Clara Virginia Nesbit was born in rural southwest Gwinnett County a few miles from Norcross in the early 20 th century. Though her parents were born into slavery, she got a good education by the standards of the day (when that was difficult to achieve for a black woman), and then spent 55 years as a teacher, helping the children and adults around her make the best of their lives. In this article we look back at those times, and on her life and legacy.
Clara was born circa 1900 (sources differ as to the exact date) and was the daughter of Perry and Lovey Nesbit. She grew up in a large family on a farm “out in the country”, west of Norcross (near the traffic circle on Medlock Bridge Road, in todays landscape). Her father was quite successful in his farming activities, acquiring over 100 acres of property over time. He and the family were quite involved in the civic life of the area, helping to found Central Baptist Church in Norcross in 1905 and raising funds for bond drives during the period when the United States was involved in World War I (1917-1918}. Clara followed in the footsteps of her father with her involvement in the community. She taught in various school districts in Georgia over the next 40 years, with stops in Royston, Atlanta and Gwinnett County, among others. Not only did she teach children the standard subjects through their grade school years, she also taught piano in her home, and taught adults to read as well. And after her retirement as a full-time teacher she worked as a substitute teacher for some years, late into her life.
“Miss Clara”, as she was known to family and friends, had a reputation as a loving teacher, but she also made it clear that she had high expectations. She was glad to help her students, but she definitely expected that her students would pay attention, as Norcross resident Anne Barker recalls. As a young girl Anne had Clara as a teacher at the Norcross school for black students, and also took piano lessons from her. She found herself always inspired to pay attention to the lessons of the day – in part since Miss Clara was known to occasionally take out a ruler and rap a student’s knuckles if she was not paying attention. But Anne Barker also remembers the rewards that Clara could bestow on her young pupils for their accomplishments – it was a real treat to be invited to the teacher’s longtime home, known as “The Oaks”, on Medlock Bridge Road, to participate in an end-of-year celebration luncheon of dainty sandwiches and Coca-Cola in glass bottles. The photo below shows Clara with students in her church (courtesy of the Nesbit family).
Clara also worked through the League of Women Voters to ensure voting rights for all, especially the black community, in keeping with the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other legislation of that era.
Clara Nesbit passed away on November 25, 1989, and her obsequies (funeral services) were held at Central Baptist Church on West Peachtree Street in Norcross. Speakers included (among many) Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr. former mayor of Atlanta and a distant cousin of Clara, who spoke of her impact on the family, and Lillian Webb, the Chair of the Gwinnett County Commission, who spoke on Clara’s involvement in the community.
Clara Nesbit saw great change in the educational system in Gwinnett during her lifetime. In the early 1900s funding and construction of school facilities in Gwinnett County was controlled locally. In Norcross, the town nearest to where Clara grew up, the citizens of the town passed a $4,000.00 bond issue in January 1903 to fund a two-story brick structure for the town school (for white students). The resulting building, on College Street, opened later that year, and acquired the nickname “The Castle on the Hill” for its imposing design in a location overlooking the town. This building is shown in the photo below (courtesy of Jimmy Nesbit.).
It was a quite different story when black citizens of the town came to the city council several years later requesting better facilities for the education of their children. The Norcross City Council minutes indicate that a committee was appointed to acquire land for a new school. Delay after delay ensued, and finally a plot of land was purchased, four years later. Bids were requested to construct a wooden building as the city specified, and the low bidder, with a cost of $185.00, was awarded the contract. That building was then in use for over 30 years. The photo below shows a group of students with their teacher in front of the building in 1939 (courtesy of Rufus Dunnigan.)
In 1993 Gwinnett County opened a new elementary school in the Tucker area, and, in a complete reversal from the practices that were in place at the beginning of Clara’s life, it was named after her, being the first school in Gwinnett County to be named after a black educator. The school website has this to say about the person for whom it is named:
Nesbit Elementary opened its doors to 1,129 students in the fall of 1993. Nesbit Elementary is named for Miss Clara Nesbit, a teacher in Gwinnett County from the early 1920s to the 1960s. Miss Clara’s first teaching experience was in a one-room school house. Well-known for her community service, Miss Clara frequently taught piano lessons and helped adult African- American males learn to read. Even in her retirement, Miss Clara continued to share her love of learning with Gwinnett children as a substitute teacher.
Thanks to many in the community who helped with this article, including members of the Nesbit, Stephens, McClendon, Newton and related families in the Norcross / Peachtree Corners community who shared stories and photos associated with Clara Nesbit’s life and legacy. Other sources included Rufus Dunnigan, Jean Beall and websites such as Ancestry.com, Newspapers.com and FindaGrave.com.