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Pioneer educator Ulysses Byas dies at 88

Ulysses Byas, interim superintendent of schools, Hempstead school

Ulysses Byas, interim superintendent of schools, Hempstead school district, at a Hempstead School Board meeting in Hempstead. Byas died Friday in Macon, Ga. An elementary school in the Roosevelt district, where Byas also worked, is named for him. (July 30, 1990) Credit: Newsday/Jim Peppler

Ulysses Byas, as a pioneering black school superintendent on Long Island and in the Deep South, scored more than his share of racial and educational breakthroughs.

But Byas, who died earlier this month at 88 after a long illness, also knew firsthand the frustrations of trying to improve the physical and academic quality of school systems with large minority student populations.

Four years ago, when the retired educator returned to Roosevelt for the dedication of a rebuilt elementary school named in his honor, he observed to a reporter that "almost anything was better than what we had." Before reconstruction, the 79-year-old school, renamed Ulysses Byas Elementary, had been partly closed because the masonry had begun to crumble.

"Long before there was Barack Obama saying 'Yes, I can,' there was Ulysses Byas," said William Powell, the son of a former Roosevelt school board trustee, Wilbert Powell, now deceased. The elder Powell worked closely with Byas, when the then-superintendent helped the Roosevelt district dig its way out of near-bankruptcy.

Byas served as Roosevelt's school chief from 1977 to 1987, after 25 years as a teacher and administrator in the South. He also headed the Hempstead district before retiring in 1991.

William Powell, now in his early 50s, has concluded that Byas' persistence was honed during his years as a school administrator in segregated Southern systems. At that time in the 1950s, any success in improving all-black schools rested largely on winning approval from a white power structure.

"He [Byas] knew how to deal with people by building coalitions and getting things done," Powell said.

Born June 23, 1924, in Macon, Ga., Byas was the son of a single mother who worked as a housekeeper. He completed high school in Macon in 1943, after dropping out twice, and eventually went on to earn a master's degree in education at Columbia University and a doctorate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Byas made national headlines in 1970, when he was named schools superintendent in Macon County, Ala., which includes the college town of Tuskegee. It was the first time in the 20th century that an African-American had taken over a racially mixed school district in the southeastern United States.

Before that appointment, Byas was principal of two segregated schools in the Georgia towns of Douglasville and Gainesville. In whatever community he worked, he was easily recognizable with his signature bow ties and title of "professor" -- the appellation commonly given school administrators in black communities.

"He had always been one-of-a-kind as long as I can remember," said Melanie Byas, 59, of Gray, Ga., the eldest of her parents' four children, who recalled gatherings where family members took turns reading classics that included Greek mythology.

In a largely autobiographical book, "Hello Professor," which he co-authored in 2009, Byas wrote of his dismay upon discovering that Gainesville's all-black high school had no chemistry or physics courses, no specialized math, and no foreign languages. Within his first year as principal in 1957-58, he introduced chemistry and French.

The book's principal author, Vanessa Siddle Walker, a professor of educational history at Emory University, wrote in a preface that black Southern school administrators such as Byas were not swayed by white expectations that they would maintain the status quo. "The 'professor,' " she stated, was "the lever elevating racial progress in black schools and communities."

A meticulous record-keeper, Byas documented his years as a school administrator with files filling 10 four-drawer cabinets. The collection, which ranks among the most comprehensive records of segregated school administration, is kept in the library of Emory University in Atlanta.

In addition to his daughter Melanie, Byas is survived by his wife of 60 years, Annamozel Boyd Byas of Macon; son, Eric Byas of Hempstead; daughters LaVerne Byas-Smith of Atlanta and Alisia Byas of Macon; brother, Carl Byas of Macon; and sister, Emily Harris Proctor of Macon.

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