CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the school that Sherry Smith teaches at. The article has been updated to reflect the correct school. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.
Gwendella Guinevere Clemons, an icon of advocacy and a longtime educator and leader, passed away on May 11 at the age of 86.
Clemons, known as "GG" to her students and friends, devoted her life to her community and to her students, helping to create peace and understanding in the face of racism-fueled hatred.
In 1966, Clemons was one of seven African-American teachers who desegregated the faculty at Chapel Hill Senior High School, where she taught bookkeeping and typing. Her brave actions paved the way for many more teachers of color to continue diversifying schools in Orange County.
Clemons’ niece, Charlene Taylor, said she listened to many stories about her aunt's involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and integration efforts of the 1960s. Taylor said Clemons never sought awards or accolades for her work, but she rather did the work because it was necessary.
“People came up to me at the funeral saying, ‘You would never know but your aunt helped me out with this,’" Taylor said. "She did what she did, not as something to brag about, but to help out her fellow man."
Despite all the hate Clemons experienced throughout her career, Taylor remembers her aunt as a resilient matriarch who worked to fix problems she saw in the school.
“She had a lot of narratives thrown at her that she did not agree with and felt insulted by, from parents, some teachers and some administrators,” Taylor said. “It would hurt her, but it would just make her stronger, because she said ‘I’m not going anywhere.'"
Geraldine Young, a teacher who met Clemons at Chapel Hill High School, said she remembers her towering presence in the local system.
“Some of us feared her, but we knew she always looked out for us," Young said. "She was the one that started making me look at administration as a possibility."
At the time, Clemons had been promoted to assistant principal after teaching there for over 14 years, and she continued to work personally with students and parents alike.
Young said Clemons worked with administration and her colleagues to advance the careers of her students by working with and educating parents on opportunities available for their children.
She said Clemons encouraged her students to attend college and was especially determined to assist African American students in achieving their goals.
Sherry Smith, a former student of Clemons who has been teaching at Culbreth Middle School for 29 years, said the work Clemons did has inspired her to become who she is today. She is her school's 2020-2021 teacher of the year, which she said Clemons would be very proud of.
“She inspired me to want to be better and to do better," Smith said. "She helped all students, but because of her roots, she gravitated to children of color and children who were economically deprived."
Like her other colleagues, Smith said she remembers the resolve of Clemons and her dedication to students. Smith said she saw Clemons as an icon and an upstanding figure in the community.
“She was passionate about what she believed, and she had tough conversations with parents and colleagues," Smith said. "She did what she had to do in order to make this world a better place.”
To read her obituary, click here.
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