“Now Junior, I don’t want to see you out there in those fields and I better never see dirt under your fingernails. You stay in school and go to Cornell University and become a doctor!”
Being the only child from Matthew Prophet, Sr. and Elzira Elease Walker Prophet, Matthew’s parents had a prominent influence on his life as well as his educational aspirations and values. Growing up in segregated America, an African-American child’s academia was far less important than his skills in the fields. However Matthew can still hear his mother’s voice today, “Now Junior, I don’t want to see you out there in those fields and I better never see dirt under your fingernails. You stay in school and go to Cornell University and become a doctor!”
Some may argue that Matthew was destined to be in education. However, the same could be said about his mother who was also daughter and granddaughter of a scholastic family of educators. Elzira was born in 1910 to her school teaching parents, Tom and Clara in Pleasant Groves of Monroe County, Mississippi…about six miles east of Okolona. Born into a close and loving family, Elzira was named her after her maternal grandmother, Elzira Lomax, who taught in Aberdeen, Mississippi. While dedicated to her studies, she was a scholar and talented piano player at Clark University after graduating from the old Okolona High School. However, being a devoted sister to her six younger siblings, Elzira selflessly dropped out of college to provide tuition for her younger sister to attend instead.
At the age of twenty, Eliza was a prominent school teacher in Itta Bena, Mississippi and married her partner in life, Mr. Matthew Prophet, Sr. Throughout her thirty three year career as an educator, Elzira taught general studies as well as the piano. Her dedication to the proficient education of her students was unparalleled. She was committed to providing the best education to her students by attending workshops and internships at universities such as Alabama State University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Wisconsin, Layne College, Mississippi State University and Rust College where she later achieved her Bachelor’s of Arts Degree. She worked for organizations such as Heroines of Jericho, National Council of Negro Women, United Methodist Women, several music and pianist groups for her church as well as private piano lessons in her home studio well into her retirement. Elzira Elease passed July 4th, 1981 at the age of 71. Her and Matthew Prophet, Sr. were married for 50 years.
Although Matthew’s father, Matthew Prophet, Sr. did not display similar academia as his wife, he was a highly decorated citizen of the city of Okolona. Born in 1908, Matthew, Sr. had an eighth grade education. Although public African-American schools rarely surpassed the eighth grade with only six month long school years as opposed to the white twelfth grade graduation with nine month long school years, Matthew, Sr., like his wife, dreamed of a better future. Upon his graduation, Matthew, Sr. attended a trade school in Waverly on the gulf coast of the state of Mississippi. There he studied house painting and paper hanging enabling him to work as an Interior and Exterior Painting Designer and Paper Hanger.
However in a time where civil rights were given a blind eye and a deaf ear, Matthew, Sr. was resilient and ever more persistent in his pursuit to vote as an equal citizen of the United States of America. Since the day he became the legal voting age of the state of Mississippi, Matthew, Sr. went to the city courthouse of Okolona in attempt to vote for each and every election only to be rejected at the doors. As time went on, election after election, Matthew continued his efforts causing elected officials to know him by name and begin an investigation in 1960 by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission for possibly being a member of the NAACP, National Association of the Advancement of Colored People.
The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, also known as Sov-Com, was an agency founded in 1956 by the state of Mississippi that was governed by the state’s governor. The agency’s primary objective and purpose was to protect the state’s jurisdiction and that of its sister states from “federal encroachment.” The agency was responsible for the coordination of activities to place the state and its decision to enforce racial segregation in a more positive light. From the time of its creation to its closure in 1977, the agency profiled over 87,000 individuals like Matthew Prophet, Sr., associated with the civil rights movement and was complicit in the murders of three civil rights workers.
A letter from investigator, Tom Scarbrough, titled “NAACP, Chickasaw County,” spoke of Matthew, Sr.’s aggressive and better informed insights to what his rights were where he stated, “Chief Chenault of Okolona stated be believed Matt Prophet, a painter, was probably a NAACP member.” While the agency investigated the ambiguity of Matthew, Sr.’s behavior, Matt continued his ceaseless efforts to vote. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson that prohibited racial discrimination in voting that Matt got his chance to vote.
On November 8th, 1966, Matthew Prophet, Sr. voted for the first time in the United States House of Representatives and United States Senate elections. After placing his vote at the courthouse that rejected him for forty years, Matt sent a letter to his only son who was then stationed at the Cambodian border as a Lieutenant Colonel of the U.S. Army, “Junior, Today is the most memorable day of my life. I voted!”
