Her flame burned brightly for public education, civil rights, and the dignity of work. Mary Bishop did her part in getting Arizona to embrace equal rights and social justice. She experienced school segregation and prejudice, but she took satisfaction at the results of the tenacious work of many to make change.
“I marched around Phoenix to open up counters because the rules were blacks could not sit at the counter,” the retired teacher told an Oral History interviewer at the Tempe History Museum in 2009. “I was with Lincoln Ragsdale, George Brooks, and Opal Ellis. We all marched around the area until the counter was opened up to blacks. I’ve been a little into the civil rights, but not as much as others because I had a job I had to protect.”
Mary combined 30 years of teaching with a half-century of support and leadership with the National Education Association. She was a stalwart member of the African American Advisory Committee in Tempe that collects and preserves the African American history of Tempe and promotes those stories for the benefit of the community.
Mary can take some credit for lowering the resistance in her neighborhood near Rural Road and Southern Avenue for turning the former Rural Elementary School into a Fry’s market and construction of Tempe Elementary School District offices. And she spoke out to those who were opposed to the expansion of Grace Community Church just across the street from her home.
“I taught second grade, and I taught the children about civil rights,” she told the Oral History interviewer. A highlight of her 87 years was seeing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at Arizona State University’s long razed Goodwin Stadium to about 8,000 people in June 1964. “I was there,” she said. “He was a very inspirational man. To me, he was fearless.”
Born in Yuma on May 17, 1930, she was one of four children who lived for a time in a two-room house in the country. Her mother was a domestic worker, and her father was employed at an ostrich farm and was a bus driver. They later moved into Yuma. “Most black folk activities were centered around church and family,” she remembered. Mary attended two schools while in Yuma, but when she got to 4th grade, the family moved to Phoenix where she attended the segregated Booker T. Washington School.
“We just didn’t go to school with white kids,” she said. “We had teachers who cared. They were firm with us, but they taught us well.” Her 8th grade graduating class had no auditorium at their school, so they held ceremonies at Monroe School, once the largest elementary school west of the Mississippi and now a museum. She attended the famous George Washington Carver High School on East Grant Street, once known as Phoenix Union Colored High School, the only high school built exclusively to serve African-American high students in Arizona. It was closed in 1954, a year after a Maricopa County Superior Court Judge ruled that segregated high schools in Phoenix were unconstitutional.
One of Mary’s classmates there was the former Chandler mayor, Coy Payne.
In those years, Mary sang in the choir, served as commanding officer of the ROTC, and worked as a cashier in the school lunchroom, from which she was fired. “We had problems. I picketed and lost my job” for joining a protest because “we didn’t like the food.” Still, she conceded, “It was good food. I don’t know why we decided we wanted to picket – just doing something.” Mary pleaded to have her job back, and “I was able to convince him (the principal) that I had done the wrong thing.”
After high school, Mary enrolled at Arizona State College. She was there from 1949 to 1953. It was not pleasant, she said. “I knew there was a lot of prejudice among the teaching staff,” she said. “I knew that I was a good student because I was on the National Honor Society in high school” but at ASC, “I could not get an ‘A.’” However, Mary managed to get A’s and B’s in-home economics one semester for her sewing. The final test was a breeze, she said, but her instructor gave her a final grade of ‘C.’ When she sought an explanation, she learned the teacher was in Europe and couldn’t be reached.
“All of us had problems with grades, getting the grades we earned, but we just persevered,” she said. Mary saw injustice in student housing. Blacks from Africa were allowed to live in ASC dormitories, but African-Americans could not. She regularly commuted to school from her family home in Phoenix. Mary was the first in her family to graduate from college.
“Most of the blacks, during our time were in education, because that’s where we could get a job,” she is quoted saying in the book, “The African American Experience in Tempe” by Jared Smith. “Then they ventured off into nursing, but most of us were educators.” Many of these teachers would find work at two school districts because “we could only teach in Phoenix Elementary School District and Roosevelt School District.”
Mary taught a year at ASU in a teacher-professor exchange. As an intercity instructor, she worked in the ASU Department of Education.
She met Arblee Bishop after he was discharged from the U.S. Air Force in 1955. He wanted Mary to go with him to Texas where his family was. She balked, arguing she was the one with a job and she could not leave her mother. Arblee went to Texas but returned soon. They were married in 1959.
Mary taught in the Phoenix district until she retired in 1983. She stepped up her work with the Arizona Education Association and with National Education Association where she served on its Human and Civil Rights Committee for seven years and its credentials committee. “I’ve had beautiful years” with the organization, she said.
“When we moved to Tempe, this was nothing but fields,” she recalled. From Phoenix, the Mill Avenue Bridge was the primary way to get into Tempe.” During her Oral History talk, Mary shared a number of stories of prejudice. There was the time her house was egged by boys next door. She confronted them, ordered them to clean up the mess as their parents watched, “and there wasn’t any more trouble.” Another time a neighbor came knocking with a claim that multiple families were living at her house, despite a lack of evidence. Mary invited him in and got him to apologize for the false accusation.
At the invitation of then Tempe school superintendent Dr. Ralph Goitia, she stood at a public hearing to convince those opposing construction of a Fry’s market and school district headquarters where Rural Elementary School stood at Southern and Rural. “Neighbors were fighting. They didn’t want a store,” she said. Mary raised her hand, looked around the room, and said, “You’re gonna need a store that you can walk to. I don’t know what you’re thinking. I don’t know what you are fussing about because all of you are going to be old and decrepit, pushing your buggies to the store, and you need a store close.” The project went forward.
The “same people” opposed expansion of nearby Grace Community Church.
“Nobody asked me to come to that meeting. I just went …. As I looked around, I’d see some of the same faces. ‘What’s wrong with you people? This is a church! It’s going to serve the community. Why wouldn’t you want it to expand?”
Mary was 87 when she died on May 17, 2017.