LUMBERTON — Two people who knew Agnes Chavis and worked with her are remembering the former educator and champion of improved educational opportunities as a strong, dedicated advocate who inspired others and was a wonderful person.
Agnes Mae Hunt Chavis, the Pembroke resident and Lumbee Tribe member who spent 47 years educating local children, died Sunday at the age of 92.
“Ms. Agnes was dear friend and a mentor for me. I was honored to work with her, and I am saddened to hear of her passing,” said state Rep. Charles Graham, a Democrat from Lumberton and retired Robeson County educator.
Graham said he spent his first year as a teacher working side-by-side with Chavis.
“I started my teaching career in the same classroom,” Graham said. “We were team-teaching.”
She served as an inspiration for him, Graham said. In later years, they worked together on educational issues and projects to help students and teachers. Chavis also spent many years working with physically handicapped and mentally challenged students and worked to improve educational outcomes for these children.
“She touched many lives during her career and throughout her life,” Graham said.
Chavis’ family and Graham’s family became close during the lawmaker’s years as a student at Pembroke High School. Graham and Chavis’ son, Chester Chavis, played sports together, were in the same class and graduated together.
Chavis and her husband were big supporters of athletics at Pembroke High for many years, Graham said.
“She was a wonderful person,” he said. “She had a lot of influence on my life and many other educators. She was a very strong person and was very determined to do everything she could to improve the educational outcome for children, and for their parents.”
Linda Oxendine, professor emeritus of American Indian Studies at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, remembers an advocate for American Indian education. She worked with Chavis in the early 1970s when Oxendine served in the Office of Indian Education in Washington, D.C., and Chavis was on the advisory board.
“She was very dedicated. I remember that about her,” Oxendine said.
Chavis was involved in many issues related to education, Oxendine said.
“She was a lovely person,” Oxendine said.
She and Chavis attended Berea Baptist Church in Pembroke. Chavis would send birthday and anniversary cards to people.
“She will be remembered, I’m sure, as a strong advocate for Indian education on the national stage and locally,” Oxendine said. “On a personal level, she was just a fine person.”
Chavis was selected by the National Education Association as the recipient of the 2005 Leo Reano Memorial Award in recognition of her leadership in resolving social problems.
The NEA wrote at the time that despite ethnic discrimination and fragile health, Chavis managed to get a college degree. Early in her teaching career, Chavis dared to challenge entrenched attitudes in order to push open schoolhouse doors for children of color. During a lifetime career of educating American Indians and the poor, Chavis championed equal access to education, better funding and recognition of Indian culture.
A daughter of a teacher, Chavis’ commitment to ensuring equal educational opportunity and preserving the American Indian heritage was instinctual and profound, according to the NEA.
“Generations have struggled to learn, despite efforts to eliminate our traditions and language,” Chavis said at the time. “Having a strong sense of yourself and your community is a great foundation for learning.”
Chavis, a graduate of Pembroke State College in 1944, began her teaching career as one of only eight teachers in a tiny impoverished school that served 324 poor and predominately tenant farmer children in the Robeson County school system. Chavis and her colleagues solicited throwaway books, magazines and newspapers from the community and paid for school supplies for students with their own money. To help parents clothe their children, the teachers held sewing nights and appealed to local merchants for help.
“It is in no small measure that the children of Pembroke walk with their heads held high thanks to Agnes Chavis’ struggle to provide every child an equitable and quality education that also embraces their rich heritage,” NEA President Reg Weaver said at the time.
The funeral will be at 3 p.m. Wednesday at Berea Baptist Church. Burial will follow in the Reedy Branch Church Cemetery.
Chavis’ complete obituary in on page 2A of today’s edition of The Robesonian.
Reach T.C. Hunter by calling 910-816-1974 or via email at [email protected]