"The schools were the cultural center of our black community," said the Rev. Charles Penson, longtime education advocate. "That is where we all congregated, regardless of what church we went to or where we lived."
One reason for that, they say, is that students and teachers saw each other in church or in the neighborhood and interacted more frequently. Students felt more connections with the educators, who knew more about their pupils' home lives.
Today, about 50 percent of the Tupelo Public School District's student body is black. Just over 10 percent of the district's teachers are black. It is a discrepancy that is similar to that in many Mississippi school districts.
Several Tupelo educators and black leaders say that increasing that percentage of black teachers could play a role in helping the district reduce its achievement gap.
"It is so important for our kids to see their teachers in church on Sunday, to see them in their neighborhood or community," Penson said. "It gives them a role model, not only Monday through Friday, but seven days a week."
Not everyone agrees that black teachers should be hired only for the sake of diversity. Former Tupelo Superintendent Mike Walters, who was dedicated to addressing Tupelo's achievement gap while leading the school system during the early 1990s, said the number of black teachers is "not an issue," and hiring the best teachers, regardless of race is more important.
Others say black students feel more comfortable when they see more teachers that look like them.
"I'd like for us to get to a point where we just want a quality teacher, but if we feel like our community responds better to black teachers, that is an area where we can all come together," Tupelo School Board Vice President Eddie Prather said.
Prather said one of the board's goals is to increase the district's number of black teachers. Tupelo Deputy Superintendent Diana Ezell and Assistant Superintendent Fred Hill agreed doing so was important.
"Good teaching is good teaching," Hill said. "We are in a position where all students feel like they need a role model or someone they can relate to. Having a variety of teachers will help in how students respond to expectations and will give them someone they feel they can go to."
Ezell agreed, saying the teaching staff needs to be more reflective of student demographics.
The issue of hiring more black teachers is not a new one, but has been talked about for years. Educators have said doing so is difficult because fewer high-quality black students go into the education field, and the ones who do are sought competitively by many districts. Black leaders have questioned the sincerity of those efforts.
The Rev. Robert Jamison, a former educator and past leader of the Lee County NAACP, said the school district must be intentional in its efforts. He said many black students who want to become educators are discouraged to try because they do not see other black teachers in their classrooms.
Ezell said the district may need to also start working with black students in middle school and high school and recommending them to eventually become teachers.