Dotson Betts, one of RGV’s first black educators, pride of SB

Special to the NEWS

“Always make your good better and your better the best.” That is a quotation attributed to Melissa Dotson Betts.

In an era when schools were segregated and black children were not allowed to attend classes beyond eighth grade, Melissa Dotson Betts, a black educator from San Benito, was a true pioneer.

Today, her legacy lives through the Melissa D. Betts Elementary in Edinburg. Almost 40 years after she taught her last class at the Edinburg Carver School, which is located on the corner of Cesar Chavez and Canton Road, the new elementary school was named for the tireless educator in 1999. This was the first school, and only one of two, named after a black educator in the Rio Grande Valley.

Ms. Melissa Dotson was born in Giddings, about 60 miles east of Austin, in 1902. Little is known about her childhood and upbringing. She started college at 16 and graduated from Wiley College in Marshall in 1923. Wiley College was a historically black college. She graduated with a major in education and minors in history and political science.

After graduating from Wiley College, Ms. Dotson gained employment with the Lodi School District, in Marion County.

In 1928, she and her husband, Everett Betts, moved to San Benito. They purchased their residence, at 368 Commerce Street, and lived there the rest of their lives, except for a few short years when Mrs. Betts moved to Houston after her husband’s passing.

Mrs. Betts was employed by the San Benito School District for six years, from 1928 to 1934, as a teacher at the district’s “colored school,” the school for African American children. In 1934 she taught at the Brownsville school district for one year.

In the early 1900’s, an influx of railroad jobs attracted dozens of black families to Edinburg and other parts of the Valley. Prohibited from attending the existing schools, a school was established in a burgeoning black neighborhood in Edinburg.

In 1935, Mrs. Betts was called to serve the black school children in Edinburg. In 1935, at the E.W. Norman School in Edinburg, named for three African-American families who lived in Edinburg at the time, Norman, Edwards and West, Mrs. Betts began her one-woman act as the lone teacher in a one-room schoolhouse built by members of the Lily of the Valley Baptist Church.

The school was located behind the church, at 19th and Van Week streets, until a new school was built in 1938 by the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District, on Lovett Street, near 21st avenue.

The school was a modest wood-frame school, and was named George Washington Carver, but was commonly referred to as the “colored school.” Mrs. Betts became Carver’s first and only teacher. She taught all the students in the one-room school, from kindergarten to eighth grade, for more than 20 years.

To locals, Carver was known as the “colored school,” said Beverly Fridie, president of the Rio Grande Valley Branch for the Advancement of Colored People. “She was the janitor; she spent her own money on supplies,” Fridie said. Granted, this was part of the Edinburg School District.

She was the cook, she was the custodian, she cut the grass”, stated Fridie.
Mrs. Betts commuted from San Benito, easily a one hour one way drive.

In 1938, when Mrs. Betts was hired by the Edinburg School District, she made half the salary of other educators in the district. And unlike those who had no description next to their names, Betts had the word “colored” written next to hers.

Prior to the 1960s, blacks, whites and Hispanics didn’t live in the same neighborhoods, eat in the same restaurants, worship at the same churches or attend the same schools as they do today.
Not until the 1954 U.S Supreme Court ruling on Brown vs. the Board of Education were schools desegregated. But, Fridie said, records show many schools in the South were not integrated until the early 1960s.

“Segregation and discrimination were alive and thriving here in the Rio Grande Valley,” said Fridie. Conditions at the school were less than favorable. The district provided no money for materials or textbooks. To compound problems, the books used at the school were discards from the “white school.”
Determined to further her education, Mrs. Betts received her master’s degree in education from Texas Southern University in 1956.

The Carver school finally closed in 1961 and its students were allowed to attend the other Edinburg schools. Mrs. Betts continued as “head teacher” at Carver School until the end of the 1960-1961 school year.
The following school year she worked at the administration building. Then, from 1962-1965, she taught at Edinburg High School; which, at the time, was located at Freddy Gonzalez and 4th street. Her last teaching assignment was at Austin Elementary, located at 1023 E. Kuhn. She bid adieu to the teaching profession in the spring of 1970.

Mrs. Betts’ dedication to her profession, and students is truly remarkable, especially since she experienced trials and tribulations in her personal life.

On April of 1958, Mrs. Betts’ husband, Everett Betts, who operated a popular bar-b-que establishment in San Benito, was involved in a head on collision just south of the city that claimed the lives of two prominent Los Fresnos women. The accident occurred in a double curve on Highway 77, an area known as “dead man’s curve”. Betts sustained multiple fractures on both jaw bones, as well suffering cuts and bruises.

