Leonard Evans’ story began in a place of comfort – with a memory of his grandfather. The lingering whiff of the institution of slavery penetrated the air through separate but equal Jim Crow Laws. Cotton was king. From auction block to freedom walk, David T. Evans, Evans’ grandfather, lived both sides of the reality of the times.

As a young boy who hung on the frayed shoelaces of his grandfather’s work boots, so sat Evans glistening as he shared his grandfather’s story. “My grandfather told me about going to a slave auction with his own mother and father. His parents, my great-grandparents, were sold together. Because my grandfather was too young at the time to be trained, he was left on the auction wagon.” Holding to a dim ray of hope, just before dark, a man purchased Grandfather Evans.

When Grandfather Evans came of age and was freed, he found himself in Dallas and later moved to McKinney. Upon purchasing 14 acres of land in northeast McKinney, Evans would soon cultivate and produce future generations of Evans and provide refuge for many persons throughout the community, even to this day.

Experience is a real teacher. What Evans survived, many would have succumbed. His mother moved to West Texas and his father to East Texas. “I was a young Teen when my parents left me,” recalled Evans. His remaining survival kit included a stove, wood and matches ... but no food. Evans recalled neighbor, Ms. Tessie Mae Mallard’s account. “She told me that my parents had a blow-out and both left.” Ms. Mallard also shared that Evans’ mother expressed her intentions to write him and be in touch. This turn of events introduced a concept of family that would totally transform Evans’ life forever. Evans would see to it that his family, and anyone in need of family, could find solace in him.

Learning of Evans’ plight, the manager of the local JCPenney took an interest. “Mr. Cooper heard that I was by myself and told me that he had a job for me if I wanted it,” recounted Evans. The store was located on the west side of the square in Downtown McKinney and after school Evans would clean and lock up the store – a job that lasted throughout high school. A far cry from the original survivor’s kit, Cooper provided Evans with two pairs of shoes, a heavy jacket, cap, slacks and shirts for each day of the work week.

 

Considering the climate of the community and recognizing the segregated culture of the 1930s, Mr. Cooper was adamant that Evans not leave the store carrying anything with him. Instead, Evans was to tell Mr. Cooper what he needed and they would leave together. Evans understood this warning as an act of kindness and as his protection.

In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins – not through strength but by perseverance. — H. Jackson Brown

Photo by Mary Carole Strother

In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins – not through strength but by perseverance. — H. Jackson Brown

 

Always inquisitive in nature, becoming a formal educator seemed a natural fit. Thankfully, there were others who recognized Evans’ potential. Like Cooper, George Edward McGowen was one such man, one such friend. Cotton was high, and schoolwork took a back seat when the cotton crop was picked. Recognizing Evans’ desire to pick his brain rather than cotton, McGowen helped Evans stay on track with the work that he missed while out in the fields. In the absence of his parents, Evans recalled the generous persons whom the Lord sent into his life.

Shortly after graduating from E.S. Doty High School, Evans entered a new battlefield – World War II. “After leaving the War,” said Evans, “I had made up my mind about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.” Following the War, colleges were overcrowded due to so many soldiers returning home. Prairie View was overcrowded. The University of Texas would not allow Evans to matriculate due to integration. Evans and Heman Sweat, who integrated the University of Texas, attempted admission at the same time. Initially denied admission to Texas College due to overcrowding, Evans was eventually admitted and finished Texas College in Tyler, Texas in 1952.

Most Blacks continued to live east of the railroad tracks in a close-knit community. Evans recalled that education is what people wanted, but they couldn’t always see it as a possibility. Evans’ Uncle George told him to “work hard on every job, and someone will see you and give you a break.” Being dealt a different break in life, education and hard work went hand-in-hand for Evans.

For more than half-a-century, Evans has been in love with teaching, specifically mathematics. As an educator, Evans began his teaching career at Lincoln High School in Dallas and eventually made it back home to McKinney where he served in various capacities at Doty High School. As part of national legislation to integrate the schools, Evans integrated Fanny Finch Elementary. Having survived raising himself, combat in WWII and segregation, Evans faced a new challenge that he could not face alone: integration. With his wife, Julia, and two sons by his side, he stood staring into the face of bigotry. Crossing over the threshold, Evans was greeted warmly by the principal, Fanny Finch, teachers and a spread of food.

 

Evans continued as an educator in MISD for many more years. After retirement, he continued his long educational career by being a member of the MISD Board of Trustees.

Leonard Evans, second from left, served on the MISD Board of Trustees 1994 with (from left) Wade Cramer, Pam Sexton, Darrell Tate, Superintendent Dr. Jack Cockrill, Lynn Sperry, Robbie Clark and Dennis Baker.

Photo courtesy of McKinney Magazine Archives

Leonard Evans, second from left, served on the MISD Board of Trustees 1994 with (from left) Wade Cramer, Pam Sexton, Darrell Tate, Superintendent Dr. Jack Cockrill, Lynn Sperry, Robbie Clark and Dennis Baker.

 

When just securing a job was a challenge, Evans entered into a career that would change thousands of lives forever. He has come full circle – educator, business-owner, McKinney ISD school board member and again, educator. Evans admits that his circle would not be complete without his wife Julia, his two sons, daughter, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and extended family.

At the seasoned age of 89 [86 at time of this story], Evans continues to inspire and teach. When asked what he teaches the students of North Texas Job Corps, he shared, “I teach drivers education, some math and life.” One can only imagine taking a drive with the man whose name firmly rests on an institution for students who now fall in the middle – Leonard Evans Jr. Middle School.

With the hand that he was dealt and by being snatched from the middle by those who loved him and saw his potential, he chose the high road. Evans shared his secrets to longevity; by having a relationship with the Lord, a loving family, and staying away from drugs and alcohol. “People who are close to family will live longer. Love will grow stronger. When my great-grandkids are older, I want them to look back to see what I tried to do ... what I tried to do for them through family,” said Evans.

McKinney looks back on Evans’ life in awe and with much appreciation for the impact he has had on countless lives. And Evans, one of McKinney’s finest, can rest assured that his family will carry his honor through future generations.

 

About the author: McKinney native Beth Bentley is Executive Director of the McKinney Housing Authority.

 

This story is republished from the February 2011 issue of McKinney Magazine