Little Zion congregation honors Susie C. Nickens
Wednesday, Feb. 13
Members of Little Zion Baptist Church greet Deaconess Susie C. Nickens during a Black History Month celebration program honoring the 97-year-old educator. Photo by Adam Goings
In 1938, then 22-year-old Susie Nickens first stepped into Greenville School, a three-room schoolhouse near Nokesville, to begin her lifelong teaching career.
Newly graduated from what was then Minor Teachers College in Washington, D.C., she had accomplished what few women, let alone black women, had at that point in United States history -- get a bachelor's degree.
Several years later, she would go on to earn a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
Nickens went on to teach for 35 years. Little Zion Baptist Church honored her in a celebration of black history Sunday afternoon.
Nickens, a deaconess at the church, sat in the front row of a packed sanctuary where people sat in the aisle on folding chairs.
One of the congregants, Olivia Tasco Carter, was Nickens' student at Greenville School, which is now used by Little Zion as a dining hall. Although she called Nickens "a lovely person," Carter also said Nickens was stern and meant what she said.
"She is one who could let you know you were messing up and smile all the time," said the Rev. James Jordan to the assembly at Little Zion.
It was a different sort of school day for students back then compared to now. Carter recalls sweeping the schoolhouse floors and hauling water from about a quarter of a mile away. Washing her blackboards and bringing in wood for the stove were other daily chores for students, said Nickens.
Nickens was paid $66 a month to teach her first class: four fourth-graders, one fifth-grader, three sixth-graders and two seventh-graders. Another teacher instructed in the lower grades.
Teaching the upper primary grades was a stretch for the inexperienced Nickens. In college she learned how to teach junior high school students, not primary.
Parent visitation was one of her subjects at college. Within the first month, Nickens put her lessons into practice. She walked to all of her 10 students' homes and met their parents.
Running the school was a team effort. Parents cooked lunches. Fathers bought schoolbooks, delivered firewood and cleaned the toilet.
Nickens got a promotion in her second year of teaching by becoming the head teacher at Greenville.
William Taylor, who acted as superintendent of "black" schools in those decades of segregation, asked Nickens to transfer to Warrenton to teach at the Rosenwald High School, with an increase in pay.
Nickens got another raise in 1942 or 1943. Taylor was successful in securing the same salary for black teachers as white teachers. Nickens now received $78 a month.
Taylor asked Nickens to teach a new class -- girls' physical education. During World War II, there was a push for the populace to be physically fit. The girls played field games, like dodge ball, and did calisthenics.
During the six years she spent in the Warrenton school, Nickens began studying for her master degree.
"I wanted to be a good teacher," said Nickens.
With her husband of four years, Nickens moved to Washington, D.C., where she taught at Phelps Vocational High School.
Upon her retirement in 1973, Nickens and her husband returned to Fauquier County, where she was born. They bought a home near Little Zion Baptist Church and the schoolhouse where she first taught.
Nickens continued her teaching in a Sunday School classroom at Little Zion. In addition to the books of the Bible, now an adult, Andrea Grant Wright remembers learning from Nickens how to curtsey, and the proper way for a lady to sit down and stand up.
On this Sunday afternoon at Little Zion, two huge bouquets of red, yellow and orange flowers flanked the front of the pulpit, and matched the bright red of Nickens' coat and hat where she sat a few feet away.
Led by the children's chorus, the entire congregation sang "Oh, How I Love Jesus," one of Nickens' favorite songs.
As person after person spoke of how Nickens has never said a cross word to anyone, and about her love for others, Caroline Branson, Nickens' daughter, said she noticed tears in her mother's eyes.
The Rev. James McCray Jr., pastor of Little Zion Baptist Church, spoke of Nickens' beautiful, meek, and tenacious spirit.
"She truly is a woman of God," said McCray.
As she presented Nickens with a certificate of appreciation from Fauquier County Public Schools (FCPS), Dr. Sandra Mitchell, acting superintendent of FCPS, said, "Anyone who has been able to educate kids for over 50 years has to be able to trust in the Lord."