Davis-Culp Recalls Darker School Days of Segregation

"Only the educated are free" -Epictetus (55A-135AD)

There are educators and there are divine inspirers.

Gayle Davis-Culp, Santa Monica College teacher of African American literature, has the distinguished characteristics of both. Her smile is at once arresting and inviting, her manner, a mixture of candid expression and graceful generosity.

It is of little wonder that her students speak of her in an exalted way. Eiman Razinia, an SMC student and assistant to Davis-Culp in Student Support Services, was shy at first, but in the end he was full of conviction when he said, "She is the best person I have ever met. The best teacher at SMC; she would love to help out everyone, even people that she doesn't know."

Davis-Culp was born in Wichita Falls, Texas; she weaves a tale of growing up in segregated times. She was enrolled in an all-white school as the only African American student during her attendance.

"When I wasn't being pushed down the stairs, or having bottles thrown upside my head, it was just fine," she said. "Every day my Mom would pray with me before she, sometimes literally, pushed me out of the car to go to school."

Teaching was not her first choice as a profession. She was smitten with the notion of traveling the world as an airline stewardess.

But when her mother got wind of her career intentions, she flatly denied her flight time, saying, "I did not work this hard to see you become a waitress in the sky. Midwestern has offered you a TA-ship, and you will take it." And with that, Davis-Culp became a teacher.

Was she upset in the long run at this intervention? Certainly not. "My mother is my hero. I hope I can be just part of who she was," Davis-Culp said with fond sadness. Her mother has passed away. Davis-Culp tells the story of how the Ku Klux Klan had told her mother, who was a civil rights activist, that she had to get out of town by nightfall or they would erect a burning cross on her lawn.

"She told them, 'You do what you have to do, but I guarantee you that that cross will serve as a headstone for someone if you come in my yard.'" Davis-Culp said, laughing, "She was the strongest woman I know."

Davis-Culp says that as a teacher, everything just fell into place for her. In 1997 she was appointed director of Trio, a program designed to help underprivileged students to successfully gain a college education. She held that title until the 2002 budget cuts, after which she resumed teaching English full-time.

Thomas Rojas, a counselor for Trio and long-time colleague, says of Davis-Culp, "She is surprising. Students think she's going to be easy in the classroom because she is nice and easy to talk to, then they find out that she has high expectations."

This notion was confirmed by her son Jeremey Culp, who said, "If you do well, she always encourages you to do better."

Davis-culp says that she is blessed to be a teacher at SMC. For her students she sends this wish: that they will be able to "look between the lines of history, and see the truth."