Preceding his true endowment of life, liberty and pursuit to happiness, Matthew, Sr. continued in his persistence of true equal rights when he campaigned and was voted into the Okolona City Counsel on June 20th, 1977. An active church member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Matthew Prophet, Sr. was also a 32nd Degree Mason and a leader to the community until the day he passed that the age of 84 in 1992.
“Junior, Today is the most memorable day of my life. I voted!”
Nestled in the county of Chickasaw, Mississippi, with the population under three thousand, is the humble city of Okolona. Matthew Prophet, Jr. remembers the city from which he was born and raised, “It was one of the poorest city of the poorest state of the union.”
During the Civil War the city of Okolona, and its county as a whole, played a significant role for the Confederacy. As Okolona progressed as part of the state’s original Cotton Belt where cotton was the predominant “cash crop” of the mid nineteenth century, it also became the Confederacy’s “Bread Basket,” providing the Confederacy an abundance of food and supplies to hoist them through battle victories. As the Mobile and Ohio Railroad completed its tracks through the city of Okolona in 1859, the railroad was occupied for military purposes, transporting food and supplies for the confederate troops. This made the railroad a major military target for both North and South. With the railroad under constant attack, it inevitably brought battles to the city of Okolona which also harbored the Confederacy’s hospital.
“It was one of the poorest city of the poorest state of the union.”
While the city embraces its passed by preserving its historical battle sights, such as the Battle of Okolona, the war undoubtedly left the city unequipped and poverty stricken. Today, the medium income of a household is $20,000 with 35.4% of its population below the poverty line. Needless to say, this had a significant impact on the goals Matthew, Sr. and Elzira had for their one and only son.
Born in 1930, Matthew reflects on his childhood, “I was a mischievous little boy who was also a tad spoiled,” he laughs as he holds his fingers against his forehead. “I was always doing something whether it was shooting rats with my BB gun or racing the cars with my bicycle. My mother always scolded me to get more into my studies while my father preferred that I become better at working with my hands.”
Elzira’s dream for her son to attend Cornell University in the 1940s was thought to be a bit unrealistic. While a university like Cornell was prestigious to the most elite students, it was incomprehensible to an African-American in segregated America. Nevertheless, Elzira never stopped believing her son could be the two percent.
Matthew, Sr. on the other hand had a completely different outlook on his son’s future. Education was still a gamble. Even the most intellectual African-Americans were far to none to a white uneducated man. Working with his hands in the fields or with a special trade was far more conventional and guaranteed success. Matthew remembers painting houses with his father at a young age. “My father paid me five cents per hour to work with him, which was a lot back then. I would go with him to paint houses and he would have me go along the bottom plank of the house exterior. Once I went all around the house painting the bottom plank, he would check my work and then permit me to do the plank above it. I would do this until I couldn’t reach the planks. Then as time went on, I graduated to using the ladder. But that was a progressive state as well. I first started on the very bottom step, paint the wood planks around the house perimeter until I couldn’t reach. Then he would check my work, allow to climb one step higher, and if my balance was good, he allowed the next step. I did this until I was able to climb all the way up the ladder with superior balance and craftsmanship.”
School on the other hand was a whole other world. Matthew attended the Okolona Industrial School, or Okolona College as it was later named. The school was founded in 1902 by Dr. Wallace A. Battle and in 1921, it became an affiliate with the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi and a member of the American Church Institute for Negros. Educating African-American students through high school and onto trade school, the school had peak enrollment of 200 students annually.
Matthew recalls on his alma mater, “Most African-American schools only went to the eighth grade and anything further was thought to be extremely prestigious.” While the school had little enrollment, it opened its doors as a “college” to provide students a place to further their education while allowing more opportunities for the school’s funding to stay afloat. While the school focused on general studies, the student attendees often focused more on subjects in which they could use their hands and therefore, make money. However one focus was prominently important to the student population, that of the famous African-American men who spoke about equal rights by way of “educated negros” and racial pride. Mr. Booker T. Washington and Mr. W.E.B. Dubois were two men that made a significant impact to Matthew.
Booker T. Washington was an African-American author, educator, presidential advisor and a dominant leader in the African-American community. While he was in the last generation of African-Americans born into slavery, he became a prominent voice promoting the rights of former slaves and their descendants.
William Edward Burghardt, or “W.E.B.”, Du Bois was an African-American historian, sociologist, author, editor, civil rights activist, and Pan-Africanist. While he was born in the “African-American tolerant” and integrated community of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, he attended graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard, earning his place as the first African-American to achieve a doctorate. Needless to say, education was essential to W.E.B.. He later went on to co-found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP as it would later be called.
