the way it was," he said. "We didn't know there were any alternatives to things being that way. We didn't place any emphasis on that, and we just didn't let it bother us."

Williams said graduating from Pemberton and then attending Wiley College was every black student's dream back then.

"That was the goal for a black student if you wanted to be successful in life — graduate from Pemberton and then go to Wiley College," he said.

"The teachers at Pemberton were so dynamic and dedicated," Williams said. "They were part of the community and went to church with us and knew our parents. Not everything was perfect back then, but we in the black community have to get back to those principles — that responsibility and authority. Those teachers and staff at Pemberton made so many sacrifices so that many, many people could receive the pay off."
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