By Chris Kieffer | NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Joe Washington, a retired Tupelo educator and community leader who helped ease the transition during school integration, died Sunday at North Mississippi Medical Center.
Washington, 89, was a science teacher and multi-sport coach at the then-all black Carver High School before integration in the late 1960s. He was at Carver from 1949 until 1969, and later went to Tupelo High School, where he served as assistant principal. He retired from the district in 1986.
“He was a man who was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit,” said the Rev. Robert Jamison, Washington’s nephew. “He was a very Christian man, and he was a friend to everyone. He loved to be with people and loved talking to people.”
Washington was known well for his commanding presence, his friendly and caring nature and his firm handshakes, friends and family members said on Monday.
“He had a tremendous hand grip,” Jamison said. “If he shook your hand, you would say, ‘Ouch.’”
Jack Reed Sr. remembers Washington’s handshakes, noting that he would grab Washington’s thumb to soften the force.
Reed also remembers how Washington helped bring people together during integration.
“He was certainly highly respected by both white and black communities,” Reed said. “He was a leader in the black community, and he had a great personality.”
Washington served as head football and basketball coach and as athletic director while at Carver. After he moved to Tupelo High School, he continued to be well respected, said Clay Stewart, a student there during the late 1970s.
“Mr. Washington was an icon at Tupelo High School,” Stewart said. “He was a big man, and he knew everyone’s name.
“It didn’t matter who you were or how long you had been there, he knew everyone’s name.”
Washington said during a 2003 interview with the Daily Journal that he kept up with former players and students after they left high school. He then counted 94 students who became nurses, eight who became medical doctors, six who became college professors and 55 who became ministers.
He also claimed 900 former players who won athletic scholarships to college, including 22 football players in one year.
“I miss helping young people find themselves, who think they’re lost and have no place of their own,” he said then.
Washington leaves behind his wife, Lucinda “Cindy” Washington; son, Joe Jr., and daughters, Gwen Pattman and Cynthia Washington. He had five grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are incomplete and are being handled by Pattman Funeral Directors in Columbus.
Grandson Joshua Washington, 28, said when he was young, his grandfather would take him to the mall every Saturday and give him $2 to play video games until the money was gone.
“My grandfather was an amazing man,” Joshua Washington said. “He was my hero. He showed me how to live my life.”