Text says "Texas A-F-T celebrates Black History Month."

Recognizing Important Texans

February is Black History Month, an important time for educators and students to celebrate the contributions and accomplishments of Black people throughout history and acknowledge the struggles and injustices of the past and present.

Each week of Black History Month, Texas AFT will highlight a Black Texan from our communities and current or retired Texas school employees, all nominated by our local leaders.

We believe to #TeachTheTruth, we must recognize and lift up the contributions of the wonderfully diverse population of our state, our country, and our world.

For more ways to bring Black History Month into the classroom, check out the free lesson plans and resources available to AFT members through Share My Lesson.

Shirley Harris

Groundbreaking Graduate

Shirley Harris
Shirley Harris

Nominated by Dwight Harris, past president of Victoria AFT

Dwight Harris is not the only remarkable member of his family. In 1967, Dwight’s sister Shirley became the first Black student to graduate from Texas State University (then called Southwest Texas State College). 

The school had been forcibly integrated in 1963 by court order. Immediately, five Black women registered for classes. Harris joined the “Freedom Five” two years later, though she became the first of the group to complete her degree. 

Harris earned her bachelor’s in education and went on to teach at the elementary level in San Antonio for 40 years. 

“She was a go-getter,” her brother said, reflecting in an interview with Texas State’s student newspaper. “If you gave her something to do it was going to get it done and it was going to be done correctly.” 

Shirley Harris has never received formal recognition from her alma mater for her accomplishments, nor from the state of Texas. That’s something Dwight Harris aims to remedy, and his union stands with him. 

We urge both Texas State University and the Texas Legislature to commemorate Harris’ remarkable life and achievements publicly. 

Dwight Harris

First Amendment Fighter

Dwight Harris
Dwight Harris

Nominated by Zeph Capo, president of Texas AFT

One of the first members of his family to attend a non-segregated public school, Dwight Harris is a long-time educator and union leader who went on to serve as the president of Victoria AFT.

Texas educators also have Harris to credit for a major legal precedent, as he successfully brought a First Amendment lawsuit against Victoria ISD in 1999 that broke important new legal ground.

Harris and Gene Martin, another AFT member, were elected by fellow educators at their high school to be on the Site Based Decision Making committee. In that capacity, they relayed staff concerns and criticisms of the high school principal.

The superintendent, who was doing his best to prop up that principal’s failing leadership, abruptly transferred both Harris and Martin to other high schools, in a clear case of retaliation.

After the school board ratified the transfers, the pair filed a First Amendment lawsuit, with Texas AFT’s backing, asserting that they had been retaliated against for protected speech. They won their case at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The case established that a mid-year involuntary transfer to a different campus, even though there was no loss of pay, could still be considered an “adverse action” over which a teacher could sue.

The court also found that as staff representatives and union leaders, their speech was protected by the First Amendment. Ultimately, Harris and Martin were offered reinstatement at their original campus.

Harris continues his advocacy work on behalf of public education and our union as a Texas AFT lobbyist at the Texas Legislature.

Allie Faye Pitts

Lifelong Educator

Allie Faye Pitts
Allie Faye Pitts

Nominated by Dr. Nancy Vera, president of the Corpus Christi Federation of Teachers

Allie Faye Hillyer Pitts was a teacher who dedicated her life to uplifting the disenfranchised and marginalized in Corpus Christi. She has been lauded at the local, state, and national levels for her outstanding service to the community and to Corpus Christi’s children.

After earning a bachelor’s of science from Samuel Huston College and a master’s in elementary education from Prairie View A&M University, she received her counseling certification at Texas A&M University at Kingsville.

Her first years teaching were spent in Berclair and Refugio, before embarking on a 38-year teaching career with Corpus Christi ISD. She retired in 1980 after 42 years of devoted teaching.

She served on the Greenwood Molina Nursery board of directors for 28 years, and she and her husband were instrumental in securing the nursery’s first building. She also served on the board of the Bethune Day Nursery for more than 30 years.

When Pitts committed to a cause, she committed fully. She was a lifelong member of H. Boyd Hall Chapter of NAACP and a lifetime member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, becoming a charter member of the Gamma Alpha Zeta chapter in Corpus Christi. In fact, she held every office in that organization.

The Museum of African American Life and Culture inducted Pitts into its Texas Black Women’s Hall of Fame. She died in 2011 at age 97.

Wretha Rawls Thomas

Good Troublemaker

Wretha Thomas holding a sign that says "Union Leader."
Wretha Thomas

Nominated by Denetris Jones, vice president of Houston Educational Support Personnel

Wretha Rawls Thomas is the founding president of Houston Educational Support Personnel, the only support personnel union in the state of Texas. 

