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Faith, Family, Education, and Community
By Rev. Gregory Smith
In celebration of Black History and Women’s History Month, the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society recognizes a trailblazer in education who embodies the virtues of both.
Mattie L. Harrell McNair is one of several African American educational giants who cultivated the lives of children in the Princeton Community. Though currently experiencing some of the challenges that come to us all with age, she is still a vibrant part of our community and it seems befitting to acknowledge, celebrate and thank her for her vast contributions while she can smell the roses!
Mattie L. Harrell McNair
Mattie was born in Cheraw, South Carolina in 1926 to Charles and Mary Harrell. Her father died at the early age of 27, so Mattie’s mother moved her four children to Brooklyn, New York in pursuit of a better life.
Mattie began her formal educational training at Coulter Memorial Academy in Cheraw, South Carolina, a school founded by the Presbyterian church to improve the education of African American students. The school offered junior college credit. Mattie then attended Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she received a BA in Religious Studies.
She returned to Brooklyn and attained her first job working as the Sunday School Director at The Concord Baptist Church under the direction of the direction of The Rev. Gardner C. Taylor. Given the fact that Mattie had just come out of college and was familiarizing herself with such a large responsibility in such a large congregation at such a young age, Rev. Taylor suggested that she go back to school and get a degree in Education to enhance what she already had with her religious studies degree. That is how she came to attain a BS in the field of Education from Shaw University, where Mattie also met the love of her life, Vance McNair.
Their daughter, Joanie, reflects, “My father, Vance McNair, taught in Warwick New York. He had a brother and sister-in-law, who lived in Ewing Township, New Jersey. He, being from Wilmington, Delaware and my mother being from Brooklyn, New York, decided that it was time to move the family into a centrally located place between the two families. They felt it was the time was right to move, so my mother applied for a teaching job in Princeton and of course was hired, leading us to move to Princeton. My grandmother, in an effort to be a support, packed up and left Brooklyn to move to Princeton as well. At this time, my father was also finishing his teaching career in Warwick, New York, and obtained a new teaching position in Hopewell, New Jersey.”
Mattie’s teaching career, which began in 1966, was a central part of her life. Joanie remembers that “she always had a love for working around young people, so I believe that’s what inspired her to become a teacher. My mom spent her 25 year teaching career at Riverside Elementary School, where she retired in 1991! During this time teaching and investing in the lives of young people, I saw my mother and her students put on many spectacular plays and programs for the students, parents, and the Riverside School Community. I have always been in awe of how the children and parents related to her and the excitement that the parents shared in helping to create quality plays and programs. I found out through talking with my mother many years ago that she taught first grade through fourth grade. However, I believe her first love was second grade!”
One of Mattie’s dear friends, Charlotte Gipson (my mother), who also worked with her at Riverside School commented, “Many teachers taught their classes generically, but Mattie always saw the individual student. She had a gift for teaching each student according to their own unique strengths and talents… Mattie taught the individual child.”
Faith and community were also incredible components to Mattie’s life. Another aspect of interest is the love she has for her beloved sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. Mattie McNair was inducted into the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, Beta Rho Chapter, in 1950 at Shaw University, where she has been a lifelong member, as well as being an active member in the Epsilon Upsilon Chapter here in Trenton New Jersey.
Another one of Mattie’s closest friends, fellow teacher and sorority sister Frances Craig, told a funny account of Mattie. “As much as she loved her students, Mattie rarely came to school if it snowed or if there was a heavy rain. All of her principals understood and went along with it”. Frances further emphasized Mattie’s diverse passions as an educator and other areas which made her a well rounded humanitarian, recounting, “Mattie loved going to various community venues where she sold millinery and Sorority/ Fraternity items.” Joanie adds that “My mother had a thriving hat business! She loved going to conventions and workshops and fitting women with the hat that she thought was just right for them! Because my mother was a New Yorker, she loved going back to New York City to choose her hats from the buyers that she would take back home to sell. She loved attending AKA meetings and events. She loved First Baptist Church where she was involved with the youth and seniors. Mattie, in an effort to support the needs of her own aging mother in Princeton, founded a group called “The Over The Hill and Still Rolling Group,” within their church, which is geared toward supporting seniors. The group is still a vibrant entity within the church community today.
Joanie adds, “My mother has always had a love for Princeton. I think my mother was inspired by some of the diversity she saw. She has friends of different cultures. One of the things that has definitely inspired my Mother’s love of the Princeton Community is the life long friendships she has developed through work and church. These friendships have lasted throughout decades!” Joanie said what further inspires her about her mother is “that she is a strong advocate, for what was right, and when there was a need or call of action she was there. If she sees a need, she meets it.”
Mattie also has a deep seated love for First Baptist Church in Princeton. She always wanted to make sure the youth in her community had as many experiences as possible, so she and her First Baptist Church Youth colleagues provided outside events for the youth to have get togethers, such as basketball games, teen activities, as well as planning HBCU tours back in the 1970’s for children who were interested in attending an HBCU. Joanie shared, “My mother loves Princeton to this day. I believe she enjoys the town and all it has to offer.”
Mattie has always been a noted people person. She was a great entertainer and enjoyed entertaining. She and her husband Vance would often plan “get togethers” at their family home in Lawrenceville, where people would could gather and share laughter and a meal. Joanie recalls “My mother loved talking on the phone especially to her good girlfriends from Princeton, Charlotte Gipson, Melva Moore, Frances Craig, Lulu Venable, and many more! However, she still has two very dear and close friends that she made when we lived upstate New York, who live in North Carolina, whom she still talks to today. But her most valuable and important hobbies, along with her daughter and son in law, are her grandchildren! She and my dad would often be at our home when our children returned home from school. There were even times when she would pick them up from school and attend anything they performed or participated in. I truly believe they are her greatest interests to this day!
Mattie is most celebrated for her love for family and a heart for children and community. She has always been a giver, and when she sees a need, and she can meet it, she will do it! Her favorite song is, “If I Can Help Somebody” by Mahalia Jackson. “If I can help somebody…my living shall not be in vain” is the mantra she has lived her whole life by!
Congratulations Mattie L.Harrell-McNair! May we all be inspired by your stellar example of Faith, Family, Education, and Community.
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WJHCS Trustees Accomplishments and Honors:
Honoree: Leighton Newlin
Date: January 5, 2022
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Date: February 12, 2021
Awarded By: First Baptist Church of Princeton
Honoree: Shirley A. Satterfield
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Date: January 16, 2021
Awarded By: New Jersey Education Association (NJEA)
Honoree: Rev. David McAlpin
Award: Recognition Celebration
Date: January 30, 2021
Awarded By: Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church