Memories of Mrs. Willie Bessie Cole Brady
By Patsy Parker
Mrs. Willie Bessie Cole Brady, the only daughter of Alex and Annie Cole, was one of the most unique, intelligent, gifted women in this state. Without a formal college education, Mrs. Brady began her private school on York Avenue in Opelika around 1933. “Miss Bessie” taught her students from grades one through 12. She taught in a one-room school house that had a pot-bellied stove in the corner. The benches were handmade. She taught her children algebra, geometry, English, science, history, Bible, and competitiveness. She insisted that even the youngest know their numbers and how to spell. Each morning after prayer, every child would recite a Bible verse.
Mrs. Brady was supported by her husband, Zemore Brady, who served in the army in World War II. He helped finance various projects for the young people and transported those who needed transportation whereever they and their parents needed to go. After serving in the army, Mr. Brady worked for the Western of Alabama Railroad. The Bradys used their meager earnings to finance their school. The tuition was ten cents a week.
Miss Bessie would reward the children for succeeding in their studies by having contests at the end of the day. If a student excelled in mathematics or spelling, they would receive a nickel as a reward. She also did not spare the rod when students did not achieve at their capacity. She had no children of her own, but considered all of her charges her own. No one could understand how Miss Bessie could know so much without having attended college or high school. She taught her students speech by having programs where they would have to make speeches and perform plays. Her wards were well-read and could recite poetry with the best.
Miss Bessie would sit at her desk and call every young child up to read from Sally, Dick and Jane. She would place the book in her lap, and the student would have to point to each word. She would make sure her students could print and later write in cursive perfectly.
At the back of the classroom, you would see the old pot-bellied stove and wood cut and stacked to stoke the fire. The school room was small, but colorful. The outside was just planks. There was one door. Mr. Zemore made the wooden desks and chairs. The students thought the desks were perfect. This same room served as a church on Sundays and on several nights during the week.
Most of her students excelled in life because of the earlier training they had with Miss Bessie. After school attendance laws were enacted, Miss Bessie had to close her school, but later because of overcrowding at the public school, she was allowed to teach with a “V” Certificate. She was later hired as a kindergarten teacher at the Central Parks Recreation Center. This was the first public kindergarten for young Black children in Opelika. Her assistant was Verdell Jones, one of her former students.
Miss Bessie was a member of Thompson Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church. She was active in the Missionary Society and the Eastern Star. She loved children and teaching. Until her death, she continued encouraging young people.
Many of her former students continued to visit this special lady who had meant so much to them. Ironically, at the age of 93, Miss Bessie could read without the aid of glasses. This kind, gentle and giving lady was responsible for the success of many and continued to find ways to help others – especially young people.
After retiring, Miss Bessie took in a young mother and her child and encouraged the child to excel. Later, the child became the mother of a young girl. Each day, Miss Bessie would teach this young girl and assist her in her homework. The results ended with the young lady receiving a scholarship to the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she received a Bachelor of Science Degree and presently works with her husband in photography. In the summer, the Bradys would challenge children to games of dominoes and checkers on their screened-in front porch. This was a great way to keep the young ones thinking. She also required the girls to aid in making quilts. This taught them discipline (and a handicraft skill besides.)
Looking back, some of her students’ images come to mind. There was the young man who lived at the end of York Street who received a M. Ed Degree and became a principal at Loachapoka High School. There was a young lady who lived near the railroad station who received her M.S. degree and was an exceptional English teacher in the Lanett City Schools and the Montgomery School System. Later she worked for the State Department of Education. There were two sisters who graduated Tuskegee Institute and Florida A&M University–one received a degree in Home Economics and worked in Cleveland, Ohio, and the other in Physical Education and taught in Florida for years. There were two sisters who lived next door to Miss Bessie: one who worked in the Opelika City School System and the other received a B.S. Degree from Alabama State University, Masters from Auburn University, and the doctorate from Alabama State University. This student became Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Alabama State University and a member of the College of Education’s Advisory Board at Auburn University for more than 28 years. She couldn’t have done it without Miss Bessie. I know; I was that girl.
There were the minister’s children who graduated with numerous degrees from various universities and are teaching in states throughout the United States. Many of the young men enlisted in the army, navy, and air force. Many rose in the ranks and made careers out of the armed services.
This lady, our “Miss Bessie,” has touched the lives of many generations. Our Miss Bessie continues to impact the lives of Opelikans. She and Mr. Zemore were the aunt and uncle of Opelika City Councilman Larry Gray, the neighbor and friend of my mother for more than 93 years. We continue to ponder where her knowledge emanated? How did she obtain her skill for teaching, her love of children? I pray that there are other “Miss Bessies” out there for today’s children who are starving for the love and compassion she showed, and that meant so much, to the children of yesteryear.