Based on conversations with Elva White Grow Clark, the
first county school superintendent in Miller County, thought
to be the first in Georgia.
Gerald Grow -- January 15, 1996
What did I accomplish as county school superintendent? Nothing
much that anyone would think was special. Except that for a woman
to get elected in the first place might be something some people
would consider special.
Back in those days, men ran everything in public life. Every
elected official was a man. Every political race was between
men. It's true, there was a woman somewhere in city government
at the time, but she had been appointed, not elected. This was
the late 1940s.
One day, one of the elementary principals came to me--I knew
him, as I knew nearly everybody else in the county, he was a
friend of ours, and I had taught his children in school. He said
that the race for county school superintendent was coming up,
and some of them had been thinking it was time to elect a new
superintendent, and if I were to run, he thought I could win.
It had never occurred to me to run, and I told him so. But I
went home and thought about it and talked to my husband about
it. --I had my husband, and my children, and my job, and my friends.
And I was happy the way I was. -- But I got to thinking about
The man who was superintendent at the time--I liked him, I knew
him as I knew nearly everybody else in the county. I had taught
with his wife; she was a friend of mine. I don't want to say
anything bad about him--but the more I thought about it, the
more I realized that his heart was really in state politics--he
lived and breathed whatever Herman Talmadge was doing in Atlanta.
Maybe someday he wanted to run for the legislature--I don't know.
But he just didn't seem to want to be something as small as a
superintendent in a little school system in a little county in
South Georgia. And I wasn't sure I wanted to be something that
But my brother and my father had been county school superintendents,
in Atkinson county, where I grew up, and they had enjoyed their
work. So I decided I would give it a try. If I was defeated,
I wouldn't let it bother me: people have a right to vote as they
please, and people might not want a woman in that office.
Now I had taught many of the people in the county. And if I hadn't
taught them, I had taught their children. And all those years
I had also helped my husband in our grocery story. People knew
who I was. They knew the kind of person I was. And I knew who
they were; I made a point of being able to call the name of every
person who ever walked into the grocery story or sat in my classroom.
My campaign, mostly, was just going out to knock on doors and
let people know I was running, and to ask them to consider voting
for me. I didn't try to persuade people. They knew the kind of
person I was, they knew I wasn't going to change if I got elected,
and they could decide for themselves how to vote.
I had a little help where I least expected it. Years before,
teaching high school, I had caught a boy cheating on an exam.
I quietly slipped him a note telling him to turn in his exam
now and come see me about it Monday. I knew he was really a good
boy at heart. When he came in, by himself, looking worried and
guilty, I didn't say anything about the cheating; he'd had all
weekend to think about it. I'd made a different exam for him
to take, and I gave it to him right there. And he passed it.
And from then on he did fine. I never said one word to him about
cheating, but I believe he learned his lesson.
I saw him, for the first time in a long time, on election day,
at the court house where the polling place was. He called out
to me and said, "Miss Elva! Today I've brought 25 people
to town to vote for you!"
I wasn't at all sure about whether I could get elected county
school superintendent, or whether it was the right thing to do
even if I did win. One day early in the campaign, I was driving
out the Brinson Road. Like all the roads, it was dirt--that day,
mostly mud and mud puddles. A school bus came toward me, carrying
a few white children, on the way to school. Ahead of it, I saw
three little black girls walking along the muddy road. They had
to walk to school, you see, while the white children rode in
As the bus came near, the black children jumped out of the way.
They jumped across the little muddy ditch and clung on to the
wire fence that ran along a field. Just as the bus passed, it
hit a puddle. A big sheet of muddy water shot up and arched out
and over and right toward the little black children clinging
to the fence. It made me simply furious.
The water just barely missed them. I said, out loud, right then,
"God, if you help me win this race, we won't have that going
on in this county again. I'll see that these black children get
a ride to school!"
Well, I did win the election. People told me I was the first
woman ever elected to public office in Miller County, and the
first woman to be a county school superintendent in the state
of Georgia. I'm not sure whether that's true or not; it doesn't
really matter. I got 1400-and-something votes. The previous superintendent
got about 800. Now, that said something--though I don't want
it to sound like bragging.
One of the first things I did as superintendent was to start
working on getting a bus for those little black children. You
see, in order to get anything done, you have to make a group
of men think it was their idea. So I promoted it till they got
the idea, and they went out and found transportation for those
Another thing I did right away was take the maintenance men out
to the schoolhouses and show them exactly what to fix up. I started
by making the doors look really good. I wanted everyone to realize
that important things happen inside those buildings, and that
the people working there care about what they do. Maintenance
was something the men in town understood, and those repairs earned
me some respect.