Born and raised in Jasper, in East Texas, Thomas moved to Houston in 1979. For 15 years, she worked in housekeeping with Houston ISD, where she noticed how some of the custodians, who were older women, were being mistreated.

Thomas began talking with other custodians about standing up for their rights, but they were afraid. So she began to speak up for them, soon getting labeled as a troublemaker by district administration. 

This did not stop her. When she transferred to a different school, she began to implement a vision of organizing support staff. In one month, her efforts took the fledgling group from 50 to 800 members. Together, HESP members have won better health benefits for employees and fought for fair pay for HISD blue collar workers. 

Thomas also founded Pillars of the Community, a community organization that annually bestows awards on Black trailblazers from the past, in the present, and for the future. More than 300 community members have been recognized in Houston, and more than 100 in Thomas’s hometown of Jasper. 

She continues her work giving voice to the voiceless today, becoming deeply embedded in the work of AFT to build true community schools with wraparound services. 

Tony Chenevert

Teaching the Truth

Tony Chenevert
Tony Chenevert

Nominated by Rena Honea, president of Alliance/AFT

Born and raised in Detroit, Tony Chenevert began his education career in 1968, teaching English while also becoming a union building leader for the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

He began teaching African-American literature and history courses, but he struggled to find selections and information about Black achievement and accomplishments to share with his students. 

During this time, Chenevert came upon the words of Frederick Douglass, adamant that this country could only live up to its constitutional promise and its potential when it fully acknowledged and addressed systemic racism. Our kids, he still believes, deserve and expect the truth. 

In the mid 1980s, Chenevert moved to Dallas and began teaching English at W.W. Samuell High School, along with coaching both boys’ and girls’ golf teams. There, he became a member of Alliance/AFT and continued his union involvement, becoming a strong building leader. 

Chenevert, together with his talented and capable colleagues, created the “Wing Commanders” campus team. This group of enthusiastic union members were responsible for recruiting members and communicating with their wing in the school, making the work of their union more inclusive and effective. He served his last four years of teaching at North Dallas High School and was elected as the first vice president of Alliance/AFT in 2011, the year he retired from Dallas ISD.

Rep. Alma Allen

Public School Proud

Alma Allen
Alma Allen

Nominated by Jackie Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers

State Rep. Alma Allen has been an unrelenting advocate for public education in Texas for decades, as well as a stalwart ally for public school employees in her own community and statewide. 

Allen has a more in-depth understanding of our public schools than any other state lawmaker, with experience as an elementary school teacher, an assistant principal, a principal, and an adjunct professor. 

Allen retired from Houston ISD after 39 years of service, before being elected to the State Board of Education, an office she held for a decade. 

Since she was first elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 2004, Allen has fervently defended public schools and public school educators. 
Already, in the 88th Legislature, she has been named as vice chair of the House Public Education Committee and has filed or co-sponsored bills to give public school employees raises, give retired educators an annual COLA, and ban corporal punishment in schools, among other things.

Jalen McKee-Rodriguez

Trailblazing Teacher

Black and white portait of Jalen
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez

Nominated by Alejandra Lopez, president of the San Antonio Alliance

Jalen McKee-Rodriguez is an educator who also now represents District 2 on San Antonio’s City Council.

A certified math teacher, McKee-Rodriguez’s inspiration for running for office came largely from his firsthand experiences with students and their families, whose voices were going unheard.

When elected, McKee-Rodriguez became the first openly gay man elected to the San Antonio City Council, and the first openly gay Black man elected to any seat in Texas.

Born in Kentucky, McKee-Rodriguez moved to San Antonio to attend The University of Texas at San Antonio, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communication and a master’s in educational leadership and policy studies.

His work on the council has included passionate advocacy for a variety of causes and issues, including public education, labor rights, and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

Danielle Cockrell

Commitment Personified

Danielle Cockrell

Nominated by Nikki Cowart, president of Cy-Fair AFT

Danielle Cockrell has been an educator for 18 years, but that is far from the only important job she holds. Cockrell is a single mother and the vice president for her local union, Cy-Fair AFT.

“We should all be grateful for educators like Danielle,” wrote Cy-Fair AFT President Nikki Cowart in nominating Cockrell. “She is so very well-respected by her students, campus colleagues, campus administration and, of course, her union family.”

With a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, Cockrell teaches high school algebra. Among the assets that her colleagues and students ascribe to her are boundless energy and a smile that lights up every room.

With all her “spare time,” Cockrell acts as a student council sponsor and has previously sponsored the Young Ladies for Positive Action step team on her campus. And in her role as an active union leader, she regularly speaks at Cy-Fair ISD school board meetings to advocate for the needs of all students and staff.

