One of Ashtabula's first African-American teachers reflects on career

Emma Dismuke

ASHTABULA — Emma Rucker Dismuke was one of the first African-American teachers to be hired in Ashtabula and describes taking on that position: “When I came here, I didn’t know anybody, but people were so friendly that I stayed.”

Dismuke, 77, began her career in 1960 at Ashtabula High School on West 44th Street and, up until this school year, she served as a substitute teacher for the district.

“I was teaching when [Ashtabula Superintendent] Mark Potts was still a baby,” she said. 

Dismuke came to Ashtabula High School after graduating at 19 from Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina with a degree in health and physical education.

Her uncle, who she was visiting that summer in Columbus, called school districts all over Ohio looking for a job for her. When he called Ashtabula Area City Schools, it just so happened they needed a health and physical education teacher.

“I was elated to get a job and, soon after, I caught a bus and rode from Columbus to Ashtabula,” she said. 

Dismuke’s daughter, Christel Wiggins of Greensboro, N.C., said her mother’s empathy for young people started when Dismuke ran track and played basketball at school. She told her children sports kept her out of trouble as a teenager.

“As a child I always liked playing outside, especially playing kickball,” Dismuke said. “I was a tomboy.”

As a college student, she decided on a career that combined her love of sports and working with young people.

“Helping youth stay out of trouble with sports activities became my mother’s life goal, mission and passion,” Wiggins said. “When organizing games she often asked her students, ‘Which team will I be on?’ to their shock. She continued to include herself in the physical activities of the youth even into her early 70s.”

Dismuke fondly recalls tumbling on mats, doing somersaults, playing softball, basketball and volleyball and running alongside her students.

Today, Potts, one of Dismuke’s former pupils in the late 1970s and early 1980s, said he misses her style and energy.

“She’s a wonderful lady and she was a very popular teacher,” he said. “She has been a blessing to countless students over the years.”

While teaching in 1983 at Ashtabula High School, Dismuke was honored by the yearbook staff for her role as advisor to the Black Culture Club: “Instead of being ashamed of the color they were, Mrs. Emma Dismuke let them be proud of who they are,” the year book stated.

Under Dismuke’s advice, the Black Culture Club hosted all-school dances, presented the annual Martin Luther King assembly and helped needy families. The club also donated money to the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation.

When asked about her seemingly endless energetic work ethic, Dismuke said she was raised to be that way.

Dismuke’s father was a railroad worker and her mother worked in the tobacco fields and did housework for extra money. 

“We didn’t have much, but we had enough; we were taught to not be materialistic,” she said. “My parents were strict.”

Dismuke’s father was determined to send all three of his children to college, and they went. Her sister also became a teacher and her brother an engineer.

Once Dismuke settled in Ashtabula, she regularly attended church just like when she lived at home.

“As it turned out, I met my husband at church,” she said. “He sang in a quartet.”

She and Phlenoid Dismuke married Aug. 13, 1966 and celebrated 44 years of marriage before he died in 2011 at age 70. He worked for Ashtabula Bow Socket,RMI and retired from Ashtabula Area City Schools in 2010 after 24 years of service.

The couple had two children, Christel and Phlenoid Jr., who lives in Atlanta, and four grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. 

“He took great pride in making people laugh,” Dismuke said. “As a younger man, he was a wonderful golfer and played as a semi-pro ... He was a good husband, father and grandfather.”

 

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