Jesse McGowen and Leonard Evans remind McGowen Elementary 4th graders that they can accomplish anything.
Many of the kids ask for his signature, and he patiently inscribes it on the bits of paper that they hold out to him. Most of them just want a hug.
They are black and Hispanic and white and Asian, and they all seem to hold genuine affection and reverence for McGowen.
The scene provides a fitting picture of the man who became the first black counselor at McKinney High School in 1973 to help ease tensions between black and white students at a time when lingering resentment and conflicts in the wake of integration were still keenly felt.
It was the kids who got him through back then, he says, when he faced resistance from some adults. The kids and his faith.
And, when he talks about accepting that job, one finds that the impetus behind the decision really boils down to a love for the students of McKinney ISD. All of them.
McGowen is on the campus that bears his name to talk about some of those experiences with the school’s 4th graders. He is accompanied by his wife June and his friend and former colleague Leonard Evans, the namesake of Evans Middle School, who became the first black man to teach at a white school in McKinney and, later, the first black school board member for MISD
Both began their careers teaching and coaching at McKinney’s segregated Doty High School but were called upon by McKinney ISD officials to transfer to white schools. According to McGowen, the full integration of McKinney schools in 1965 found him moving from his teaching and coaching position at Doty to what had previously been the all-white McKinney Junior High School.
McGowen and Evans spend the better part of an hour telling stories about the challenges they faced crossing that racial divide. The kids listen intently and make quick notes for a special writing assignment about McGowen.
He tells them of his time as a coach when he pulled his team out of a game, loaded them onto the bus and left in the middle of the contest to protect his players from the abuse they were receiving from their white opponents. In the days that followed, he weathered heavy criticism and demands for his firing.
“Nothing ever came of it because they knew that I was right in what I was doing in trying to protect the students that I was in charge of,” he says.
For his part, Evans describes arriving for his first day of work as the first black teacher at a white campus—what is now Finch Elementary—to find a crowd of 150–200 men milling around outside, as he puts it.
“I didn’t know what they were going to do,” he tells the kids. “I depended on the Lord. My wife drove me in and let me out, and I went inside and everything went well. They did some talking, but I didn’t say anything back.”
They’ve each got volumes of stories to tell, of experiences and injustices that often seem so far removed from logic and sensibility, that McGowen and Evans sometimes chuckle at the absurdity of it.
Within those stories lie the reminders of the courageous first steps they and many others took when there was much that was very wrong with race and education in this part of the country.
McGowen explains to the students the flawed “separate but equal” justification for segregation by describing his experience with shoddy equipment as a football player at Doty.
“When I started playing football in the 9th grade,” McGowen says, “the equipment that they sent over to Coach Evans for us to play in…I played in two left shoes for a whole year. I had the correct size left shoe, and the right shoe was a size larger so that I could wear [a left shoe on my right foot]. I played a whole year in that because they did not have the shoes that would fit me.
“I was the first to wear a face mask at E. S. Doty High School at that particular time,” he adds. “Well, the face mask was not perfect, and this tooth right here—that’s how I got it knocked out.”
One student asks, “How did you feel about going to work at the high school?”
McGowen is frank in his response. “When Mr. Faubion came and asked me if I would go to McKinney High School, I went to my pastor and my presiding elders and had a conference with them. And, what they told me was, ‘Mr. McGowen, you’re going to make an impact on the lives of children. I know there are some other things that you would rather do, but I think that God has called you to this position, so you go ahead and do it.’
“Now, I was fearful because I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to handle the situation, but they wanted me to correct what was going on at the high school. But, again, I give all praise to the Lord because He helped me and Coach Evans because we also worked together to calm things,” says McGowen.
The kids connect easily with these strong, kind men who encourage them to not let challenges stand in their way of accomplishing all that they are capable of. And, that message resonates deeply.
Fourth-grader Sanhitha Yeerelly says, “I’d say they’re pretty amazing people. [I learned that you shouldn’t] let the people that make your weaknesses stand out hurt your chances of doing something great.”
In regard to the challenges he faced, there’s a striking lack of bitterness with McGowen. As the kids begin to disperse, and he’s finally able to step aside for a moment, he explains with a wide smile how he has avoided the pitfalls of bitterness and anger.
“I’m not bitter because…I think about my training, my mom and dad’s training and because of the Lord, because of God being in my heart,” he says. “He helps me be able to take many things that, otherwise…I would probably do something else. So, I think it’s because of Christ in my life. It’s as simple as that.”
As far as the kids are concerned, McGowen hopes that they feel encouraged after the day’s talk.
“I’m hoping that they will take away from this that you can become anything that you desire if you work hard, have the right attitude and the right work habit. And, there’s no difference in color. We’re all God’s children, and we should try to love each other. I think that’s what the world needs."
“Not only these kids, but the world needs to reflect on that right now.”
For additional information on McKinney ISD, contact Shane Mauldin, MISD Communications Coordinator, at 469-302-4007 or firstname.lastname@example.org.