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Leaders & Legends: Beauty Baldwin

It’s the mid-50s in middle Georgia. The sun beats down on Beauty Poole as she drags a cotton sack from one end of a sharecropping field to the other. Beauty wipes the sweat from her forehead and looks around. She isn’t alone; her brother and sisters work side by side with Beauty, harvesting. As with every day she does this, there’s a singular thought that keeps her going: her math studies. In the evenings, before bedtime, her mother holds a lantern while Beauty solves equations. Her mom knows there’s a spark about this girl. She’s built for something special.

It’s the mid-80s in Buford, Georgia. Beauty Poole – now, Beauty Baldwin – is preparing to board a plane bound for Washington, D.C., where the Congressional Black Caucus is honoring all the Black female superintendents in the United States. Beauty has just become the first Black female superintendent in history for the state of Georgia.

It seems her mother was right about Beauty all along. Over a lifetime of achievements, the city of Buford, county of Gwinnett and state of Georgia would come to know the name Beauty Baldwin – stamping it on the fronts of buildings, honoring her with ongoing accolades. This is the story of how the little girl on the cotton field rose to become one of the most recognizable, historic names in her county.

We’ve Come a Long Way

While her life path would one day follow a trajectory she never could have predicted, the young woman’s daily life in 1950s middle Georgia was all too predictable.

“All I remember is saying to the good Lord, if he could just get me out of that cotton field, dragging around that cotton sack, I would do whatever he wanted me to do,” Baldwin says. “There was never no money… because your family used all the money from the time you planted the crop until you harvested the crop.”

What Baldwin describes was the common but unfortunate practice of sharecropping. It was a system in which the owner of a field allowed tenants to use their land in exchange for a share of the crop or the profits from it. Tenant families rented and lived on small, nearby plots.

Baldwin’s family lived and worked on several properties like this in middle Georgia – their living quarters on the land always miniscule compared with the family residence of those who owned it. The owners’ home was often referred to as “the big house.” Baldwin’s mother would sometimes serve as maid in the big house while Baldwin, her father and her siblings toiled in the nearby field.

Baldwin was one of six children. They lived outside of anything resembling a town, but on Saturdays the family would travel to towns like Milledgeville.

It was during these trips she often saw the signs of segregation that were commonplace at the time.

“We would go to this little café,” Baldwin recalls. “You had one side for Black people… the white people could sit inside, but there was no place for us to sit. So, we would get a hot dog and take it outside.”

She experienced another form of segregation while walking to and from school with siblings.

“The white kids did not have to walk [to school],” Baldwin says. “I can remember those very cold days my hands would be just freezing, and that little yellow bus would pass us by…We didn’t have the privilege of having buses. But it was the way it was, and we never thought about it… you know, this is what it is. So, when I look back on that, boy, we’ve come a long way, haven’t we?”

Baldwin continued to walk to school in the mornings, excelling in her studies. She became a top-ranked student at T.J. Elder High School and graduated in 1959. That same year, she enrolled and was accepted at Savannah State College.

The sights of Savannah were breathtaking for the young woman.

“The [Spanish] moss… and those huge trees on the most beautiful campus. It was like something out of a picture book,” Baldwin says. “And I thought to myself, ‘gosh, this is something else.’”

She graduated from Savannah State in 1963, the same year she met husband-to-be, Lucious Baldwin. She was 21 years old.

Baldwin’s first professional job was in Ellaville, Georgia, as a teacher at a segregated high school. It was an experience she’ll never forget.

“I was the entire math department,” she says. “Most of the kids were as old as I was…a lot of the kids had to stay out of school and work in the fields, so they were older… and these big, rough looking guys would be in my class, and I would help them. And they would bring me stuff like ham and collard greens to say, ‘thank you.’”

Integration and the Road to Gwinnett County

She taught in Ellaville for two years before taking a position in her husband’s hometown, Columbus. She would remain in the area teaching for about 10 years. During that time, the process of integrating classrooms had begun.

After giving birth to her daughter, Geri, Baldwin took a job at Hardaway High School in 1969.

“I taught at Hardaway High School, and [it] was the new-rich high school in Columbus. Columbus High School is the old money. Hardaway High School was the new money,” she says.

Hardaway High School had two Black teachers and five Black students who integrated there – making them an extreme minority. Baldwin recalls she was assigned to teach a class in which the previous teacher had trouble controlling the students.

“And I used a technique that I thought of,” Baldwin says. “I thought, ‘these are rich kids. They have maids in the house, okay?’ And the maids really raise them. So, when that maid told them to do something, they knew they had to do it. So, I went in [that class] with that attitude, like, ‘You’re going to do what I want you to do,’ to get them all straightened out. It worked. It worked like a charm.”

Adds Baldwin: “So, I had no problem. No problem, whatsoever, in the integration process. None. And I was at Hardaway High School for four years before we decided to move to Atlanta.”

In 1973, Baldwin began searching for a new post. She settled on a teaching position at Central Gwinnett High School, where she would be the only Black educator at the school. Over the next several years there, she would establish a vocational education program at the school that garnered national attention.

