Carlton A. Funn Sr., teacher who focused on black history, dies at 80

September 28, 2012

Carlton A. Funn Sr., a Washington area schoolteacher who championed the preservation of black history for more than a half-century, died Sept. 11 at Inova Alexandria Hospital. He was 80.

He had congestive heart failure, said his son Marc Funn.

Mr. Funn, an Alexandria native who taught in the District and several Northern Virginia school systems over a 38-year career, began working in classrooms during an era when racial segregation was being forcefully challenged.

While teaching a history class to Alexandria seventh graders in 1957 — three years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed public school segregation — Mr. Funn said he was shocked to see the school system using a dated and racially offensive text on Virginia history.

It depicted slaves as cheerful and docile. It was also the same book the Alexandria school system had used when he was a student. He complained to the principal but was ordered not to make waves.


Carlton Funn, who died at 80, speaks to a crowd at George Washington University. (Charles Del Vecchio/WASHINGTON POST)

“I didn’t want to rock the boat too much,” he told The Washington Post in 1972. “I wanted a job here for a long time.”

Bit by bit, Mr. Funn began collecting black history memorabilia, including books showing the horrors of slavery as well as movies about minorities in the United States, records, posters, newspaper clippings and handcrafted artifacts. The mementos served as visual aids for his students when teaching them the role of blacks in American history and highlighting their historical contributions to Virginia.

More often than not, Mr. Funn purchased the items from his own pocket. The collection gradually came to fill hundreds of tables and, in later years, it included the historical contributions of other ethnic groups such as American Indians, Asian Americans and Latinos. He eventually called it National/International Cultural Exhibits, or NICE.

In the late 1960s, Mr. Funn began taking his exhibit on the road, first to other schools and church groups and later to colleges and government agencies. It has been presented more than 500 times in 13 states. Setup requires two rooms and four hours of prep work.

Mr. Funn told The Post that some principals and students didn’t understand why he lugged so much equipment around: “They’d say, ‘Mr. Funn, you just like an old woman. What you doing with all these boxes?’ and I’d say, ‘That’s my history.’ ”

Carlton Allyn Funn was born Jan. 29, 1932, in Alexandria. His mother was a teacher and community activist. His father drove trucks for the Coca-Cola Co.

Mr. Funn was a 1949 graduate of Alexandria’s old Parker-Gray High School. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1953 from the now-defunct Storer College, a historically black college in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., then spent two years in the Army in Greenland. In 1972, he earned a master’s degree in education from Virginia State University in Petersburg.


Carlton Funn's collection of black-history artifacts is shown on display at George Washington University. (Charles Del Vecchio/WASHINGTON POST)

Mr. Funn’s first teaching job was at Carver Elementary School in Purcellville, but he soon joined Alexandria’s Lyles-Crouch Elementary. He moved to the Fairfax County system in the early 1970s and taught mostly sixth and seventh grades. In 1978, he took a $2,300 pay cut (to $6,000) to work in D.C. elementary schools. “I just thought D.C. kids needed so much more,” he told The Post in 2001.

He retired in 2000 from Eliot-Hine Middle School, saying he was essentially getting too old to put up with mischief-minded eighth-graders. “I decided I better stop before I stopped making sense,” he told The Post.

His wife of 49 years, Alexandria elementary school teacher Joan Berry Funn, died in 2008. Survivors include three children, Carlton A. Funn Jr. of San Leandro, Calif., Tracye Funn of Clinton and Marc Funn of Alexandria; a sister and brother, Mattie Hopkins and Charles Funn, both of Accokeek; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Funn continued to demonstrate his traveling display until January and was involved in civil rights and mentoring programs. He was past membership chairman of the NAACP’s Alexandria branch. He created Alexandria’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. poster contest for schoolchildren that was sponsored in part by the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage, of which he was a past president.

He volunteered with Grandfathers Group, a mentoring program run by the Northern Virginia Urban League that pairs African American retirees with African American children.

A number of his former students have become community and political activists, including Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille. “He was much more than an educator — he was also a mentor, role model and friend,” Euille said.

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