Carolyn Crowder was a woman who knew how to make her voice heard.
The lifelong metro Atlanta resident helped shepherd Atlanta through the difficult period of school bussing, and she served as prominent PTA official and four-term member of the Atlanta Board of Education. She was also a well-regarded singer, pianist and children’s choir director for 60 years at Andrews Chapel United Methodist Church in Jonesboro. And, she remained until recently a vocal community activist.
“She was humble. She broke barriers. And she never bragged about it,” said longtime friend and Atlanta City Council District 1 representative Carla Smith, whose district includes Crowder’s old Thomasville neighborhood. Smith said Crowder changed things and helped to correct inequities in Atlanta’s educational system with a thoughtful, articulate, outspoken and firm style-that was also notable for its inclusiveness.
“She did everything she did for all the children,” said daughter Sabrina Kennedy. “It didn’t matter what their socioeconomic or ethnic stratus was. Mom wanted to see everyone excel and be the best person that they could be.”
Carolyn Virginia Brown Crowder, 81, died Nov. 1 of what family members described as natural causes. A memorial service was held Nov. 7.
Born in Atlanta on April 16, 1938, Crowder’s early education started in Jonesboro. She went to Morris Brown College and began a career at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Atlanta Office, where she rose to supervise the administrative assistant pool.
She married Paul in 1958, now deceased, and quickly started a family. Crowder’s early family-conferred lessons on the value of education led her to activism.
She adamantly opposed aspects of then-segregated education, such as black students getting hand-me-down textbooks from white schools. Crowder enrolled three of her children as the first African-American students at Thomas Jefferson Guice Elementary School in the late 1960s during desegregation.
Stephenie Turnipseed — one of the groundbreaking trio of siblings — said her mother’s push for better opportunities morphed into involvement with the Parent-Teacher Association, first at the elementary level and continuing as her youngsters went on to Fulton High School, where she helped to establish the school’s first-ever band booster club.
Encouraged to move up by those who saw her leadership skills, she eventually became President of the Atlanta Council of PTAs, the first African-American to hold the office.
Now retired Atlanta school administrator Norman Thomas met Crowder when he was assigned as a liaison to the parent teacher groups. He said her ability to reach across racial and other lines enabled her to help the group transition from predominantly white to more diverse leadership. He also credits her with aiding in dismantling a parallel system of white and black local school PTA organizations that existed.
“She told me I needed to run for president of the Georgia PTA,” saying that Atlanta needed more of a voice at the statewide level, Thomas said. “I said ‘I think that’s a bit much.’ But I did what Carolyn told me because she wouldn’t take no for an answer,” he chuckled. Thomas became the first African-American to serve in that role.
Elected to the Atlanta school board in 1974, Crowder held a key role as the board’s representative to the “M to M” program, under which some students at minority-heavy schools were bused to white majority campuses at their parents’ request. Turnipseed said her mother believed in the initiative not only as a way of increasing educational opportunity for minority students but also as a way for white and black students to get to know each other.
Thomas said Crowder used the bully pulpit of elected office to right other wrongs.
As he remembers, “Black students weren’t allowed to be in talented and gifted programs. Administrators said they hadn’t found any kids that could score at the qualifying level. Carolyn wouldn’t accept that.” He said that with the board’s meetings on public TV, she made her concerns about the status quo evident in a very front-and-center way.
She kept asking, “How is that that no African-American students across the entire district qualify for these programs?”
The result? Black students began to gain admission.
For all of her civic and professional work, said her children, nothing mattered to her more than family.
“All of us were spoiled rotten,” recalled Kennedy. But expectations were high.
Turnipseed added: “Mom used to have a calendar for the month with chores listed on it and our names attached. She believed in everything being in order. That was the administrator in her.”
Crowder left the school board in 1990 but her decades-long friend Smith said she never lost her focus on her church home, her music or her civic activism. She relates how Crowder campaigned to have a small side street in her neighborhood that served only two churches, but no homes, repaved. It took three years, but it got done.
Smith said she and the former school board member were still working on a joint neighborhood project even as her health declined recently.
“She was always looking out for others,” said Smith.
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