While employed there, Baldwin doubled down on her career ambitions – earning a master’s degree and specialist degree in Administration and Supervision from the University of Georgia. In 1978, she was selected to be assistant principal at Central Gwinnett High School. She served in this capacity until 1980, when she was recruited by Buford City Schools.

Cream Always Rises to the Top

Just as Baldwin’s mother had, Jim Puckett recognized this woman was built for something special. Puckett met Baldwin in 1980 at a leadership class the two were taking at University of Georgia. At the time, Puckett held the post of superintendent of Buford City Schools.

Around the time he met Baldwin there was a vacancy at the middle school in Buford.

“We talked about the job, and I was able to convince her to come to Buford to become the middle school principal,” Puckett recalls.

Baldwin took the job and would remain principal of the middle school four years. In 1984, when Puckett took a job with the state in Atlanta, the Buford City Schools Board of Education voted to appoint Baldwin as his successor.

Baldwin recalls that when the news media learned “everything just exploded, because evidently they did some research and found out that there had not ever been a Black female school superintendent in the state before.”

Shortly after being appointed superintendent, she was invited to Washington D.C. to attend a special luncheon hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus, honoring Baldwin and 12 fellow Black female school superintendents from around the country.

After returning to Buford from Washington D.C., Baldwin says she “just jumped in with both feet and did what I was accustomed to doing – leading… everything I did, I did it for the students.”

Puckett says Baldwin was the perfect pick for the role of superintendent – a post she held till June 1994.

“The board of education very wisely chose Beauty when I left the position,” Puckett says. “It was obvious from the beginning she was a woman of character, a woman of integrity, and she had a super personality which I think set her apart.”

Adds Puckett: “Cream always rises to the top, and she certainly made a way for herself, not only in Buford but in the many other roles she’s played… she gets a major gold star for all the hours she’s spent on a variety of boards, committees, commissions both in and outside education.”

Opening Hopewell Christian Academy

She spent 10 years as superintendent with Buford City Schools – totaling 31 years as an educator at the time. Shortly after retiring from her superintendent post at the age of 52, Baldwin got a surprise one morning during a sermon at her church, Hopewell Baptist.

“I remember vividly,” Baldwin says. “When I retired from Buford City Schools, my pastor got up at the pulpit, and he was talking about my retirement, and then he said, ‘we’re going to start a school, and Sister Beauty Baldwin is going to head it.’”

She laughs: “And I just looked at him and said, ‘yes, sir.’”

Thus, was planted the seed for Hopewell Christian Academy. Baldwin says she’d always wanted to run a Christian school because she “could make things the way I wanted them done” along with the help of like- minded friends and colleagues.

Hopewell Christian Academy opened its doors in 1997.

“With every one of those [graduates from Hopewell], I cannot find one that has not been successful,” she says. “We had a Yale graduate, a lawyer at one of the biggest firms in New York City, a few athletes… and you ask them why they’ve done so well, and they say, ‘it was our foundation at Hopewell Christian Academy.’”

Baldwin served as Hopewell’s administrator for 16 years.

The school would later become North Metro Academy of Performing Arts, a Gwinnett County Charter School. She still serves on the board of North Metro Academy, as well as the board of health, Baldwin Elementary School Council, volunteer time with the alumni association of her alma mater, Savannah State, and she still attends Hopewell Baptist Church.

Her fellow citizens have been so inspired by Beauty Baldwin that they decided to name a couple buildings after her.

In 2016, the Gwinnett County Board of Education officially dedicated a school in Norcross to her: Baldwin Elementary School. Again, in 2020, a ceremony was held to dedicate Gwinnett County’s newly- renovated elections office in her name: The Gwinnett Voter Registrations & Elections Beauty P. Baldwin Building.

Not bad for a sharecroppers’ daughter who used to tote sacks of cotton, praying for God to help her escape the fields.

I Thank Him Every Single Day

It’s the early-70s in middle Georgia. The sun beats down on Beauty Baldwin as she enters the threshold of a home her mother recently purchased. The property is in an area of Washington County called Deepstep. It’s on former sharecropping land where Baldwin, her brother, sisters and father once worked. The home she enters was one of the “big houses,” where her mother worked as a maid. It’s funny, Baldwin thinks, but the house doesn’t look as big as it did when she was a little girl – around the time her mother would hold a lantern in their own tiny abode to help Beauty study.

Unlike the cramped house on the sharecropping field where the Poole family once lived, this residence has electricity. Unlike the two-bedroom dwelling the family once rented, this home has four bedrooms. It has a large dining room. It has a big kitchen – a kitchen Beauty’s mother will never again work in as the maid for someone else’s rich family.

It’s 2021, and Beauty Baldwin is sitting in a chair in an office in Buford. Beauty’s telling this story to a magazine writer – talking about how that home, that “big house,” is still in the family to this day. As she sits in the chair in an office in the town where she once served as school superintendent, she is asked a question about a prayer she once said as a little girl in a sharecropping field.

“I still pray,” Beauty says with a smile. “From the time I was praying in that cotton field to the time that I was praying that I could do well enough in college to one day pay my way… I still get up every morning at 5 o’clock and pray. That’s how I operate. And prayer has been all through my life’s journey. And I thank Him every single day.”