Julia Scott Reed

Voice for the Voiceless

Julia Scott Reed

Nominated by Rena Honea, president of Alliance/AFT

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Julia Scott Reed became the first Black journalist hired by the Dallas Morning News. Her column, “The Open Line,” ran from 1967 until 1978, cementing itself as an integral part of Black community life in Dallas.

Reed started her career as the Texas correspondent for the Kansas City Call, a weekly Black newspaper, before moving to the Dallas Express, the city’s premier Black newspaper.

She quickly moved up the ranks at the Express, from secretary to city desk editor, and rightly so. Reed reported several major historical events, including the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case and Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination, an event she witnessed.

At a time of virulent racism, Reed’s hiring at the Dallas Morning-News was remarkable, a watershed moment for communication between the city’s Black and white communities.

In her column, Reed exposed untold stories of her neighbors. She wrote of the impact, noting that her column had connected readers with jobs and even helped several Black foster children find adoptive homes.

Outside of journalism, Reed was an active participant in civil rights demonstrations, protesting segregation at Dallas department stores.

The Museum of African American Life and Culture inducted Reed into its Texas Black Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986. She died in 2004 at age 87.

Maurice Rausaw

Man About Campus

Close-up photo of Maurice in black and white, with a red, yellow, and green banner below.
Maurice Rausaw

Nominated by Nikki Cowart, president of Cy-Fair AFT

Maurice Rausaw has been teaching full-time in Texas for more than 30 years, and 27 of those have been with Cy-Fair ISD.

He is wholly dedicated to his students, preparing them with the tools they need to succeed at all levels. While Rausaw teaches Career & Technology Education and business courses at a middle school, all of his courses count for high school credit.

If you attend any function in Cy-Fair ISD, there is a good chance you’ll run into Rausaw. As the advisor and part-time photographer for the school yearbook, he attends nearly every school activity. He is also the sponsor for the step team on his campus and oversees the technology club.

Rausaw is just as committed to his work as a union member, representing Cy-Fair AFT members as an active, engaged building representative. His commitment to education — to both his students and his peers — amazes his fellow union members.

“Mr. Maurice Rausaw,” wrote Cy-Fair AFT President Nikki Cowart in nominating Rausaw, “we recognize and affirm you today and always for the countless ways you pour into our students while building our union family.”

Coretta Mallet-Fontenot

Tireless Educator

Headshot of Coretta in black and white with a red, green, and yellow banner below
Coretta Mallet-Fontenot

Nominated by Jackie Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers

Coretta Mallet-Fontenot has 25 years of experience as an educator, and in that time, there is very little she has not done for Houston ISD.

A product of Houston public schools herself, Mallet-Fontenot has held the following roles in her career with the district: instructional aide; classroom teacher; cluster/team leader; department chair; literacy coach; instructional coordinator; testing coordinator; dyslexia coordinator; interventionist; and mentor teacher.

Currently a second-grade teacher, she has been nominated for Teacher of the Year on multiple campuses (one high school, one middle school). In 2022, she used her wealth of experience and her passion for public schools to run for a seat on the State Board of Education.

As we know, educators’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions, and Mallet-Fontenot has dedicated herself to improving both through her work as a member of the Houston Federation of Teachers’ executive board and as a previous co-chair of Houston ISD’s District Advisory Committee.

Mallet-Fontenot never stops striving for better, and she is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in educational leadership in literacy at the University of Houston.

Roxie Doris Wells Byrd

Community Champion

Archive photo of Ms Byrd in black and white with a red, green, and yellow banner.
Roxie Doris Wells Byrd

Nominated by Dr. Nancy Vera, president of the Corpus Christi Federation of Teachers

Roxie Doris Wells Byrd was an advocate for women of color in Corpus Christi and encouraged women to rise in society by attaining higher education degrees. She was a champion for equality, education, and civil rights.

Byrd was born in Hempstead, and she earned a bachelor’s science and a master’s degree in elementary education from Prairie View A&M University.

Byrd taught third grade at Solomon Coles School for two years, before transferring to Booker T. Washington Elementary School upon its completion. After many years of teaching, she retired in 1975 from Travis Elementary School.

Outside of her work in education, Byrd was active in her community and her church. She was a member of the Gamma Alpha Zeta Chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority, which bestowed upon her its highest honors for her stellar work as an educator and community advocate.

Byrd’s impact in her Corpus Christi community was widespread and included membership and leadership with the Negro Business and Professional Women Club, the Corpus Christi Retired Teachers Association, the Greenwood Molina Nursery School board of directors, the Corpus Christi Library Board, and the Dr. H. Boyd Hall chapter of NAACP.

The Museum of African American Life and Culture inducted Byrd into its Texas Black Women’s Hall of Fame. She died in 1998 at age 86.