The NAACP was formed by W.E.B. Du Bois, Moorfield Storey, and Mary White Ovington. Its mission was “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination”. Formed in 1909, it still works for civil rights today, more than one hundred years later.
“Just like every other black kid during that time, I wanted to be the next Luis Armstrong. But I couldn’t read sheet music. I faked it well!”
While Washington, Du Bois and the NAACP remained insightful entities to Prophet throughout childhood, it wasn’t enough to keep him devoted to his studies. Like many children, Matthew had many different aspirations. In tenth grade, he began playing football and baseball for the Okolona College that would team up with other African-American colleges to form a league. At the same time, he maintained his learning of instruments with Elzira, as he played the trumpet and trombone and sang in the college’s choir. “Just like every other black kid during that time, I wanted to be the next Luis Armstrong. But I couldn’t read sheet music.” He laughs, “But I faked it well!”
As a junior, Matthew was the recipient of the Pepsi Cola scholarship for his reading, writing and basic mathematic skills. The Palo Alto based company gave scholarships of six to ten thousand dollars to blacks and poor whites for tuition to the university of their choice. However in order for Matthew to receive his award, he needed to submit evidence from the Mayor of Okolona that the Prophet family did, in fact, need financial assistance to send Matthew to the university. But the mayor refused Matthew of his reward, leaving Elzira and Matthew, Sr. to take loans from other, wealthier, members in the community.
With a 50-60% drop out rate, the graduation requirements for African-American schools were rather low. In fact, many subjects were offered but not required, such as mathematics. Of the requirements to graduate, a few are still memorable to Matthew today. “One of the requirements by the government was that we had to grow something. Anything of our choice. But we had to show that we could plant a seed and make it grow.” However Elzira’s distaste of the thought of her son working in the fields was obvious and blunt. “My mother said she never wanted to see dirt under my fingernails and refused to let me grow a plant.” Sitting back in his chair, Matthew giggles while reminiscing of his childhood antics. “So I bought a plant for my assignment instead. But I forgot to take off the price tag!” Although Matthew’s clear cheating earned him an F in the assignment, it only dropped his grade from an A to a B, allowing him a good enough GPA to get into a university.
However, while Matthew excelled in school, earning his way to the top third student in his class, the low graduation requirements did not prepare him for university studies. In 1947, Matthew was accepted to attend Howard University in Washington D.C., a very prestigious school for blacks. However, once he got there, he realized he had two major problems. Upon acceptance into the school, Matthew’s placement tests placed him in the bottom percentile in english, speech and writing. While he couldn’t tell the difference between nouns, adjectives, etc., he also struggled with the common “southern mumble”, as Matthew would call it. “No one could understand a word I said.” If that wasn’t enough, Matthew’s dream to be the next Jackie Robinson tore him away from his much needed studies. “It turned out I wasn’t as good at baseball as I thought. So I spent many hours practicing with not much studying.” The challenges of university life and the rejection of the university baseball team began to weigh on him as turned to outside activities of underaged partying and gambling at the local pool room.
“My mother said she never wanted to see dirt under my fingernails.”
With these extra curricular activities prying him from his studies, it didn’t take long for Matthew to fail all his classes. While he could hide these grades from afar, it all came to the surface when Elzira received Matthew’s report card during Christmas break. “When I came home for Christmas I knew the postman had my grades. I waited and waited for him to come so I could intercept them before my mother could see. But then I couldn’t wait! I had to use the bathroom and when I came out I found my mother holding my report card and crying.” As Elzira sat with her head in her hands, Matthew, Sr. stood beside her, “I told that boy to learn to do something with his hands!”
The rest of the Christmas break, Matthew pleaded with his parents to let him return to school. Promising to do better in his studies and make them proud. And after much negotiating, Matthew returned to Howard University, exchanged roommates with more studious ones and worked hard on his studies. However, he couldn’t dig himself out of the GPA hole fast enough and was drafted by the military. Matthew explains, “You see, for whites, if you were in college, you were exempt from the draft. But for blacks, you had to meet a certain GPA to be except and even though I worked and worked, I couldn’t get my GPA high enough.”
At twenty one years old, Matthew was drafted by the U.S. Army. As he entered the military, he took another placement test similar to the university’s. However this time his hard work paid off. Matthew tested the highest in vocabulary, reading comprehension and context and did average in pattern analysis and still poorly in mathematics. Still, officer personnel realized such scores were phenomenal in the African-American community and promoted Matthew to an officer position before he had completed bootcamp for the enlisted.
For the next twenty years, Matthew worked his way up to Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army. He served as a military instructor in Fort Chaffee, an Executive Officer for U.S. Army Combat Unit in Korea during the Korean Conflict, returned to the U.S. to serve as Commander of the U.S. Army School Troop Unit located in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and later became Chief Instructor at the U.S. Army Missile School.
