A class of their own: Wesley Ray alums credit school for life lessons

Published 6:54 am Saturday, July 30, 2016

As schools across the parish get set to open their doors to students, Silous Peters remembers how it was decades ago.

Peters is African-American, and he graduated in 1962 from Wesley Ray High School, a segregated school that finally shut its doors in 1974. Every three years, a class reunion takes place, bringing together all graduates for all years. This year, Peters said the reunion gave him pause.

Peters comes from a family of 12. He grew up not far from where he lives now, deep in the parish hills around the Angie area, growing up on a small farm. From there, he and his brothers and sisters went to college, excelled in the military and went on to achieve respectable professional careers in cities and towns all over the United States. But first they walked out of Wesley Ray.

“It’s all predicated on education,” he said. “I can look at my family and the 12 of us that went through there, I can look at the impact they’ve had in moving the progress meter.”

Peters said in military service alone, he and his siblings have logged more than 140 hours of active military duty, including service in the Vietnam and Korea wars. Of the six siblings who didn’t join the military, they also found success in the professional world.

Peters credits his parents, Joseph and Cotney Peters, for instilling in him and his siblings a sense of responsibility to succeed and become educated, but he credits Wesley Ray — an underfunded, often neglected rural school — with giving him that education.

“We didn’t have current books,” he said. Peters noted that the chemistry lab had “one or two Bunsen burners,” and the school didn’t even offer typing.

“But when we walked out of there and went to the various universities or whatever, if you could meet those (academic) requirements, nobody cared about what happened back there,” he said.

Peters walked out of Wesley Ray in 1962 but it wasn’t long until he was drafted, at age 19, into the U.S. Army. Peters found he liked the military life and remained in the service until 1987, and he later earned a bachelor of science in business administration from Northwestern State University. Along the way, he saw Germany and the jungles of Vietnam, and he said he’s never seen anything like what happened in Angie.

“I have been around the world more than one time and I have not seen the progress that matched when you look at a small town and the number of people, I have not seen it,” he said. “One of the big things is, the way (the school) prepared people to go out into the greater world and be successful, to illustrate that point, we were predominately a black school. You can look at how deficient we were.”

Peters isn’t alone is his sentiment. His sister, Evedna Mangrum, left Wesley Ray in 1962 when she was in the 11th grade. She left when she moved to Chicago, but rather than get swallowed up in one of the largest cities in the United States, she thrived, landing a job at one of the largest companies in the United States at that time as the financial auditor.

“I was able to leave here and got to a large metropolitan city and then get a job with a large company, Sears-Roebuck, and at that company, do extremely well,” she said. “I had confidence. Confidence was a big thing, just having the sense of who I was.”

Mangrum said her family’s story isn’t unique, and other students at Wesley Ray did equally well and gained similar confidence in themselves, despite coming from a segregated school.

“The teachers had a sense of community,” she said. “The parents were very close to the teachers. Even the teachers who came in from other places … it became a very interwoven community.”

Decades after he graduated high school and after he retired from the military, Peters stepped into the classroom himself as a teacher. He recalls giving all the parents of his students his home phone number. He said he welcomed calls, any time, from any concerned parent.

“Nobody called me at home. The parents wouldn’t do it,” he said.

Things had changed.

“In this community, when the teachers spoke, the parents reacted,” recalled Mangrum.

And when the parents reacted, the kids listened.

“My father was really focused on education,” Peters said. “He said you got to go to school. You got to do this to succeed. And mother taught integrity and strength and discipline. But mostly strength. She was a very strong woman who was focused, in terms of making sure that you did what you needed to do to get from step one to two.

“You’d wake up in the morning and if you had 10 things to do — you had to focus on those 10 things. There was nothing to sidetrack you. You did them. And not doing them was not an option.”

Peters thinks perhaps the fight for day-to-day rural survival was one key to discipline. On the farm, he explained, each person worked hard or the family suffered.

“When you had to do something, like take care of the five acres of corn, then you had to do it. And nobody was going to watch you, but everyone’s survival was tied to it,” he said.

Peters said that farm-bred sense of do-or-die helped rural children succeed later in life, particularly when they went to college.

“There were a lot of things I was good at and there were a lot of things I’d never heard of before,” he said. “But, I had the discipline to think, well, if anyone else can do it, then I can do it. And that’s one of the advantages that we had that the kids

today don’t have. The discipline. If you don’t have the discipline then you can’t do anything.”

And Peters is adamant. Although he and his sister credit their parents with a lot, he said most of the graduates from Wesley Ray had the same discipline and self-determination.

“Yes, everybody did,” he said.

And that discipline came not just from school and parents, but Peters said it came from the harsh demands of a racist society.

“In the 50s and 60s, people understood being in an all black system, knowing what the world at large was like at that time, then you had to impress on kids that you must be disciplined and you have got to be good,” he said. “Some people might take that another way, but let’s face facts. Sometimes the facts we live in are not what we want but they are the facts.”

Peters said that lesson in discipline was the most important lesson he learned in life. And, he said, it’s a lesson that can be learned by anyone, even today.

“I wanted to get this out there so kids from the clay hills of southeast Louisiana can see that just because you’re from out in the woods, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a meaningful impact on society,” he said.