One of Ashtabula's first African-American teachers to celebrate birthday Sunday

Ashtabula Area City School District's first African-American teacher, Emma Dismuke, will celebrate her 77th birthday on Sunday. 

ASHTABULA — She’s almost 77, but Emma Dismuke is still passionate about helping Ashtabula Area City School children. 

Dismuke was one of the first African-American teachers in Ashtabula. She started her career in 1960 at Ashtabula High School on West 44th Street.

On Sunday, her family will be throwing her a birthday party from 2-5 p.m. at Guyreino’s Deli, 1033 Lake Ave. Cost is $15 per person and former students and co-workers are invited to attend — but don’t mention retirement because Dismuke still likes to get out with the young people.

“Retire? I’m still (substitute) teaching,” she said, laughing. “Superintendent (Mark) Potts calls me the ‘Big Cheese’ because I’ve been around so long.”

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. “When I came here, I didn’t know anybody, but people were so friendly.”

Dismuke said she will always be grateful to then-principal M.E. Rowley, who made her feel welcome.

“He invited me to his home with his family,” she said. “He was wonderful.”

Dismuke’s daughter, Christel Wiggins of Greensboro, North Carolina, 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 she wanted to work 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 (during physical education classes) 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 readily admits she tumbled on mats, did somersaults, played softball, basketball and volleyball and ran miles a day right along with 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 was a very popular teacher at that time and was always full of energy and very positive,” he said. “She has been a blessing to countless students over the years. I was happy to learn that her children were honoring her with a party. She is certainly deserving. She is such a good lady.”

Dismuke’s father was a railroad worker and her mother worked in the tobacco fields and did housework for extra money.  She said they didn’t have big parties for birthdays.

“I wasn’t raised that way. We had enough, but we were taught to not be materialistic,” she said. “My parents were strict.”

Dismuke said she had even stricter grandmothers, who were both Native Americans — one a Blackfoot and the other a Cherokee. 

“They’d tear you up with little switches on your legs,” she said. 

Dismuke’s father was determined all three of his children would go to college, and they did. 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. He asked people about me. ‘Who’s that girl?’ he said.”

She and Phlenoid Dismuke married Aug. 13, 1966 and celebrated 44 years of marriage before he died in 2011 at age 70. 

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

“I am inviting everybody to my party,” she said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

For more information about the event, call Wiggins at 336-254-9651.

For those unable to attend the party, send cards and tokens to Emma Dismuke, P. O. Box 122, Ashtabula, Ohio 44005. 

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