Sumiton school staff recalls Ilean Black

Posted 9/6/19

SUMITON – Sumiton Middle School has seven teachers and staff members who share a common bond. Combined, they have over 150 years of seniority. Even with all the current complexities and challenges …

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Sumiton school staff recalls Ilean Black


SUMITON – Sumiton Middle School has seven teachers and staff members who share a common bond. Combined, they have over 150 years of seniority. Even with all the current complexities and challenges of education, this group still enjoys and takes pride in their work. 

They all have one thing in common – Ilean Black. Black served as principal at the school for 17 years before she retired in 2005. The 75-year-old educator died in early August.

Black had a hand in shaping the young minds of thousands of students, according to current principal Chris Stephenson. Black also had a hand in shaping the lives of the people who worked around her. She had a knack for seeing qualities in people that others may have overlooked.

Teryl Ragsdale is beginning her 32nd year at Sumiton School. She started as a volunteer. Black needed a kindergarten aide, and she listened to her staff when they recommended Ragsdale.

“I love it here at Sumiton Middle School. This place is my home,” she said. “I was a little surprised when Ilene took a chance and hired me.”

Ragsdale went on to say that Ilene loved the children at the school and would do anything for them. “She always went above and beyond the call of duty,” Ragsdale said.

Cynthia Kay Burroughs is a custodian and has worked at the school for over 19 years.

“I was subbing in the break room one day, and Ilean approached me and asked if I’d like to have a job,” Burroughs said. “It’s a great place to work.”

Ilean has been a legend here at Sumiton School, according to Burroughs. “She helped a lot of people but never boasted about it.”

Yancy Prince teaches physical education and coaches boys’ basketball. This is his 21st year at the school.  “You couldn’t ask for a better administrator,” Prince said.

Black was always very supportive of the teachers, according to Prince. His wife teaches at Carbon Hill, and his children go there, but Prince loves Sumiton Middle School, and much of that has to do with the quality of the administration through the years.

“I’m thankful I had the opportunity to work for her,” Prince said.

Rodney Williams celebrated 20 years at the school in April.

“Ilean hired me off the street,” Williams said. “She wouldn’t take no for an answer.” Black knew Williams from when she taught at T. S. Boyd Elementary School in Dora and Williams was a student there.

She must have liked his work ethic because not only did he work at the school, but she also hired Williams to do her yard work at her home in his off time.

“We’re more like a family here,” Williams said. “It really didn’t feel as if he worked for Black. “It’s more like being on a team.”

Ashleigh Lockhart has worked at Sumiton school for 17 years. Black called Lockhart the day before the students were scheduled to return to classes in the fall. “She called me and said get your tail up here in the classroom,” Lockhart said with a smile.

Lockhart became a middle-school counselor after teaching second grade for nine years.

She has spent much of her life at Sumiton School. Lockhart attended kindergarten at Sumiton in 1985. “After high school and college, I did my student teaching here,” she remembered.

Madelyn Keith, who has been teaching at Sumiton for 17 years, said that Black also gave her an opportunity. “It’s been great working here,” she said. “It feels more like family instead of work.”

Deb Phillips is the bookkeeper at Sumiton Middle School. This year she celebrates 29 years at the school. She started as an assistant counselor.

Phillips was sitting out front on the bricks one day enjoying the afternoon sun. Black called her into the office. “My first thought was, 'What have I done?'” Phillips remembers. But Black asked her if she would start helping the bookkeeper with the records. 

Phillips wasn’t sure why Black chose her to move into the records job, but she was grateful for the opportunity. Later, when the bookkeeping job opened up, Black moved her into that position.

“I told her I didn’t know if I was qualified,” Phillips remembered. Black responded, “You can do it.” She’s been doing the work ever since.

All of these employees seemed to agree that they were grateful that Black had faith in them and allowed them to become a part of the “Sumiton School Family.” 

Sam, Black’s husband of 41 years, said, “She loved that school. It was her passion.” She could make people better than they realized they could be, according to Mr. Black.