These are good days for Alice Bynum. At just a few years shy of 100, she feels well and has everything she needs by way of worldly goods. She has plenty of people she loves and plenty who love her.
And, she lived long enough to see an African American inaugurated as president not once but twice, something she never thought she would see as a young woman growing up in Virginia during the Jim Crow era.
“I never thought that this would happen in my time,” said Bynum. “I had a feeling it would happen, but not during my life. I think that that’s what made us so happy. The family was so happy that I could see it happen. And, to see it happen twice.” She stopped talking as there were no words to express her feelings.
More than 80 years have passed since Bynum registered to vote during the early 1930s. And, while she doesn’t remember all the details of casting her first vote, she vividly recalls how proud and excited she was.
“I’ve been voting a long, long time,” Bynum told the AFRO a few days before the second inauguration of President Obama. “I don’t remember the first president I voted for, but I remember being very excited…It was an honor.”
It wasn’t long before Bynum, the fifth of nine siblings, began to raise her voice in pursuit of equality for Black teachers and students in Virginia. In 1935, she was awarded a teaching certificate from a normal school, a two-year school for teachers. She went on to complete her bachelor’s degree at Virginia State College for Negroes in 1941 before taking an assignment teaching second and third-graders at Jefferson Elementary School, a three-room school for African-American children in Jarratt, Va.
Troubled by the school system’s unfair treatment of African-American students and teachers, she reached her boiling point when a friend, the Black high school principal, was fired for speaking out in favor of better schools, teachers and transportation for Blacks.
Bynum was livid. She and her friend had spoken often about the inequities, watching Black children walk to and from school, no matter how great the distance or inclement the weather, while White students were transported by bus from very short distances. She was especially galled that Black teachers were forced to accept lesser pay than White teachers.
That’s when she knew that it was time to raise her voice.
“After he was fired, I decided that I needed to take a stand. I got together with a lawyer, Oliver Hill from Richmond, and we decided to file a lawsuit against the school board,” Bynum said.
She said there were other teachers who wanted to join her legal battle, but they were afraid of losing their jobs. So, she took it on alone.
Chuckling softly, Bynum recalled the risk involved in speaking against the segregated system. Blacks who spoke out were typically fired and often had difficulty securing other jobs. Teaching was considered one of the best jobs a Black woman could have and there were some who thought she was reckless to risk her position to take a stand.
“I was poor as a church mouse, but I had to do it,” she said. “I just thought that it was the right thing to do. I used to feel so sorry for my kids walking in the cold. Then, once they got to school, they didn’t have proper heating. I just had to do something.”
Speaking up did cost her the job. Her contract was not renewed. She recalled going to the superintendent to ask why.
“He said that I was being denied a contract because I had not acted in good faith with the school board, which didn’t make any sense to me,” Bynum said. “He never said I wasn’t a good teacher. He said I didn’t act in accordance with the school board. It was then that he offered me an increase in salary. Not the school system, just me.”
Hush money, she said.
“I told him that would be defeating my purpose. ‘I’m here for the whole county!’” she recalled. “We left it at that, and I never got a new contract.”
Although she did not win her case, she says there were small victories. Black children who lived more than four miles from school were given transportation and teachers received a modest increase in salary. While she received no benefit, her attorney, working with Thurgood Marshall and others from the NAACP, later pursued a case against the school board, Alston v. School Board of Norfolk, Va., and won.
As she sat in her living room, Bynum talked about her life, Obama’s success and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose official birthday observance coincided with Inauguration Day.
“I think it says something special because Dr. King was a fighter for rights, and folks like Dr. King are why Obama is where he is today,” she said. “A lot of pieces have been put together, and Obama got to be president. Although I lost my job, I always said my part was just a little part. The truth is, people did all kinds of little parts, all of the little parts came together and we got Obama there.”
Bynum was not planning to attend any inaugural events, but she said she has been glued to the television. She watched the Inauguration Day events from her living room.
“By voting, I participated in the most important way,” she said. “The rest of it is icing on the cake, dessert. In front of the television, surrounded by family with my Pepsi and cookies, is the best seat in the house.”