In The Steps of Esteban: Tucson's African American Heritage

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Elmer Carrier

Summary of an oral history by Rita Wilson; 1996

Elmer G. Carrier was born on July 18, 1910, in Beaumont, Texas. He was the only child of a Leo and Monica Graham Carrier, natives of Louisiana. His father was a longshoreman and was a good provider for his family.

Elmer Carrier graduated from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas in 1936. He married Ms. Woodie Collins shortly thereafter, and accepted a teaching position in Dallas. Eventually he was asked to come to Tucson and teach in the city's public schools by Dr. Floyd Thompson, an old friend of his father's.

Carrier taught a variety of subjects at Dunbar Junior High School while pursuing his master's degree in physical education at the University of Arizona. After Dunbar closed, he taught math and English at Safford Junior High School, and later was made principal of the school. Eight years before his retirement, Mr. Carrier was asked to take over as principal at Utterback Junior High School, a "problem school" that was failing to educate its students. By locating and hiring competent, motivated teachers he was able to make a difference in the futures of many Utterback students.

Elmer Carrier is recognized as a outstanding educator dedicated to improving life in the Tucson community. He was a member of the Tucson Commission on Human Relations, the Urban League, and the NAACP. He continues to meet with students, trying to inspire them to set high educational goals.

Summary of an Interview with Mr. Elmer G. Carrier
by Rita Wilson; 1991

Mr. Elmer G. Carrier was interviewed at his home on Sunday, April 7, 1991. Seventy-nine years young, he appeared to be healthy, strong and active. He said his appearance was the result of his athletic background, good eating habits and drinking socially only. He lives with his wife and daughter in a home filled with beautiful plants and antiques. He is a man of authority and confidence.

Mr. Carrier was born on July 18, 1910, in Beaumont, Texas. Growing up as an only child, he recalled that his family was well-off and always had what they needed because his father, Leo Carrier, was a longshoreman. His mother, Monica Graham, and father were from Louisiana.

The Carriers came to Beaumont in search of a life away from family pressures. It was very hard for them because Leo Carrier was creole and his family didn't like Monica because she was of a darker complexion. They not only endured white racism, but Black-on-Black discrimination as well. That better life didn't seem to come for Monica and Leo Carrier. They found themselves getting a divorce.

Mr. Carrier then moved to Tucson, Arizona. After the divorce Mrs. Carrier remarried. She died while her son was still in junior high school. Leo Carrier came back to Beaumont for the funeral and wanted his son to return with him to Tucson, but his stepfather and family felt that it wouldn't be a good idea for him to be uprooted. After he finished junior high school, Elmer Carrier went on to high school, graduated, and then went to college.

"Everyone was college-minded then," he said, "so when you were in high school you prepared yourself so that you would be ready." Mr. Carrier moved to Tucson to live with his father and attend the University of Arizona. After one year, Mr. Carrier felt very unhappy about the way he and other African American students were treated. "Discrimination didn't affect me as much while I was growing up as it did when I got older and came to Tucson," he said. Negroes couldn't live on campus. They were forced to find other housing. They were not allowed to eat in the student union building. Also, at that time Mr. Carrier was majoring in physical education and needed a certificate for life saving, but Blacks were not permitted to swim in the pool.

After experiencing so much discrimination in one year, he was so disgusted that he dropped out of school. A few months later, Mr. Carrier and some of his athlete friends were influenced by a fellow Texan and University of Arizona student named Mott Smith.

Mr. Smith was pursuing a master's degree at the University of Arizona. Mr. Smith felt that Mr. Carrier and his friends had academic potential as well as athletic ability. He convinced them to attend Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, on an athletic scholarship. Mr. Carrier played football and baseball there. He joined the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity at Wiley, and met Miss Woodie Collins, his future wife. Mr. Carrier graduated in 1936 with a bachelor's degree in the social sciences. He married Miss Collins in New Mexico in 1937. They have been married 50 years.

After graduating, Mr. Carrier took a teaching position in Dallas. There he met Dr. Floyd Thompson, an old friend of his father. Dr. Thompson, who according to Mr. Carrier was the first Black dentist in Tucson, recruited him back to Tucson to teach in the city's public schools. Dr. Thompson felt Mr. Carrier could help make changes for Blacks in Tucson. He was right.

Mr. Carrier worked at all-Black Dunbar Junior High School. He did a little of everything there; teaching math, shop, writing, and physical education, as well as coaching basketball, track, football and baseball. His teams won many championships. He also went back to the University of Arizona.

Mr. and Mrs. Carrier settled down in Tucson and had three children, William, Monica, and Susie, while he pursued his master's degree in physical education. His father had willed him plots of land and rental properties, but he was still hindered by racism and segregation.

Mr. Carrier said Blacks were forced to live in one area of town: south of Speedway Boulevard and no further east than Alvernon Way. Blacks were discriminated against in public accommodations. "Negroes weren't allowed to sit on lower floors (in theaters)," Mr. Carrier said. "We sat in the balcony." A Mexican downtown drug store owner was the only person who would serve Blacks. They could not eat in white owned restaurants downtown. Blacks could swim in the public pool only on Thursdays after other groups had used it all week. The pool was cleaned every Friday.

Mr. Carrier was determined to get his master's degree. It took six years, but he was inspired by the fact that he had dropped out before and that he wanted to help the less fortunate. Later Dunbar was closed down and Mr. Carrier moved on to Safford Junior High School. At Safford he taught math and English and later he took on the position of principal. Eight years before his retirement, Mr. Carrier was asked to take over as principal at Utterback Junior High School.

He was shocked when he was asked to take over. Utterback was considered "a problem school" that had to be cleaned up. The population was 50% Mexican, 25% Anglo, and 25% African American students. Many of the children wanted to learn, but it was the teachers who didn't want to educate them. So Mr. Carrier was forced to get rid of 34 out of 36 teachers. He said that in order for the children to get the proper attention and education this had to be done.

He said it was a very ugly situation that he was not proud of, but someone had to do it. "The kids deserved more than what some of those teachers were giving them," he said. Mr. Carrier then hired teachers who were willing to educate these children.

Mr. Carrier was devoted to improving the community. He was a member of the Tucson Commission on Human Relations, the Urban League, and the NAACP, which played an important role in desegregating schools in 1951. He felt children should be able to attend schools in their own neighborhoods if they wished. He was the first Black appointed to a state commission, the Arizona Children's Colony in 1961.

Mr. Carrier has a lot of memorabilia in his den from his years as an educator and sportsman. He has all of his degrees on the walls. He also received a plaque from the children he coached when he was teaching school. He was highly respected by everyone he ever worked with.

Mr. Carrier was a great educator. Now that he is retired, he is still educating the public. In his spare time Mr. Carrier talks to students, sharing his knowledge about the past and letting them know just how important education is. He also visits prisoners throughout the state frequently, encouraging them to reform and become productive citizens upon their release.

As a result of interviewing Mr. Elmer G. Carrier, I have learned that the horrors of segregation were not confined only to the deep South. Arizona, like the entire nation, had serious racial problems in the past that continue to haunt us in more subtle ways now. If not for people, both Black and white, like Mr. Carrier who dedicate their lives to providing a just and equal education to youngsters, it would be harder for us to survive.