Dressed impeccably in a dark gray suit and blue sweater vest, Shelton Ponder walks slowly onto the stage of the old Garrison School, a building constructed more than 100 years ago to educate African-American students in Liberty.
“My name is Mr. Clarence E. Gantt. That is Gantt with two T’s.”
Ponder, who wrote the one-actor play “Mr. Gantt, Modified,” will perform it tonight in the old school building, now the Garrison Cultural Center, 502 N. Water St. Proceeds will benefit the center, owned by the Clay County African American Legacy Consortium.
Gantt was principal of Garrison School from 1933 until the integration era in 1958. He died in 1968.
Ponder, 68, a lifelong Liberty resident, said he wrote the play as a tribute to Gantt because the educator was a community stalwart who overcame obstacles of racism and segregation to educate and motivate generations of students.
“Mr. Gantt had quite an effect on a lot of us,” said Ponder, who attended Garrison School. “We had a sturdy, complete foundation, but he and the school were an extension of the church and the home.
“Since the community was segregated then, we were still protected, we were taught, were loved, and he helped make us citizens of the world.”
In the four-scene play, Ponder shares details of Gantt’s life, intertwined with world, American and African-American history.
For example, Ponder said, the Great Depression and World War II weighed heavily on the school and Liberty’s African-American community. Segregation created more challenges, but through Gantt’s leadership, Garrison School expanded and its students flourished.
Gantt was born in Liberty in 1903, one of eight children. He graduated from Garrison School and went on to study at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, where he played football, ran track and was a member of the debate team. He returned to Liberty in 1932 and was hired to teach at Garrison. A year later, he was named principal, replacing his mentor, James A. Gay.
During that time, African-American students used castoff textbooks from white schools. The Garrison School had seven classrooms but no assembly room or gymnasium.
In 1938, Gantt with other community leaders helped get a bond issue approved to pay for improvements to Garrison.
Cecelia Robinson, an English professor at William Jewell College, said educators like Gantt played a vital role in the lives of African-Americans. They “ ...were the role models and community icons within the community,” she said.
After the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, many African-American students began attending white schools in Liberty. Garrison was converted to other uses in 1958. The African-Americans who once taught at Garrison were not rehired. Gantt was reassigned to Liberty High School as a study hall monitor. The role, far beneath his qualifications, did not deter Gantt, Ponder said.
“When he went to the high school, he carried that same demeanor,” Ponder said. “He wasn’t angry and did not walk with his shoulders drooped. He stood as he always stood.”