The Rev. Julius Abraham Jr., principal of historic Willow Hill Elementary School, first African-American principal of Statesboro High School and later pastor of area A.M.E. churches, was remembered with honors when the flags over Statesboro City Hall flew at half-staff and with a special service Friday at Statesboro High.
Abraham was 92 when he passed away July 15 at his home in Statesboro. Mayor Jonathan McCollar ordered flags at the city government’s buildings lowered to half-staff that day and then offered public statements online and during Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
“This man was a very humble giant within our community, very mild-mannered but someone that had a wealth of wisdom,” said McCollar, a 1992 Statesboro High graduate.
Abraham was serving as an assistant principal during McCollar’s freshman through junior years and retired in 1991. So the mayor and a close friend had shared some recollections about him earlier Tuesday.
“Whenever we got sent to the office, right before he paddled us, he gave us a great talking to, and then he would pat us on the butt with a paddle like our grandmother would and just walk us out the door. …,” McCollar said. “People like that … really gave a lot of us in this community opportunity through their mentorship, through their willingness to serve.”
Abraham’s strictness as a disciplinarian and his nurturing attitude toward learning were common themes this week among local people remembering him as an educator.
Originally from North Charleston, South Carolina, Abraham was valedictorian of his high school class. He attained his Bachelor of Science in Education from Allen University in Columbia, S.C., and later a master’s degree in education from Columbia University in New York City. He also served for a time in the U.S. Air Force.
When Abraham arrived in Bulloch County as a teacher in 1957, the public schools here as in most of the South were still completely racially segregated, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that states had to end segregation “with all deliberate speed.” Abraham started out as a social sciences teacher at William James High School, then Bulloch County’s one high school for black students.
Student to educator
One of his students at William James High was Glennera Martin, who after retiring from a 44-year career as an educator is now in her second elected term as a Bulloch County Board of Education member.
“He gave so much great advice to the students,” Martin said. “All of the students remember him because he was the one person who was very serious about what they did and when they didn’t do what they were supposed to they knew. …”
She also remembered that “three or four licks” could be the consequence for misbehaving students.
“He was serious,” Martin said. “But he loved them. He taught extremely well and always gave great advice.”
Abraham also conveyed the seriousness of his expectations to the teachers in his charge. One teacher told Martin that she called him only once when she was already late for school.
“She said to me that she was late one morning and she called and said, ‘Mr. Abraham, I’m late but I’ll be there at 9:30.’ He said, ‘No, you stay home. Just come tomorrow,’” Martin recounted. “She said that was the best lesson she’d ever learned.”
As Martin explained it, that teacher passed the day and night under the impression, from Abraham’s brevity and tone, that she was going in the next morning to find out she didn’t have a job, and so was never late again.
Willow Hill memories
By 1960, Abraham had been promoted to assistant principal at William James High School, and in 1963 became principal of Willow Hill Elementary School. Serving in that capacity until 1967, he was the next-to-last principal of the pre-integration Willow Hill School. A school just for African-American children, founded originally by former slaves, existed from 1874 through 1969 in a series of buildings on roughly the same site.
Its final building reopened as an integrated school until 1999 and is now home to the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center. The center’s board president, Alvin Jackson, M.D., was a student at Willow Hill Elementary in eighth grade when Abraham arrived as principal in the fall of 1963.
Jackson remembers Abraham’s voice breaking in over the school’s public address system, in the middle of a class on Nov. 22, 1963, to inform students that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
But it was an experience the next school year, after Jackson was in ninth grade at William James High School, that he recalls as epitomizing Abraham’s influence. Their science teacher had asked Jackson and his classmates to find out who was the director of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
During a change of buses at Willow Hill Elementary for students on their way to the high school, Jackson thought to go into the office and ask Abraham.
“He was kind enough to take his time to walk to the library, pull down an encyclopedia and show me that it was Dr. Wernher von Braun, and I was so excited,” Jackson recalled, “I went back to the class the only one with the answer, and that was through Mr. Abraham having the patience to work with a student who was interested in science and discovery.”
He said it was obvious that Abraham knew the answer but was showing him how to look it up for himself.
At the end of that school year, Jackson transferred to Statesboro High as part of the “freedom of choice,” transitional phase of desegregation, and in 1968 become one of the school’s first African American graduates. He later attained his doctorate in medicine from the Ohio State University in Columbus. Jackson’s more than 30-year medical career has included serving as the state of Ohio’s health director, as well as treating many patients and teaching medical students.
Part of the Willow Hill Center’s mission is collecting and telling the history of African Americans in this part of Georgia. Interviews with Julius Abraham are among the many hours of oral histories Jackson has personally recorded.
First at SHS
After the Statesboro schools were fully integrated in 1971, Abraham served as assistant principal of Statesboro High School. When he was named co-principal with Mason Moorer in 1980, Abraham became the first black principal of Statesboro High, Dr. Enola G. Mosley reported in a Black History Month story published Feb. 15, 2015, in the Statesboro Herald.
“He was a very strong disciplinarian and had very high standards and he ran an exquisite operation and was highly respected, both by the students and by the teachers who worked under him,” Jackson said. “Both he and his wife were highly, highly respected.”
Abraham’s wife, Arneese Woods Abraham, their daughter Sheryl Abraham Littles and son Julius Abraham III are among his survivors.
Career as pastor
Julius Abraham Jr. retired in 1991 after more than 35 years as an educator, but then actively followed his other calling, as a minister in African Methodist Episcopal churches. He pastored the Jerusalem A.M.E. and Mount Pisgah A.M.E. churches and served as assistant pastor at Greater Bethel A.M.E. Church in Statesboro, where he remained an active member.
Martin, also a Greater Bethel A.M.E. member, spoke of his work in this role as well.
“At our church, you could always remember his sermons,” she said. “When he preached, there was always something you could take home. He explained to make you feel what he said.”
The walk-through service for Abraham in the Statesboro High School Auditorium was open from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. Friday. Details of other services were listed in his obituary, published in Thursday’s print edition and online since Wednesday at www.statesboroherald.com. Hill’s Mortuary Inc. is in charge of the arrangements.