A poet and playwright is working to preserve the legacy of an iconic leader in the black community of Liberty, Missouri.
The poet and playwright is Shelton Ponder, a lifelong Liberty resident who graduated from Liberty High School in 1961.
The iconic leader is Clarence Edward Gantt, a teacher and principal at the Garrison School, which sits atop a hill at the north end of Main Street in Liberty, just blocks from the town square. Established in 1877, Garrison was one of four schools for black students in Clay County during the days of “separate but equal” education. Ponder attended there in the late 1940s and '50s.
“When it came to learning … he wouldn’t allow his students to accept mediocrity. We had to apply what we had between our ears and what we were hearing,” Ponder says of Gantt. “The real lesson was to come out and be a citizen of the world.”
Gantt was born in Liberty in 1903, nearly 40 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. One of eight children born to Smith and Pearl Gantt, he pursued his dream of attending college and becoming an educator at a time when such opportunities were limited for black people.
He attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, in the 1920s, where he excelled in football, baseball and debate. After graduation, Gantt accepted a teaching job in Kingfisher, Oklahoma.
He returned to Liberty to teach at Garrison School in 1932 and became the principal a year later. For years, Garrison’s students relied on obsolete textbooks handed down from white schools. But in 1938, Gantt successfully campaigned for a school bond issue to provide new books, a gymnasium and a new assembly room.
Gantt accepted a role as a study hall monitor at Liberty High School.
After the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, black students were allowed to attend white schools in Liberty. The Garrison School was closed, and black teachers were not rehired.
According to Ponder, the obvious demotion did not deter Gantt.
“He was still teaching and helping people with their lessons,” Ponder says. “He was an educator and nothing was going to keep him from educating.”
Ponder describes Gantt as a “Renaissance man” for the passion he inspired in his students.
Today, Ponder performs a one-man show he has written called “Mr. Gantt Modified.” The play is based on Gantt’s life, in the context of his day.
Ponder's play debuted more than 30 years ago at Garrison School, before an audience that included Gantt's two sisters. The response was so positive that he continued to perform, and has now played at venues including William Jewell College, Liberty's Corbin Theater and the Edward Hines, Jr VA Hospital in Chicago.
Ponder says he wrote the play to give recognition to one of his heroes.
Clarence Gantt celebrated his 65th birthday on February 9, 1968. He died two days later, on February 11, 1968, leaving behind a legacy of teaching, both inside and outside of the classroom.
Today, the Garrison School stands as a community cultural center, one that conveys a sense of the building’s rich past. Walls near the entrance are adorned with class pictures dating back to the 1940s, along with a framed portrait of Clarence Edward Gantt.
Shelton Ponder's next performance of “Mr. Gantt Modified” is scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday, December 2, at Garrison School, 502 N. Water St., Liberty, Missouri 64068.
Ron Jones is KCUR's director of community engagement.