When a 100-year-old woman tells you she’s writing her autobiography, you nod politely and think, “Yeah, right.”
So here’s Martha Ann Miller of Arlington, now 101, and here’s her polished, published autobiography: 255 pages with great photos throughout, featuring the inside story of how Arlington became the first district in Virginia to desegregate its schools. And how Miller was one of the first teachers to participate in that desegregation.
It’s “The First Century and Not Ready for the Rocking Chair Yet,” as promised. And many of the copies are already spoken for, so if you want one, you better act fast. Available in hard and softcover versions. (Details at the end of this post.)
She’s happy with the final product, though she said she fired her first publisher and then rejected the first version produced by her second publisher. Just because she’s legally blind doesn’t mean she can’t tell quality when she sees it. She was a junior high school teacher for 21 years, after all.
Miller said the other day she had resisted the notion of a memoir for years. But as the prospect kept raising its head and the historical importance of her moment in the national spotlight grew, she decided in the 1990s, “I better write this down. And I did.”
She spent about ten years making notes and writing, then took five years off due to health problems. “But the doctors pulled me through,” Miller said, and she bought a computer with voice recognition software. ”I started talking to the computer and it did quite well,” she said, and the book truly reads like you’re sitting there listening to her tell stories.
She also dictated parts to Marci Schiller, who typed it up and edited it, and helped her shape up the computer-dictated parts. With boxes of old photos, some dating to well before she was born (her parents’ wedding photo from 1893), she needed a graphic designer to integrate the art with the prose, and her church friend Rhonda Lee performed that task beautifully. Former Post staff member Jo Allen helped her with the intricacies of finding a publisher.
After recounting her family’s path to America and then Indiana, Miller writes that “I put in my earthly appearance at about eight o’clock Sunday morning, August 6, 1911.” She made her first visit to Washington in 1925, having won a statewide 4-H baking contest, which also earned her a college scholarship to Purdue University.
Upon graduation, she moved to Washington and lived with family friends in Arlington. She married a young Georgetown lawyer in 1937 and they moved to Colonial Village, where she had three children. Her oldest son, William, died of scarlet fever at age five, which Miller recounts without self-pity.
Miller became involved in education after World War II when she joined the Citizens Commitee for School Improvement because there was no kindergarten in Arlington and first and second grades were only half-day sessions. This turned into a political movement, led in part by her husband Drennan Miller, to allow the public to elect school boards. At that point, they were appointed by a county electoral board, and were unresponsive to the call for change, Miller wrote.
Public schools in Virginia were “built for the poor people,” Miller said. ”The buildings were terrible. It was the plantations’ idea of education. Plantations had private teachers, rich people went to private schools, and poor people went to public schools.”
The citizens committee got the law changed in 1947 so that Arlington could directly elect its school board. Miller started teaching math at Stratford Junior High School, now H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program, in 1952.
Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education, declaring segregation unconstitutional. Miller writes that Arlington school officials were not inclined to abide by that, as part of Virginia’s “massive resistance,” but an Arlington circuit court ordered black students admitted in 1959. Stratford would be first.
“The principals asked the teachers if we would be willing to teach black students,” Miller wrote. “Some teachers refused. I personally felt it was an insult to be asked this kind of question, and I, of course, volunteered, considering it an honor to have these students in my classroom.”
With police acting as a protective force and the national media watching, four students entered Stratford on Feb. 2, 1959, and took math with Miller. “I welcomed them into my class,” Miller wrote, “showed them where they could sit, and we went into our lesson. It was just a regular day.”
The Virginia General Assembly responded by revoking Arlington’s right to directly elect its school board, a decision which would stand for 33 more years. A
commemorative plaque hangs inside the current Woodlawn, and
a state historic sign outside marks the important moment. (It also notes that Stratford, built in 1951, was named for Robert E. Lee’s birthplace (!).)
After Miller retired in 1974, she and her husband traveled the world, and then she became a leader in the American Association of University Women. Later parts of the book include her guide to living a good Christian life, and her insistence that Super Vitamin B Complex + Vitamin C is awfully darn important to a pain-free long life.
To get your own copy of “The First Century,” you’ll need to send Miller an e-mail, because she’s got them all in boxes in her apartment in Arlington. The hardcover is $40 plus tax, the softcover is $27.50 plus tax. E-mail Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org, and she or one of her many helpers will get back to you.