by Bev Miller
EDITOR’S NOTE: As we celebrate Black History Month, we are grateful to Bev Miller and Carrie Noble Duckett for their permission to reprint this 2014 article written by Miller, celebrating Noble Duckett’s life and experiences, including being the first Black person to graduate from Dock Mennonite Academy (formerly Christopher Dock Mennonite High School). We honor this history as we continue to deepen our intercultural capacities and practice of antiracist relationships that validate people’s racial experiences.
“When we were around Mennonites, we didn’t see black and white,” says Carrie Noble Duckett, the spirited 76-year-old that was the first black person to graduate from Christopher Dock Mennonite High School.
“John Ruth planted the church in Conshohocken, and he went around the community looking for people to come up to church. We lived two blocks away, down the hill by the railroad tracks and he came down and asked if we wanted to come to the Mennonite church. Oh yeah, I wanted to go and some of the other kids wanted to go, too.” Couples from the church would invite the Conshohocken neighborhood children to their houses for Sunday noon and then take them back to Conshohocken in time for the evening service. “‘Go on…and take your sister!’ my mother would say. “She trusted John.”
Carrie joined the Mennonite church at age 12 or 13 and spent a lot of time after school at the Ruth home, talking to Roma and John and taking care of their newborn baby, Dawn. “It was something to do and I enjoyed it.” When Roma and John needed to go to Johnstown for a weekend, Carrie, at age 15, was the one that took care of Dawn.
Soon Carrie began attending high school at the newly constructed Christopher Dock. She attended with her good friend Mary, but after a year, Mary’s family moved, and she began attending elsewhere. Carrie found the white Mennonite children at CD to be very friendly and not pretentious in any way. “I didn’t see color and didn’t feel prejudice even though I was the only black person that attended the school at that time. I was always very outgoing and maybe that helped.” She admits to sometimes getting in trouble at school. She remembers Pearl Schrack telling her to “stand outside for a while.” Carrie would often stay overnight at Eileen Moyer’s house if she needed to be at evening school events.
Carrie still recalls the three-quarter length sleeves, dresses twelve inches from the floor, and the head covering she wore while she attended at Dock. “It didn’t bother me because in those days we lived in an apartment building where all of us girls learned to sew in seventh grade and made our own clothing. We had a fabric store right by us, so it was nothing for us to make our clothes.” Her younger sister even seemed to admire Carrie’s clothing. Although her sister, Pearl, did not attend Dock, she liked Carrie’s clothes and would sometimes claim them as her own, taking what she needed from their wardrobe.
The only racial tension she experienced (but didn’t know about till a few years ago) occurred on the senior trip to Washington DC. The class advisors, Pearl Schrack and Ben Hess had arranged for a hotel for the class, but when they arrived, the owners of the hotel said they couldn’t stay there due to the presence of one black teenage girl. So, the plans were changed, and the advisors found another hotel, but her classmates never forgot how they were treated.
During Carrie’s senior year at Dock, she had to go out at Easter time to look for jobs. “I went to Bell Telephone, and I applied and took the test. Then they called me and told me I passed the test and had to go get a physical. They also asked me ‘When do you graduate?’ and I said June 5th. So Bell Telephone called, and I started on June 12, about a week after graduation. That was in 1957 and I retired with a pension in 1988.”
When Carrie was 21, she married James Duckett and soon they had two boys, Darrell and Brian. Her mother passed away at a young age, so Carrie took in her sister and younger brother in addition to her own family. Her sister watched her boys while she worked and her husband was in the service. After her husband retired from the military, Carrie made sure he got a job with Ma Bell, and he also worked there for about 20 years. “I’ve traveled a lot all over the US. I went to Spain for a while with Bell Telephone and while Jimmy was in Vietnam, I even met him in Hawaii for some R & R.”
Carrie currently attends Methacton Mennonite Church where the former child she babysat, Dawn Ruth Nelson, was the pastor until recently. She keeps in touch with many people from her 1957 graduating class. “I talked to almost half the persons from my graduating class today. I just had lunch with 2 of them. Out of a class of 27, ten of them showed up at my husband’s funeral a year ago. My schooling helped me to get my job and my job helped me to do all the things in life that I was able to do. But I’ve always been the kind of person to help others in need because I had that type of early influence on my life. [The Mennonites] always gave and didn’t require anything so I try to do the same today.”
Beverly Benner Miller is an Associate Pastor at Plains Mennonite Church and taking Clinical Pastoral Education courses from Eastern Mennonite Seminary. She has a Doctorate in Higher Education from Temple University. She wrote this article when she edited a quarterly newsletter, New Horizons from 2003 – 2018. She has 3 children and 2 grandchildren and lives with her husband, Ken, in Harleysville, Pa.