An Interview with Dr. Angela Townsend
At commencement on May 5, 2022, WKU will award an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree to a pioneering Kentucky educator, Angela Alexander Townsend, who grew up in the Jonesville neighborhood of Bowling Green. Dr. Townsend was born on the spot where Diddle Arena is now located, and her father owned a grocery store on Russellville Pike, now Avenue of Champions. Faculty in the History Department put forth her nomination in recognition of both her career as an educator and her work in preserving the history of Jonesville. The following is an interview with Dr. Townsend conducted by Dr. Alex Olson on May 1, 2022.
Dr. Olson: Congratulations on this honor and thank you for participating in this interview! What inspired you to pursue a career as an educator?
Dr. Townsend: My own single-parent, talented, busy, and industrious role-modeling mother, Thedders Alexander, extended family members, church, and teachers all contributed to the impetus for my quest to become an educator. First, my mother kept our house stocked with books, toys, and pets that she allowed my brother, friends, and me to decide upon, care for, and share. Later in life, she modeled caring for and helping children in many important areas of young developing lives. She inspired me to pursue a career as an educator.
Dr. Olson: You attended the University of Kentucky and completed your student teaching at Lexington’s Dunbar High School. What are some of the main ways that education in Kentucky changed over the course of your career?
Dr. Townsend: I’m glad you asked that question as there were massive changes with KERA, the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, which many Kentuckians (parents, ministers, and even some teachers and university professors) never seemed to fully understand or grasp the benefits of. There was talk of large groups of ministers meeting to get the Act disbanded, and in the long run they were probably most effective because of the size of their collective congregations and the influence they had upon them. Legislators, of course, were sensitive to their constituents, so many of the measures of KERA were sacrificed in the process.
I was fortunate enough to have undergone a very stringent selection process to become a Kentucky Distinguished Educator. In this role, I was charged with executing KERA, at a time when Kentucky was at or near the bottom of many national educational rankings. The training program which I pursued fit very well with what I felt good teaching and learning should include.
Dr. Olson: Your family has a long history on the land where WKU is now located. What was it like to grow up in Jonesville?
Dr. Townsend: Growing up in Jonesville was great! Not much crime. Lots of camaraderie among neighbors. My great grandmother Lizzie Loving Taylor and I sat on her porch almost every day in handmade bonnets she had skillfully sewn. Some days, we would take a trip to her cellar underneath her house to gather the glass jars of canned food she had preserved earlier.
Dr. Olson: How did it feel to see the university construct buildings on land where your family had lived for generations?
Dr. Townsend: My great grandparents were barely out of slavery when they were able to purchase, work, and maintain the land which WKU usurped through urban renewal at almost no compensation. I was very hurt to see them fraught with frustration and depressed about the prospect of losing what they had worked so hard to achieve. Also, my place of refuge and great memories of meals and visitations from out of town, beloved cousins were going to be diminished at a minimum or disappear altogether! I was the recipient of Mama Lizzie’s pet name for me: “Old Sugar.” Mama Lizzie was my grandmother Mama Ellen’s mother. Living diagonally across the street (Avenue of Champions formerly Russellville Road), they visited one another many times during the day. It makes my stomach bubble to drive across WKU’s campus and see all those names on the structures and not my ancestors on a single door.
Dr. Olson: I know you had a special bond with your grandmother Ellen Taylor Alexander. What would she say if she could see you receive this honor?
Dr. Townsend: She would be overjoyed to see me with this award! But not half as ecstatic as she would be to discuss the event with her six sons that she reared, vacationed with, and spent special holidays with at her house in Jonesville. Each of the sons having me as their first niece was an everlasting joy for them! Each time they returned home, they saw her refrigerator covered with clippings of me and my accomplishments. All thought I was the smartest thing they had ever encountered and filled my life with special and unusual trips, toys, and funds, for that was what she had taught them. All marveled when I insisted that I was going to grow up to be president of the United States.
Dr. Olson: What are your thoughts on the recent wave of laws restricting the way educators are allowed to address black history in the classroom?
Dr. Townsend: As someone who spent the entirety of her K-12 years in segregated Kentucky schools, I am deeply saddened that my own story may no longer be permitted to be shared with students. My story is one of triumph in the midst of adversity. It is the very foundation of my inclusion in the Teacher Hall of Fame. And it began when I was a student. I have documented much of my story on a website highlighting the contributions of Kentucky Women in the Civil Rights Era. But this resource, too, may soon become off-limits to students.
Over my nearly 40-year teaching career, I drew upon my own student experience, rooted in legally sanctioned inequality, to change the course of education for students of all races. I did this in large part by developing a comprehensive curriculum that encouraged critical thinking on topics that are now subject to being banned, developing African American history programs, and establishing my school district’s first course on diversity. My former students went on to become successful public servants, journalists, novelists, physicians, skilled tradesmen, military service members, and yes, educators.
Those who support these bills argue that we need to disregard our tarnished history and celebrate progress, only. But progress always comes at a price. And to truly learn about progress, we must first learn about the circumstances and struggle that necessitated it, as well as the current circumstances that require continued work toward progress.