Not many schools commission portraits to hang inside their halls for generations to come, fewer even to immortalize a custodian with such an honor. To those who knew her, though, Sallie L. Hardison was so much more.
A portrait of Hardison will be unveiled during a ceremony at College Street Elementary School at 3 p.m. this Saturday, March 26, in the front lobby of school, the culmination of a two-year effort by former College Street students. The event is being sponsored by those students, as well as Clinton City Schools administration and the CCS Board of Education.
Hardison worked as a custodian at the school from 1949-78, owning “a smile, laugh, hug and an undeniable love for ALL ‘Her’ students,” according to the inscription on a plaque already displayed on the lobby wall. It will soon have Hardison’s portrait above it, so Ms. Sallie’s smiling face can be seen forever in the place it belongs — where it was for three decades and still remains in the memories of the young students who loved her back.
“She always made me smile every morning,” said Renee Butler Edge. “She touched so many hearts of so many children. To us, she was our nurse, she was our doctor, she was heart and she was our soul.”
It was Edge who posted something about College Street School in March 2014 on the “You know you grew up in Clinton, NC if…” Facebook page. It didn’t take long before the conversation turned to Sallie and comment after comment rolled in about the impact Hardison had on young lives.
“That’s how it all started,” said Edge.
“This started two and half years ago as a chat on Facebook,” another former student Ronnie Alderman added. “We got to talking and laughing about Sallie, about what she did for all of us. Before long we were in a full-blown two or three-day-long conversation about Sallie.”
And since that time, Alderman and Edge have regularly communicated back and forth.
“We just kept the ball in the air,” said Edge, who lauded Alderman with doing much of the work in Clinton as she lives in Maryland. It took about a year before they were able to track down Queenie Hardison, Sallie’s youngest and only living child. Edge sent her an email sharing their hope to honor Sallie.
“When I got Renee’s email last year, I was overwhelmed,” said Queenie. “I read it over and over again. I couldn’t believe it.”
She said it is “unreal” to know her mother’s picture will be hanging in a place she loved so much.
“I was shocked and I was just so happy. It was hard for me to get my head around it,” Hardison said. “I always knew how my mother felt about the children at College Street School but it was the furthest thing from my mind that they would feel the same way. I know she was my hero, but to have someone else feel about her the way I did is amazing.”
Hardison remembered the many times she would be walking hand-in-hand with her mother around downtown Clinton — or anywhere in the city for that matter — when random children would run up to her, calling out “Sallie, Sallie, Sallie!”
“She would hug them and talk to their parents about how wonderful their kids were and how much she loved them,” Queenie recalled, baffled and overwhelmed even then at the large impact her mom had on so many young lives. “My mother used to come home and she would talk like they were her children. She would talk about them all the time.”
Many times she would have a hat, a coat or sweater in her hands that one of them had left at the school. She wanted to make sure she cleaned it up and returned it to them the next day. Every day she would come home with a story about one of the kids, how they made her proud or how they got into trouble and her hope that the parents wouldn’t be too hard on them.
After all, they probably had already heard from Sallie.
Alderman’s mother Myrtis Alderman was a first-grade teacher at the school. When he finished his work in Mrs. Morgan’s class, located across the hall from his mother’s, he was able to help Hardison pull trash cans and sweep floors —“anything to keep from sitting in that classroom,” Alderman said with a laugh.
Hardison was responsible for cleaning up the kind of messes and “accidents” that only young children can make, but she did it with a smile. She was also there as a surrogate parent, a nurse, a confidant and a counselor, her former students said.
“I learned a lot from Sallie,” Alderman attested.
Key among those was kindness and compassion. Alderman recalled many afternoons when children had the opportunity to get cookies with their milk. Not all could afford it. Many times, it was Sallie who took money out of her own pocket, which were not that full themselves, just so those children could enjoy a cookie just like the other students.
“I knew she didn’t make that much money, but she would rather take money out of her pocket and give it to a kid so they could have a cookie than see them have to watch other people eat theirs and not have one. That’s the kind of lady she was.”
When children would get into trouble and be put in the hall, whether as a punishment or to wait for the principal, they had to answer to Hardison. Like a good parent, she would be disappointed, have a stern word but also tell them the difference between right and wrong, imploring and encouraging them to choose to follow the former.
For many, she was their parent while at College Street School.
“A lot of kids didn’t get love and attention at home,” Alderman noted. “Sallie saw to it that they got some of that at school.”