After I had been superintendent for a while, the position came
open for principal of the high school. I went to the school board
and told them I thought the man who used to be the superintendent,
the one I had beaten so badly--I had known him twenty years--I
thought he would make an excellent principal for the high school.
And they appointed him. And he did make an excellent principal.
He discovered that he loved this kind of work. He loved the children,
and the teachers, and they loved him, and he just did an excellent
job. Toward the end of my term, he came up to the office one
day and I asked him to walk out on the courthouse steps with
me, where nobody could hear us. I told him I wanted him to hear
directly from me that I was not going to run for re-election,
but with the improvement he had shown during his time as principal,
I thought he would make an excellent superintendent, if he wanted
to run again.
He was so shocked and so surprised. He said, "I am very
thankful to you for telling me this. But you know, I think I
am happier where I am." And he continued as principal. And
he was an excellent one.
Elva W. Grow as county school superintendent. Picture from
the Miller County High School annual of 1952.
What did I accomplish as superintendent? Nothing, really,
that anyone would think important. In those days we didn't make
elaborate plans or set detailed goals. I just did the best I
could to get more support for the teachers and the schools. Just
little things, from day to day.
One day LaBerta, one of the black principals, brought some of
the black teachers to see me--I had a fine group of black teachers
and principals. They were dedicated people and we got along well.
They came to tell me that the teachers at one of the black schools
found out that some children were coming to school with nothing
to eat for lunch. So they had set up a wood stove and were cooking
each day to feed those children. They came to ask me if it was
all right for them to be doing this.
I told them, Yes, it was more than all right, I told them I was
happy they were feeding children who needed to be fed, and I
was happy they had seen a problem and had gone ahead and done
something about it. And I told them they were right to come to
talk to me about it. Not long after, I saw the announcement of
a new Federal program and applied, and we received some money--it
wasn't much, not like today's lunch programs--but it helped pay
for the food those black teachers prepared. And the same program
brought some lunches into the white schools for other students
who needed them.
What did I accomplish as superintendent? Well, I can't think
of anything special. I went around and visited the principals
and listened to their concerns; and I'd find ways to help them.
I talked to the teachers--I knew nearly all of them; I had taught
with many of them and I knew what fine, dedicated people they
were. I would listen to them and encourage them and let them
know how much they were appreciated. Whenever the chance came
up, I would arrange for workshops and training sessions, and
I encouraged the many teachers who drove an hour each way on
nights and weekends to take new courses and get new degrees.
I was so proud of them, and I wanted them all to know that. I
wanted to help them to feel how serious their jobs were and how
they were there not just to put in the hours, but to influence
the lives of children.
I worked with the bus drivers, week in and week out, to help
them with the schedules and to keep the buses running. In many
ways I suppose myhardest job was to keep those old buses running.
Parents would call me all times of day or night, and on the weekends,
and I would listen to everything they wanted to say and let them
know I cared about their concerns, and, when I could, I would
find some way to help them.
I worked hard to understand the problems and the opportunities
in the schools, so I could present them to the school board,
because they were the ones who made all the major decisions.
Now, when I presented something to them, they would always say,
"Miss Elva, what do YOU think about it?" And if I told
them I thought it would help the schools, they would approve
it. And we would do it. They were fine and supportive and helpful--one
man on the board could barely read or write, but he was a smart
man and a successful farmer, as many had been before him.
I had such good principals at my schools. Such dedicated teachers.
Such conscientious bus drivers. (And other good help: I don't
want to leave anyone out.) They were the ones who did it all.
What I did was nothing special.
It was a tradition in Colquitt for a group of men to come
to the drug store, buy a Coke and some crackers, and sit around
and talk. Sometimes their favorite subject was to complain about
how "that woman" was running things, over in the school
superintendent's office. I knew about this, because the druggist
told my husband, and he told me. I didn't let it bother me--I
knew that none of them were people I had taught--but it bothered
my husband. It made him mad.
As my term came near an end, I had to decide whether to run again.
I don't want to brag, but the principals and teachers made out
like they wanted me to run again. I wanted to know what my husband
really thought. So I asked him. He said, "You can run if
you want to, but I surely don't want you to. I'm tired of being
fighting mad half the time and half-mad all the time!"
So I decided not to run again. I had my children to think of,
and my husband, I had my home and my friends and my sisters and
my brother and my mother and all the people I knew and loved.
After that one term, I left public life and went back to helping
in the grocery store and teaching in the high school, where I
worked happily under the man I had beaten so badly for county
school superintendent. We got along well. He was a friend. His
wife was a friend. I had known him for many years, as I had known
most people in the county. If I hadn't taught them, I had taught
their mothers or fathers, or sisters or brothers, or their children
Or I would teach them, some day.