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Former Plainedge teacher Novella Shockley dies at 99

Cheryl Durant, left, hugs her mother, Novella Shockley,

Cheryl Durant, left, hugs her mother, Novella Shockley, in West Babylon on Jan. 29, 2018. Credit: Barry Sloan

Novella Shockley, who moved with her family to Long Island in the early 1960s to escape racial intimidation in Delaware and was the district’s only black teacher when she retired from the Plainedge school system nearly a quarter century later, died in her sleep Wednesday at her West Babylon home.

She was 99, and died of natural causes, said her eldest daughter, Novella Randolph, of West Babylon.

Born on Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore, she grew up in Lincoln, Delaware, where racial segregation relegated black children to substandard facilities.

From junior high school through college, she attended Delaware College for Colored Students. The institution had been founded a year after Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1890 to provide funding for former Confederate states to build Jim Crow alternatives for black students barred from “white” schools.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in education in 1941, she married Alonzo Shockley Jr., a college classmate, in 1942. The couple began teaching in Delaware’s “black” schools, and started a family that grew to include three children.

In 1958, her husband was fired for “insubordination” from his job as principal of an all-black school. An Oct. 9, 1958, article in Jet magazine reported that his firing was in retaliation for having attempted to register his eldest daughter in all-white Milford High School.

With her husband apparently blackballed by other Delaware school districts, she and her family moved to North Babylon in the early 1960s. Novella Shockley was hired by the Plainedge School District, where she recalled being the only black teacher in the district at the time.

But Shockley again found herself embroiled in school controversy in 1968, when a group of 15 residents in the virtually all-white school district developed a proposal to boost racial inclusion by hiring more black teachers, studying race relations, and starting exchange programs with nearby districts such as Wyandanch.

The community response was electric. Some 4,000 Plainedge residents stormed a school board meeting, angrily demanding the plan’s rejection. The proposal was scrapped, and school board members who supported the proposal were voted off the board in the next election.

Interviewed in 1998, Shockley said she was frustrated that although there had been seven other black teachers in the 400-teacher district during her tenure there, there were none left when she retired in 1985.

“I had a feeling that I was the last of the Mohicans, that that was it. That there would be no more,” Shockley said then, reflecting on the day she retired.

Shockley, a soprano voice, sang in several local church choirs until she went blind about a decade ago, Randolph said.

Shockley spent her final evening singing along while listening to church hymns and dining on her favorite meal of pork chops, sweet potatoes and vanilla ice cream, Randolph said.

In addition to her eldest daughter, her survivors include another daughter, Cheryl E. Durant of Port Jefferson; her son, Alonzo Hilton Shockley III of Manhattan; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 2014.

A wake and funeral are scheduled for 8 a.m. Saturday at New Shiloh Baptist Church in Wyandanch. Burial will follow at North Babylon Cemetery.

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