Remembering Thomasville teacher Mildred Newton
July 21st, 2015 by Red Hills
published in Tallahassee Democrat 2/24/15
If Mildred Williams Newton glanced downward and removed her eyeglasses while standing in front of the classroom, the students instinctively knew this signaled big trouble. The infraction was likely grammar or punctuation related and all braced for an impromptu lecture. Newton taught at Douglass High School in Thomasville, Georgia, from 1960-1970 before school integration. She later taught at Thomasville High and continued as a substitute teacher after retirement.
Described by former student Mary Hayes, Newton was “concise, precise and articulate,” and “wanted her students to be successful.” An ardent journal writer who chronicled her daily activities, including store purchases and visits from neighbors, Newton also read volumes of poetry and was active in multiple civic activities. She worked tirelessly on the successful effort to nominate Thomasville’s Bethany Congregational Church to the National Register.
Unwavering in her educational onus for proper, elegant writing, Mildred Newton wrote her own obituary prior to her death in 2002, thus ensuring that it would be done accurately. Newton was a legendary stickler about correct grammar and proper punctuation.
During a historic collection presentation at Jack Hadley Black History Museum recently, an eruption of gentle chortling followed by a soft rumbling chorus of “uh-hmm’s” signaling agreement, caused historian Cheryl Walters to momentarily pause and grin widely from the podium during her talk. Stating in a matter-of fact manner, “Mrs. Newton was not an ordinary woman,” a roomful of relatives, church friends, sorority sisters and former students of various generations, audibly agreed with Walters.
Remembered as an excellent and “tough” English teacher, one former Douglass High School student recalled, “She never cut us football players slack. She made us practice handwriting before we could go to practice.” Another pupil remembers that Newton spoke in a clear precise voice, always encouraging her students to achieve excellence through hard work and discipline.
Mildred Williams Newton directly touched the lives of over 2,000 students in Southwest Georgia and thousands of students in historic Rosenwald Schools (primarily for African-Americans) in the South. Newton graduated from Allen Normal School, which provided teacher training, in Thomasville in 1927. She later earned degrees at Talladega College and Columbia University. Newton taught in Kentucky, Alabama and North Carolina before returning to her hometown of Thomasville, Georgia. Newton also worked extensively with the USO during World War II.
Numerous boxes of Newton’s photos, papers and daily journals were left to the museum after the teacher’s death. Included in the memorabilia are some of the only remaining records of the historic Allen Normal School. Over 4,000 items were crammed into the file boxes. Most notably were the stacks of steno notebooks where the accomplished teacher recorded her daily life. Newton wrote about always doing the right thing “in a correct and elegant way.”
“She was proper — very proper,” according to Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority sister Lillie Rayford who knew Newton for over 35 years and attended the museum presentation.
Mildred Newton left her indelible mark on the Thomasville community. Generations of high school students and community members in Thomas County seem to have a Mrs. Newton story. Just mention her name around town and then brace yourself. The warm and humorous anecdotes are endless.
To learn more about Mildred Williams Newton’s life and accomplishments and view the permanent collection of personal articles spanning over 70 years, visit www.jackhadleyblackhistorymuseum.com.
Cheryl Walters is the Museum Registrar at Jack Hadley Black History Museum in Thomasville. Georgia Ackerman works at Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy in Tallahassee. Both are contributing writers of the Greater Red Hills Awareness Initiative. Exploring the Red Hills is a blog that shares stories celebrating the rich history, culture, and ecology the Red Hills Region.