“You couldn’t walk the halls of Manassas and not feel the love of the staff and faculty back then,” said Min. John S. Hirsch in his keynote remarks. “That’s what we must get back—love for our children and letting them know we all care.” (Photo: ­Tyrone P. Easley)

The roar of a thousand Manassas Tigers supporters echoed through the ballroom of the Holiday Inn-University of Memphis during the 26th Annual Unity Brunch last Saturday.

“Our principal says that the state of our school is excellent,” said James Thompson, president of the Manassas Alumni Association. “We’re unbeatable in basketball. Our students are having a great academic year, and we are so grateful for all the things we have to celebrate.”

The Unity Brunch event filled the ballroom to capacity. Nineteen student scholarships were awarded, and the boys basketball team was cheered for hooping their way to the SCIAA (Shelby County Interscholastic Athletic Association) City Championship.

A keynote address by Minister John S. Hirsch took a nostalgic look back at Manassas 50 years ago when he was in school.

Former state Rep. Johnnie Turner (Class of 1958), was the featured honoree for the event, receiving the “Gold and Blue Award” for her lifelong work in civil rights and government. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

“You couldn’t walk the halls of Manassas and not feel the love of the staff and faculty back then,” said Hirsch. “That’s what is missing in our school today. That’s what we must get back—love for our children and letting them know we all care. 

“We have a great legacy,” Hirsch continued. “Back in 1899 when Manassas was started, we were not that far out of slavery, y’all. Despite them saying we could not possibly start a school, we did. Manassas offered a quality education to all who wanted to learn.”

Hirsch reminisced about Manassas’ standards of behavior a half century ago.

“I remember our principal, Louis B. Hobson, getting on the loud speaker and saying, ‘We won’t tolerate moronic punks. All the thugs and hoodlums, we are going to throw out,’ And if you got put out of Manassas, it was going to take Mama, Daddy, Big Mama, and the pastor to get you back in.

“One day, we were listening to the protest march downtown in Mrs. Amos’ class,” said Hirsch. “WDIA was broadcasting it, and we had the transistor radio on. When the announcer reported the sound of glass breaking, Mrs. Amos said, ‘Yes, things are going to change now. I’ve got to get you all ready.’ And even though we got the used school books from across town, our teachers made sure we learned what was in those books.”

 Highlighting the affair was a presentation of the coveted “Gold and Blue Award” to former head of the Memphis NAACP and State Representative of District 85, Johnnie Rodgers Turner.

“In the words of Langston Hughes, ‘Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,’” Turner said in accepting her award. “But all of the obstacles and hindrances I had to overcome have made me the person you see standing before you today. It is a great honor to receive this award. 

“Let us keep encouraging our children not to give up, even though there might be some trials along the way,” Turner continued. “I am committed to serving our community and giving voice to our concerns in Nashville at each and every opportunity.”

Turner, a member of the 1958 class, was lauded for her many achievements, despite “her humble beginnings in Hughes, Arkansas.” Turner’s father was ensnared in the oppressive sharecropping system of the early 1940s – a system he was determined to escape.

Young Johnnie was only three years old when she was told one night “not to say a word” as her father held her hand and her mother carried her baby brother. 

According to Turner’s printed biography, “The only escape route was to cross a large pond, surrounded by a barbed wire fence.”

Turner recalled, “As my mother tried to get to the other side, a barbed wire cut into her thigh.” She remembers her mother’s wound gushing blood, but the family escaped the plantation overseers that night in a waiting car that took them across the bridge to Memphis and a better life.

Her political career began in college at LeMoyne-Owen College where she participated in many sit-in protests and was taken to jail so many times, authorities labeled her a “habitual criminal.” Turner’s civil rights activism would later propel her into the ranks of leadership in the NAACP.

Later in the program, Manassas High School Principal, Dr. Willie C. Williams announced that Shelby County Schools would be “moving in a new direction,” and he would be leaving after this school year.

“Although I will be leaving, I am committed to Manassas. Our students are doing well academically, and visitors always comment about how kind and well-mannered our children are,” said Dr. Williams. “Being from Memphis, our kids don’t always get that. Let us continue to support our school and fight for its legacy. It would be a shame for the state to take over and some charter school from Oregon or some place is brought in.”

Manassas was started as a two-room structure in 1899 and, eventually, became the first high school in Memphis and Shelby County.

Manassas pride was on full display at the 26th Annual Unity Brunch on April 20 at The Holiday Inn-University of Memphis. After the ceremony, gathered alums paused for a photo. (Photo: ­Tyrone P. Easley)