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A teaching milestone

Borough's first Black teacher in an integrated setting to be honored

Special to The Sun
Growing up, Joyce Gilchrist Pierce had only Black teachers, until she reached high school, where they were only White. She was attending the integrated Haddon Heights High when the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education was issued in 1954.

Joyce Gilchrist Pierce, Haddonfield School District’s first Black teacher in an integrated setting, will be honored at Haddonfield Middle School on Tuesday, June 18.

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Sponsored by the Haddonfield Educational Trust, the event will also celebrate Gilchrist Pierce’s birthday. The community and former students are invited to participate.

Gilchrist Pierce’s desire to teach started at a young age. Growing up, her mom had a friend named Julia who could not read or write. When she was in third grade and learning how to read and write herself, Gilchrist Pierce would come home and teach Julia.

“Whatever I learned in school, I taught Julia,” Gilchrist Pierce recalled. “Every time she would write my mother a letter, I was very happy, because she was writing the way I had taught her.”

Growing up, Gilchrist Pierce had only Black teachers until she reached high school, where they were only White. She attended the integrated Haddon Heights High and was a junior there when the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 found racially segregated schools unconstitutional.

Fourteen years after that landmark ruling – and three years after the federal Votings Right Act was signed into law in 1965 – Pierce started her career at Elizabeth Haddon Elementary. There had been other Black teachers in Haddonfield prior to that, but she was the first hired to teach White students in an integrated setting.

Before that, Gilchrist Pierce had nine years of teaching experience in Camden and East Brunswick. She spend 38 years in Haddonfield, retiring in 2004.

“What a creative teacher would have to do is remember that each child brings something different to his or her classroom, and you have to learn each child and how to get along with each child,” she explained, “because each child is bringing something different from home with their education.”

Though she started out teaching second and third grade, Gilchrist Pierce eventually taught up to the seventh before she retired. Mid-career, she transitioned to teaching Language Arts and World Civilizations at the middle school.

“I let them (students) know, and they could see that I was someone other than the person cleaning their house,” she recalled. “They had a teacher that was Black and could teach them and that they could learn from me. And most of them did.”

Gilchrist Pierce acknowledged that many of the Black women that students interacted with during that time were housekeepers. She did not have any Black colleagues as teachers in her district or know anyone who was in a similar situation. But her teaching left a big impact on many of her students.

Vickie Cummins, vice president of the Haddonfield Educational Trust, former student and also a former co-worker of Gilchrist Pierce, described what that was like.

“She just made history come alive for me,” Cummins remembered. “She was caring, she was knowledgeable, she wanted to impart that knowledge in a way that was well received and kind of imparted her love of history and English and everything into her students.

“She also was just very supportive as a person,” Cummins added. “She was always there for you.”

Throughout her teaching tenure, Gilchrist Pierce made a conscious decision to make herself accessible to the people she knew were always watching and listening.

“I was always in a prominent position, so people could come see me,” she noted. “In Elizabeth Haddon, I was near the front door. In middle school, I was at the top of the steps, so they could open the door and see into my classroom. But that was okay with me, because I knew I would be teaching or doing something that was important.”

Gilchrist Pierce also faced challenges, including the night when she came back to her classroom after back-to-school sessions to find everything had been torn down. She called her husband, and he helped put most of the classroom items in their rightful place. Gilchrist Pierce also won two cases against the district in pursuit of a raise.

“Some people, of course, no matter where you are, are not going to like you,” she acknowledged.

Gilchrist Pierce emphasized that she otherwise had no major problems in Haddonfield. Her son Earl called her a beloved person in town, greeted with eagerness by former students when they see her.

Outside the classroom, Gilchrist Pierce was elected to the Lawnside Borough Council, where she served as president, and was later appointed acting mayor of the town, then its first female mayor in Lawnside. She was also a member of the Camden County Safety Directors and was a board member for the county’s children’s shelter.

The celebration for Joyce Gilchrist Pierce will take place at 10 a.m. near the Lincoln Avenue entrance to the Haddonfield Middle School.


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