Growing up in Florida during a time of segregation and racial tension, retired Okemos teacher Carrie Owens has come a long way.
“Sometimes I get identity crisis,” Owens said jokingly. “I grew up in the south as ‘colored,’ and then we were ‘negros,’ then we were ‘black,’ then we were ‘people of color,’ and now we are African-Americans.”
Owens was the first black teacher hired into the Okemos school district in 1964. On Feb. 20, at the Meridian Township Board meeting, Owens was recognized for her contribution to education in honor of Black History Month. She retired from teaching in 2001.
“Education is something that’s really important to Meridian Township residents, and we are one of the most highly educated places in the state,” Township Board Treasurer Julie Brixie said.
Brixie said when Owens first interviewed for a job at Cornell Elementary School in Okemos, she vowed to help each student individually, because “all students learn at different levels.”
Township Board Supervisor Ronald Styka said that Owens was the first of many African-American teachers to be hired by the district.
“The journey has been long and difficult,” said Styka. “But now it just so happens that Okemos has an African-American superintendent. [Owens] started it, and now we’ve come a long way.”
Due to her successes, Owens was put in charge of a transitional class of 15 students ages 7 to 10, who, until taking her class, had limited success in school.
“With her tireless dedications she made sure that each of her students progressed to grade level, and successfully accomplished reaching their grade reading level,” said Brixie.
Former Board Trustee, Milton Scales, attended the meeting to congratulate Owens on her achievement.
“When I saw she was being recognized, I said I couldn’t just watch this on TV, I had to come and see her in person,” Scales said. “… She trailblazed Meridian Township in Education,”
Owens said she is learning her history, because growing up there were no textbooks and materials to teach her.
“Thank God for my parents, who did not have an opportunity to have an education,” Owens said. “They always wanted us to have more than they had.”
Owens said her parents told her and her siblings, “you have to love everyone to be saved.”
“Of course we had to believe in God, because what else was there?” Owens said. “Regardless of what happened to us, we always had to believe in God, and we had to love, regardless.”
According to Brixie, in the most recent citizen’s survey, over 95 percent of Meridian Township residence positively rated the public school system. She also said earlier surveys show over half of township residents moved to Meridian for its public school systems.
“Parents became interested in her philosophy of teaching, and many moved to Okemos so they could be in her class,” Brixie said quoting an article from the New Citizens Press.
At the meeting, Owens told a story she used to teach to her students, called “the Man on the Corner.”
Owens said there was a young black boy who walked by a man standing on a corner with four balloons. The man had a red balloon, a smiley balloon, a white balloon and a black balloon. The man released the balloons one-by-one, sending them up to the sky. He sent the Red first, and the smiley face next. Then he followed with the white balloon. All flew up towards the sky. Owens said the young boy was fascinated at the sight. He then asked the man what would happen if he sent the black balloon up. Would it sail upwards like the others? The man lifted the black balloon and watched it fly into the sky, just like the others.
“The man said, it’s not what’s outside,” said Owens. “‘It’s about what’s inside that counts, and we all have the same thing inside. Therefore we have to love each other, because that’s what we’re supposed to do.
“I am so happy to have come to Okemos,” said Owens. “I’ve touched many lives, and many lives have touched mine and I’m just so grateful for this opportunity.”