Edge’s family farm was near Butlers Crossroads and for a time Hardison worked there, growing up not far away herself.
“Sallie taught all of us love and compassion, and not skin color,” said Edge. “Sallie was one of us, she will always be in our hearts and our souls and we will love her until the day we leave this earth. It’s just that simple. She was the first smile I saw every morning I got to school, she was the smile up and down the hall and she was the last smile I saw before I left school each day.”
For Queenie, the moment is bittersweet. She said it would be nice if her mother was still alive, or any of her other children. Queenie, who lives in Fort Washington, Md., and is the last living member of the immediate family, is hoping to be at Saturday’s event.
“It would have been nice if she could have shared this with her students and her family,” she said.
Sallie Hardison was the oldest girl of five siblings, with two brothers and two sisters, picking up her motherly way early in life. She married Herman Hardison and they had four children, including one son and three daughters. Herman, an employee of Clinton Public Works, died in March 1953 at the age of 42.
Sallie was a dedicated lifetime member of the Lisbon Street Baptist Church and active in Eastern Star, Elks, Pastors’ Aid and Church Hospitality Committee. She was a Sunday School teacher, sang in the senior and gospel choir and was involved in the women’s day committee.
She passed away on April 27, 1984, at the age of 68. While her impact was felt across the community, it was perhaps most indelible at a little educational institution in the heart of Clinton.
In a time before desegregation, when many young boys and girls were brought up in a world of separate bathrooms, drinking fountains, schools and everything else for whites and blacks — where judgment was solely by skin color — Sallie taught love.
“With Sallie, I looked to her as a cohort at the school because she gave me an out from having to sit in the classroom all day, but Sallie was a smart lady, a very Godly lady,” Alderman stated. “She made a lot of difference to a lot of people in that she guided them and their lives in what was right and wrong, not what was black and white. (She taught) what was right, what was good, what was Godly and what was just. We all have benefited from that over the years.”
When Alderman received a photo from one of Queenie’s relatives to use for the portrait, he contacted Carlton Hubbard Photography in Fayetteville. They asked him about the meaning of the portrait and Alderman explained what some former students were doing for their beloved friend and mother figure.
The man was touched, giving Alderman the 16×20 portrait at the business’ cost, charging nothing extra. Then he framed it for free. In all, it cost less than $200.
“They did a fantastic job,” Alderman said.
Along the way, another blessing occurred when College Street School’s longtime principal Gussie Parker’s portrait was unearthed. At some point, it had been taken down and placed in storage.
When Alderman and CCS Superintendent Dr. Stuart Blount went over to College Street School to scout the best place to hang Hardison’s portrait, Alderman saw the corner of a frame in a storage room and asked what it was. After further examination, he saw it was a portrait of Parker.
“This won’t do,” Alderman recalled saying. He explained to Blount that Parker was an icon of the school for years. The superintendent said he would take it back to the central office and ensure it was cleaned up and re-hung. Alderman found the plaque for Parker’s portrait and took it to Sessoms Jewelry so one could be made for Hardison that matched.
It was a fitting find. The two were close friends for decades.
“For years, Gussie would go pick up Sallie in the morning and carry her home at night,” Alderman said. “They would be there sometimes 7, 8 or 9 o’clock at night.”
“They were best friends,” said Edge. “She respected Mrs. Parker and Mrs. Parker loved Sallie.”
Parker was strict, but a sweet woman and consummate professional, Edge recalled. The Parker portrait was originally presented by the College Street School PTA on May 5, 1964 and now hangs restored, across a display case from where Hardison’s will soon be.
Edge praised Blount for championing the idea with school officials. Head Start students will also be drawing pictures to decorate the area for Saturday’s event.
“I don’t know what we would do without Dr. Blount,” said Edge. “He took the bull by the horns in helping us do this and get this portrait hung. The whole school is getting involved in it too.”
Blount praised the “impressionable impact” Hardison had on so many.
“As a school system, we are appreciative of the work many individuals have provided to our former students as well as the work our current employees provide to current students,” Blount stated. “The recognition of Ms. Hardison by former students of College Street School is a testament to the impact she had on them as students and obviously the continued impact she has had on them well after their formative school days.”
Queenie said her mother would have been beside herself about the entire ordeal, flashing that familiar smile as her grown “children” paid tribute to her.
“She would’ve been so happy,” she remarked. “There would have been so many hugs and tears.”
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