Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in 2016.
During a time when the black community of Marshall was limited by a national ideology that promoted segregation for people of color, the staff at Pemberton/Central High School made sure their young students received a strong educational foundation upon which to build their lives.
“The educational foundation offered at Pemberton was instrumental to the high rate of successful blacks that came from East Texas,” 1946 Pemberton High School graduate Claude Williams said. “It is unbelievable the number of people who have come from Pemberton who have become so important nationally and internationally.”
Indeed, this is the driving passion behind fellow Pemberton graduate Glenda Clay, who heads up the Heritage Center located in the former all-black school’s library now a part of Wiley College.
Wiley purchased the Pemberton High School buildings in 1988 after integration led to the eventual closing of the school. Now the school’s old library has turned into the Heritage Center, a museum of sorts for Pemberton High School graduates to display memorabilia.
“When people in town want to see it, see the history here, they give me a call and I come up and show it to them,” Clay said. “The items in here have been donated by graduates, staff and their families. This gives us an opportunity to share our history.”
The history contained in the center varies from old photographs of students, staff, diplomas, caps and gowns, letterman jackets, and a portrait of H.B. Pemberton himself.
“He purchased the land for the school with his own money to build the first negro school. Back then it was called ‘negro’ and not ‘black,’” Clay, a 1968 graduate, said.
“The original buildings stand as part of Wiley College today. We had grades eighth through 12th. You would come from one of the three black elementary schools in town to Pemberton for your high school.”
The high school meant so much to the black community that they all pitched in to pay Pemberton back for the money he borrowed to purchase and build the school.
“They started graduating people in 1905,” she said. “They were teaching adults and children back then, with volunteers from Wiley and Bishop colleges. There were freed slaves learning how to read and write. It was first called Central High School, and Pemberton served as the principal. The name was changed to Pemberton High School in 1941.”
Clay said Pemberton was a true, life-long educator, having never retired.
“He died on the job in 1944, and then Garfield Rosborough became the next principal,” she said. “He was the principal when my parents were here and when I was here.”
When integration started at the school in 1967, Clay said most students at Pemberton chose to stay rather than transfer to Marshall High School.
“There were a few that left, but most chose to stay here,” she said. “We had a good foundation here. All of the teachers were black until my junior year when we got our first white teacher. All of the teachers had bachelor’s and master’s degrees. We had cosmetology programs, auto mechanics, all of the arts and sciences, music club, business. We just all wanted to continue at Pemberton and graduate together. It was a just great time in our culture with people like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.”
The last graduating class at Pemberton was in 1970, and the school became an integrated ninth-grade campus, eventually closing and becoming part of Wiley College in 1988.
“Our mascot was the Panther and our school colors were lavender and gold,” she said. “The school song was ‘Pemberton Forever.’”
Williams was the editor of the school’s first yearbook in 1946.
“We had gone to Wiley and Bishop Colleges to research how they did their yearbooks so we could make sure we were doing everything like we were supposed to,” Williams said.
The school had a close relationship with the two colleges back then, especially its neighbor Wiley College.
“The church, Ebenezer United Methodist Church, which is associated with Wiley, is where I went and it was the center of the black community then, along with Wiley College,” Williams said. “All of our cultural activities were centered around Wiley and the church. Wiley had cultural plays, like Broadway-style plays, that would come in, and on Fridays... you could go watch a movie at the Wiley auditorium for 10 cents.”
Williams said black people were not welcomed at that time at the Paramount Movie Theater in town where white people went.
“We also had the Harlem Theater, which was a black movie theater,” he said. “If you went to the Paramount downtown, you just didn’t feel very comfortable. We knew not to go there. Our parents raised us to not go there; it was just something we knew.”
Williams said the town was so segregated that black people were expected to walk on a separate side of the street from white people.
“You knew to always go to the bathroom before you left home and what side of the street to walk on,” Williams said. “On the downtown square’s northwest side was all of the black physicians, dentists and pharmacists. White doctors and dentists would not treat black people or ‘negroes’ as they called us at the time.”
Despite the obvious degradation and racism, Williams said it wasn’t something that black people dwelt on during that day.
“That’s just the way it was,” he said. “We didn’t know there were any alternatives to things being that way. We didn’t place any emphasis on that, and we just didn’t let it bother us.”
Williams said graduating from Pemberton and then attending Wiley College was every black student’s dream back then.
“That was the goal for a black student, if you wanted to be successful in life, graduate from Pemberton and then go to Wiley College,” he said.
Williams’ teachers at Pemberton helped him get a scholarship to Wiley. He later transferred to Howard University and eventually earned his license to practice dentistry, returning to downtown Marshall to open his dentistry business.
Clay’s father, Floyd Jackson, is another Pemberton grad to go on to greatness in life.
“He ran away from home to go to school,” Clay said of her father. “He didn’t want to be a farmer like his father wanted him to, and they lived out in the country.”
Jackson said while living in the country, he and his siblings would walk the 10 miles to go to school everyday but that changed when he left home.
“We didn’t own the land that we farmed on, so we only got half of what we sold,” Jackson said. “I wanted to find a better way to make a living than with my back.”
Jackson took off to Marshall, where he worked many jobs to make ends meet, including a job at Figo Bakery downtown.
“I worked and went to school and then I went to Wiley College after I graduated from Pemberton in 1949 as the salutatorian of the class,” Jackson said.
Shortly after college, Jackson volunteered for the U.S. Air Force, where he would go on to work at several important bases, including Lachlan, Randolph and Andrews Air Force Bases. He went on to earn two master’s degrees, and several pieces of his work in the Navy approved and put into manuals by the National Security Agency.
“I realized that once you learn, you can go places,” Jackson said.
“The teachers at Pemberton were so dynamic and dedicated,” Williams said. “They were part of the community and went to church with us and knew our parents. Not everything was perfect back then, but we in the black community have to get back to those principals — that responsibility and authority. Those teachers and staff at Pemberton made so many sacrifices so that many, many people could receive the pay off.
“Now the accomplishments of its graduates are seen throughout the world.”