Gainesville High School lifted the curtain Monday on its memorial to Beulah Rucker, who famously founded an all-Black industrial school in 1914 in Gainesville and who dedicated her life to education for all.
“I almost came to tears when we walked in here,” said Rucker’s great-granddaughter, Kyndra Rucker-Cohen, a teacher in South Carolina who drove down to attend the dedication. She said the memorial is a reminder of her grandmother’s importance. “She’s still valid. She’s still valuable.”
Featured in the main hallway of the high school’s Advanced Studies Center, the Beulah Rucker History Hall is a timeline of Beulah Rucker’s life and accomplishments, with old pictures and historical descriptions. A 3D rendering of her signature heads the display, with an inscription below that reads: “Lighting a Torch for Education.”
Rucker, who lived 1888 to 1963, was born to illiterate sharecroppers on a farm in Banks County, and from the age of 5, she knew she wanted to be a teacher. She taught herself the alphabet by reading newspapers used as insulation in her home.
Rucker graduated with honors from the Knox Institute in Athens in 1909 and earned her room and board by milking cows and cleaning the principal’s home.
In 1914, she founded the Industrial School off Athens Highway, now the Beulah Rucker Museum, with the goal of educating Black students, many of whom were being turned away from other schools.
“She had a dream before Martin (Luther King Jr.) did,” said Rickey Young, a historian at the Beulah Rucker Museum and former Gainesville High economics teacher.
Rucker graduated from Savannah State College in 1944 at the age of 56, and in 1951 she founded Georgia's first veterans' night school for African Americans to assist troops in obtaining their GEDs.
As inscribed on one of the clear glass plaques, “There was no high school for African Americans in Hall County at this time, so Mrs. Rucker expanded the industrial school to include secondary education. Enrollment varied based on the economy and after World War II she built a gymnasium and a veterans school classroom.”
Rucker’s grandson, Rheumar Rucker, said it was “very exciting” to see his grandmother honored. He recalled her being a strict disciplinarian but also an immensely compassionate woman. He said she would have been pleased with the memorial.
“She would be very happy,” he said. “She’s probably turning over in her resting place.”
His daughter and Rucker’s great-granddaughter, Rhaquay Youmans, described the memorial as “breathtaking” and spoke about their family’s innate commitment to education.
“It is in our genes to educate,” she said. “We’ve heard stories from Dad and our uncle and our grandma … and to see that she’s finally being recognized for her hard work, it’s a blessing. … It’s another eye opener of the importance of our family and our history and my great-grandmother.”
Natalie Smith, Career, Technical and Agricultural Education program coordinator at Gainesville High School, said students “have been very fascinated” by the memorial and have asked many questions about Rucker and her life.
“We value all of our kids’ backgrounds, and we want to make sure that we take the opportunity to celebrate that,” she said. “I think it says a great deal about our leadership that we spend our resources celebrating this.”
Greer Rucker-Peters, former executive director of the Beulah Rucker Museum who attended Gainesville High School, said the memorial represents a “huge milestone” for the community.
“I never met Beulah Rucker, but I’ve heard many stories about her, so to see her commemorated in this way at my high school, it’s a huge milestone for Gainesville, for Gainesville City Schools, for the community at large. I’m very proud to be a Rucker.”