Growing up in Westchester, I had only one Black teacher. Her name was Shannon Turner, or “Miss Turner” to us, since this was 1971, when “Ms.” was not yet a fashionable honorific.
A salient fact: Miss Turner will not be returning to Mamaroneck High School this September. She is retiring after 50 years as a history teacher. I repeat: 50 years. A half-century.
It’s possible that others have surpassed that feat of longevity, but Miss Turner surely belongs in an exclusive ring of honor. Shades of the fictional Mr. Chips of Brookfield, she had at least 6,000 students at Mamaroneck — and some of those were children of former students.
Miss Turner was in her early 20s when I attended her African American Studies class. And while she was not much older than the sheltered teens at MHS, she was light-years ahead in experience — having absorbed the hard life lessons that come from being raised in the segregated South. With candor, grace, and ebullience, she succeeded at imparting some sense of this experience to White students, who had the luxury of never having to navigate the shoals of bigotry because of the color of their skin.
Unquestionably, this has been a depressing year, a time of turmoil fueled by rage, racism, and violence. One day, when I was beginning to feel that everything was hopeless, I decided to call Miss Turner, who is married now. She goes by the name Turner-Porter and lives with her husband in New Rochelle.
We talked about her life.
She grew up in Warrenton, NC, a poor, rural county beset by the vestiges of Jim Crow, where a Confederate statue stood — it was removed June 2020— in front of the courthouse. The schools were segregated in Warrenton and far from equal: Black moviegoers had to sit in the balcony; Blacks were prohibited from using the public library; and a local drugstore that sold ice cream offered tables for Whites only.
Turner-Porter attended a two-room elementary school that served only children of color. “You lived in two separate worlds,” she told me. “I never met any White kids in my town. You just didn’t mix with them.”
The Turners were farmers. They lived in a house illuminated by kerosene lamps. “We didn’t have electricity until I was in the eighth grade,” Turner-Porter recalled.
As a teen, she joined a demonstration in front of the store with the “whites-only” tables. “There were these pickup trucks with White guys, you know, who would drive down the street… and so it was intimidating. We were afraid.
“But in church,” she continued, “we were taught how not to resist and just go limp if somebody tried to move you. I do remember someone spitting on us, and you couldn’t really wipe it off. You just kept singing.”
Finally, the police rounded up the protestors. But there wasn’t enough room in the jail to hold everyone, so she and others were temporarily held in the jail yard.
But they won the battle — sort of. “Instead of integrating the tables, they just took the tables out,” she shared.
Fast-forward. After graduating from North Carolina Central University and teaching briefly in Atlanta, she ventured north, to join her mother and aunt, who had moved to Mount Vernon.
She applied to MHS, a school that had only two other Black employees. Before the job interview, her mother anxiously suggested she change her afro to a more conventional hairstyle. She ignored the advice.
The interview was unforgettable. “The head of personnel came into the room, and he just looked at me in a real strange way. He said, ‘What’s the name of the treaty that ended the American Revolutionary War?’”
She hesitated. “I said, ‘Uh… The Treaty of Paris.’
“And he said, ‘Well, it took you a whole minute.’
“I said, ‘Well, I didn’t expect that question!’”
After that testy exchange, she didn’t expect to get the job either. But she was called back for a second interview, and the rest (pardon the pun) was history.
“And while [Miss Turner] was not much older than the sheltered teens at MHS, she was light-years ahead in experience— having absorbed the hard life lessons that come from being raised in the segregated South.”
Turner-Porter enjoyed her time at MHS, but she does not sugarcoat things. Racism knows no borders. One time, she confronted a kid who skipped her class. He told her why. “Basically, it boiled down to his mom not wanting him to have me, because I was an African American.”
Another time, she found “KKK” scrawled on her classroom door. She immediately reported it to the principal, then ran to the bathroom and cried.
Through all the years, Turner-Porter has kept the faith that ignorance and hatred can be overcome.
It takes listening and acceptance. It takes education.
As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”
Shannon Turner-Porter has retired, but she will always be an educator.
Her work continues.
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at email@example.com