During his years in the military, Matthew returned to his studies to earn his Bachelor’s Degree in General Education at the University of Omaha, his Master’s in Education Supervision and Administration from Roosevelt University in Chicago, and later, his Doctorate of Philosophy in Educational Supervision and Administration from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
Matthew was finishing his doctorate degree when a man from his doctorate comity came to him and changed his life. “I was approaching retirement from the Army and he asked me what my plans were for civilian life. When I shrugged my shoulders and said I was unsure, he offered to introduce me to a prominent Professor of Philosophy at a Big Ten university who was running an experimental study on world peace and the correlation it had with education. He thought I would be a good fit since he saw me potentially as a prominent leader in education.” However, upon meeting with the professor, Matthew was surprised to find that the core of the philosopher’s study was ‘What is the cause war?’ But as he sat with him longer, he began to understand.
‘What is the cause war?’
The Philosopher had gained support from outside philanthropic entities who provided substantial funding for the study and the department of Philosophy. His hypothesis was “War is caused by a country’s economic deprivation, and how it is handled.” The philosopher believed the correlation between an educated society and its economic status with the decrease of war is strong. In other words, if a country is educated to make cohesively strong and well thought out decisions, and could successfully provide for its citizens with a booming job market, it is less likely to cave to war.
To prove this hypothesis, the philosopher funded a group of fellowship participants to study education, whether it be in American society or foreign. The group of educators would finish their study and compile a thesis to ‘What causes economic deprivation, how to prevent it and where education influenced such occurrences?’ As this study was led and operated by distinguished leaders such as the Dean of the College of Education and Head of the Philosophy Department, there were hundreds of applicants trying to be a part of it. However only ten participants were chosen within five regions in the country. Participants came from colleges such as CUNY in New York, Ohio State University, Northwestern University, University of Texas, in Austin, and Claremont Graduate School.
Comprised of one woman and nine men, positions held in the fellowship included a high official in the Episcopal Church of New York, a member and official in the American Business Association, an Industrial Leader, a Social Worker, an instrumental authority in the Bay Area Transit (BART) in California, a successful school board member of the New York City suburban area, a leader of the Black Strategist from Chicago, a leader of a white supremacist group from Illinois and of course, Matthew, the Lieutenant Colonel of the U.S. Army. In fact, the only thing the group’s individuals had in common with each other was that they were successful leaders in their own field and affiliations.
Upon acceptance into the fellowship, the participants underwent a psychometric test of adult personality and psychopathology by the, widely used and researched, Minnesota Multi-phasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI. After passage, each participant was given a personal psychologist and sociologist to work with. Each participant submitted a proposed work itinerary for program approval that would lay out their plans of research for the following twenty four months. While the study provided the group members internship credit for their doctorate thesis, they were also given a generous stipend of $18,750 a year to live off of. During this time, Matthew and his fellow participants had virtually unlimited express account to travel anywhere in the world as deemed necessary for research, except the Iron Curtain of course.
“Those closest to the child should be the supreme authority to the child’s education.”
The interest among the fellowship was vast! Many of the participants had ideas completely different than their counterparts. Some went to Israel to study their school system while one went to Chicago because of intense dissatisfaction with the Chicago school system. Since Matthew was abroad for most of his military career, he decided to focus primarily on the U.S. school systems. While he worked with a U.S. senator’s staff on an education committee and he studied the influence of unions in New York City, he spent most of his time in Chicago. There, he understudied with the superintendent of Chicago schools for five days by working with the district’s authority who negotiated contracts for teachers, a financial authority who taught him how to manage a school budget for three weeks and a curriculum developer. He worked with area superintendents for the upper north side of Chicago which was an affluent neighborhood, as well as the lower income, minority neighborhood of the lower half of Chicago. During his time in Chicago, he also studied the workings of the the Junior College of Chicago and the Malcolm X College of Chicago.
Although Matthew learned much from his time in Chicago, he didn’t remain there for his entire fellowship! Nevertheless, through his lessons from multiple mentors, Matthew came to the overall conclusion that the pyramid of educational authority needed to be flipped, allowing those closest to the child, such as the parent, to be supreme authority figure to the child’s education. This concept ranked supreme in all of Matthew’s decisions through out his career as an educational administrator.
This was an interesting read. Matt Prophet was a name I heard often as a child as he was a classmate of my Aun’ts at Okolona College. My grandparents, the Raspberry’s taught at the school as well.
I remember your father and mother. Your mother taught my sister and I how to play the piano.