A month later, charges of negligent homicide were filed against Mr. Betts. State highway patrolman investigators determined Betts had been driving on the left side of the road when his car rammed into the car of the two elderly women.

Twenty years later, in 1978, Mrs. Betts husband succumbed to a fatal beating he received in his hometown of Giddings, Texas, at the age of 75. Mr. Betts died in Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen of injuries suffered in the beating in a Giddings Motel on February 7 of that year.

Mr. Betts had gone to Giddings, his birth place, early in February on business, including oil leases on a tract of land he owned. When she did not hear from him for several hours, a sister who lives in the area went to his motel room where she reportedly found him badly beaten; he had been robbed. Betts was taken to Lee Memorial Hospital where he received emergency treatment. Later, he was transferred to the Valley, where he succumbed to his injuries.

Mr. and Mrs. Betts were most involved in civic organizations and affairs in Edinburg and San Benito. Additionally, in 1967 Mrs. Betts was selected as the outstanding Girl Scout leader of the entire Rio Grande Valley. At the same function in Edinburg, she was also presented the annual Tip Top award by the Tip-O-Texas Girl Scout Council. Mrs.Betts was an adult scout leader for 30 years, and was a troop leader for close to 30 years as well.

Additionally, she organized the first integrated scout troop, sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Edinburg.

To her credit, in spite of the poor conditions, the majority of Betts’ students went on to finish high school and some received college degrees.

Many of her students, like Olga Saenz, now 40, remember Mrs. Betts fondly as a nurturing figure who sang spirituals and loved to give hugs to students. “It was no big deal that she was black,” Saenz said. “She was a very, very nice lady, very attentive and very loving. She made you feel like you were with your grandma.”
Saenz, who now works for the Los Fresnos school district, said that at Austin Elementary in 1966, other than Betts, the only blacks she recalls at the school were three black girls and a black boy. Saenz recalls that Mrs.Betts, who was then her third-grade home room teacher, encouraged children to switch individual lunches brought from home, as an exercise to help them appreciate cultural differences represented in each brown bag or lunch box.

She would encourage us to trade lunch, so we could taste their food and they could have (ours). “It was an adventure, because you never knew what you were going to get,” Saenz said. “We wanted to trade with the little black girls because they would have different food. The other Hispanic kids were always going to have something similar. “My mother would pack us taquitos and com tortillas, and the little girls would take peanut butter and jelly or ham sandwiches with lots of mayonnaise, things that were foreign to us as Hispanics,” Saenz said.

She does not recall race as an issue. “Everybody was equal, everyone in the class was the same,” she said. She also remembers Betts singing spirituals. “It wasn’t the stuff we used to sing with Ms. Long, the music teacher, such as “America the Beautiful.”

“Ms. Betts is dead now, but if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do what I’m doing now. We are only talking about a generation of people who have learned to read, write. speak,” Fridie said of Mrs. Betts’ students.

When word was received that four new elementary schools were to open in Edinburg, Mrs. Betts’ name was quickly submitted to the district for consideration. The Edinburg School District voted unanimously to name the new elementary school Melissa Betts Elementary.

Betts was selected from a large pool of nominees for the naming honor. “She was chosen because of her contributions to the community and for her sensitivity and love for children,” Betts Elementary principal Jesus M. Cantu said. Cantu also commented on Berts’ ability to effectively teach students from kinder to the eighth grade. She had to be well prepared and patient to be able to do that’, he said. “That shows she had a lot of of perseverance and determination to succeed”.

The students and staff of Betts Elementary are well-informed about their school’s namesake. “She was everything to her students,” said Irma Zamarripa, who is the librarian at the school. “Mrs. Betts and her husband never had any children of their own. Her students were her children.”

On 1999, students and faculty at Betts Elementary unveiled a mural of the late Melissa Dotson Betts, the schools namesake, as a Black History Month event. The mural, located near the entrance of the schools main hallway, was painted by parent volunteer Herman Ybarra. Ybarra painted the mural in the likeness of a photo of Betts in a graduation cap and gown.

Mr. and Mrs. Betts were most involved in civic organizations and affairs in Edinburg and San Benito. In 1967 Mrs. Betts was selected as the outstanding Girl Scout leader of the entire Rio Grande Valley. At the same function in Edinburg, she was also presented the annual Tip Top award by the Tip-O-Texas Girl Scout Council. Mrs. Betts was an adult scout leader for 30 years, and was a troop leader for close to 30 years as well.

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