In A Class of Their Own

By Don Rhodes

Although Augustans may have heard talk about the Washington Initiative, it has nothing to do with Washington Road or George Washington who visited Augusta in 1791 as the first president of the United States. The Washington Initiative is an ongoing effort between Augusta University and the Lucy Craft Laney Museum to honor two of Augusta’s most beloved educators and public servants:  Justine Wilkinson Washington and Isaiah “Ike” Edward Washington.

Twenty-five years ago, Dr. William Bloodworth, then Augusta State University’s president, spoke at the dedication of Washington Hall in honor of the couple that was present at the special event. “When I showed up here in October 1993 as president of what was then Augusta College, I was pleased to be president of a college whose students were almost all from the Augusta area — and many of whom were African Americans. But I could find nothing on campus named after African Americans,” he says. Bloodworth set out to understand the requirements for naming a building on campus and trying to find an appropriate candidate for the naming. “Finally, sometime in 1996, I learned that Justine and Ike Washington might be possible candidates,” he remembers.

The Washington Initiative consists of three parts: 1) the commission of two identical legacy quilts that capture the Washingtons’ community engagement and commitment to education; 2) commemorative events chronicling the couples’ work and achievements and 3) a scholarship for Augusta University students offered and awarded in the couple’s name.

The commemorative quilts were created by the Brown Sugar Stitchers Quilt Guild, founded in 2000, composed of roughly 100 quilters from metro Atlanta and 11 other states. The artistic quilts focus on Black American history and traditions.

The first quilt is housed in Reese Library on campus and will be loaned out around the community to teach about the Washingtons’ legacy. The second quilt will be unveiled at the Lucy Craft Laney Museum in late October and will remain on permanent display as a beacon to the couple’s long list of accomplishments, especially in Augusta and surrounding areas.

The Washingtons

Dr. Justine Wilkinson Washington was the first Black female to serve on the Richmond County Board of Education. She was elected in 1972 and served for 21 years with the final two as board president. The 1930 graduate of Spelman College and former teacher in both Georgia and South Carolina taught history, French, English and Hebrew. She also conducted choirs.

Her classroom success led to an appointment as a Jeanes Supervisor of Teachers in the 84 rural schools for Negroes of Aiken County. She earned a master’s degree at Atlanta University and received her doctorate from the University of Oklahoma. She spent her final teaching years in education and psychology at Paine College. Retiring in 1981 as chairman of the Division of Education and Psychology, she was later named professor emeritus. Two Georgia governors, Joe Frank Harris and Zell Miller, appointed her to serve on the Georgia Human Relations Commission.

Dr. Isaiah “Ike” Edward Washington was a graduate of the Walker Baptist Institute and Paine College, and served nearly 40 years as a teacher and administrator in Richmond County schools: principal at Craig-Houghton Elementary (1937-1939), C.T. Walker Elementary (1939-1964), A.R. Johnson Junior High (1964-1971) and Lucy Craft Laney High School until his retirement in 1975.

Ike obtained a bachelor’s degree in English from Paine College, a master’s degree in education from Temple University (Philadelphia, Pa.) and an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Allen University (Columbia, S.C). He served 17 years on the Augusta City Council, stepping down after serving three consecutive terms but returning in 1984 when he was appointed by Mayor Edward M. McIntyre to fill a seat vacated by Councilman Joe Jones.

To know Justine and Ike was to love them, as thousands of residents can testify. In fact, the more Professor Scott Thorp, chairperson of the Art and Design Department at Augusta University, learned about Justine and Ike, the more he wanted to pay further tribute to them. Although his office is in Washington Hall, Thorp did not originally make the connection to the building’s namesakes. “A few years ago, I was down at the Lucy Craft Laney Museum getting a tour. They kept referring to the Washingtons. Eventually, I made the connection between them and the building,” he remembers.

Thorp began working with Corey Rogers, historian at the Laney Museum who took a lead role in promoting the Washington Initiative. Besides Thorp and Rogers, principal committee members are Seretha Williams, Lee Ann Caldwell, Ph.D., Walidah Walker and Garrett Green. The group has worked to keep the memory and service contributions of the Washingtons ongoing in the community.

Now that the two legacy quilts have been made, the committee is focused on the scholarship fund. Applications are open to graduating high school seniors with residence in the Savannah River Region and a minimum 3.0 GPA.

“We’ve started the scholarship and have about $5,000 raised for it so far,” initiative co-creator Thorp said. “We need to get it to $15,000.” Additionally, Rogers and Commissioner Francine Scott have started the process of having Kent Street, where the Washingtons lived for many years, named after the couple, according to Thorp.

All the ongoing work is built on the philosophy of the couple, expressed by Justine in 1985 when she said, “I worked with all types of people. I learned if you could get people to listen to you that you could get things done. You basically have to love people, and I really do. I tell youngsters I’m a people pusher. People need help going up a hill, but they don’t need help going down. They can slide down by themselves. Anybody that needs help in being pushed up the hill or lifted up, I’m going to do it if I can.”

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Photos courtesy of Augusta University

Appears in the October 2022 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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