Futrell, Mary Hatwood 1940–

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Mary Hatwood Futrell 1940


At a Glance


Considered an influential figure in American education, Mary Hatwood Futrell has served as president of the leading teachers union in United States for many years, a position which prompted People magazine to deem her one of the most powerful black women in America in 1983. A tireless labor activist, charity board member, and public education reformer, Futrell is dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Futrell was born in 1940 in Altavista, Virginia, one of four daughters. She was four years old when her father, a construction worker, died of kidney disease. The family was left with large hospital bills that took eight years to pay in full. Her mother, Josephine Hatwood, was a domestic worker who held three jobs to make ends meet. Shed be gone before wed wake up for breakfast, Futrell recalled in an interview with People, and still not come home by dark.

Despite their financial hardships, and undeterred by the fact that she herself only had a sixth grade education, Futrells mother encouraged her daughters to read, and tried to stimulate their minds in a variety of ways. My mother always read to me and my sister, had spelling contests with us, checked our report cards, and came to school any time it was necessary, Futrell recalled in an interview with Mark F. Goldberg for Phi Delta Kappan, even though it might mean changing buses two or three times.

The schools Futrell and her sisters attended were segregated institutions in the Lynchburg school district. Though her teachers at Dunbar High School knew Futrell was bright, they shunted her into a vocational curriculum in high school, aware that her family would never be able to send her to college. Nevertheless, she did extremely well in school and was eventually switched to a more demanding, collegetrack program at Dunbar halfway through. At her high school graduation, Futrells teachers presented her with an envelope containing an informal scholarship fund: they had collected $1,500 from local businesses, churches, and individuals to help her pay her college costs. Futrell began her undergraduate education at Virginia State College (now University), which was an allblack school in Petersburg at the time. There she studied business and education.

After graduating in 1962, Futrell became a business education teacher at an allblack high school in Alexandria.

At a Glance

Born Mary Alice Franklin Hatwood on May 24, 1940, in Altavista, VA; daughter of a construction worker and Josephine Austin; married Donald Futrell, October 8, 1977. Education: Virginia State College, B.A., 1962; George Washington University, MA, 1968; additional graduate study at University of Maryland, 1965, Univ. of Virginia, 197879, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State Univ., 197980.

Career: High school teacher, Alexandria, VA, 196380; Education Association of Alexandria, president, 197375; VA Education Assn., president, 197678; National Education Assn., Washington, DC, secretarytreasurer, 198083, president, 198389; George Washington Univ., associate director, Center for the Study of Education and National Development, 198992, director of Center for Curriculum Studies and Technology, 199295, dean, Graduate School of Education and Human Development, 1995-.

Memberships: National Education Assn., board of directors, 197880, head of human relations commission, until 1980, sec.-treas., 198083; Education International, president, 1993; World Confederation on the Origins of Teaching Profession, president, 199093, executive committee vice president, 198890, chair of womens caucus, 1984, chair of finance commission, 198689, president, 1990; American Assn. of Colleges of Teacher Education; American Assn. of State Colleges and Universities; Democratic Natl. Committee, womens council; ERAmerica, natl, chairperson; U.S. Natl. Commission to UNESCO; International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund, advisory council; Natl. Democratic Institute for Intl. Affairs; National Labor Committee for Democracy and Human Rights; Project VOTE; Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission, bd. of advisers; Natl. History Day, trustee.

Awards: American Black Achievement Award, 1984; Distinguished Service medal, Columbia Univ., 1987; honorary degrees: Virginia State Univ., George Washington Univ., 1984; Spellman College, 1986; Central State Univ.; Eastern Michigan Univ., 1987; Adrian College; George Washington Univ., 992.

Addresses: Office George Washington University, 2134 G St. NW, Washington, DC 200372797.

Things became tense following the schools desegregation in 1965, but Futrell banded together with teachers, administrators, and parents to hold discussion meetings that defused some of the hostilities. Still, there were lingering signs of institutional racism in Virginia at the time. For instance, when communities merged their formerly segregated schools to comply with federal law, a surplus of teachers was often the result, and sometimes black teachers were demoted to nonteaching positions. Irate, Futrell worked to correct these and other subtle injustices.

The experience politicized her and she became active in a state group, the Virginia Education Association (VEA), in 1967. Although Futrell was determined to serve on the VEA board of her school district, she faced strong opposition, and the district refused to distribute her campaign literature. Accordingly, she did not win a seat, but challenged the election in court and won.

During this era Futrell went back to school, earning an advanced degree from George Washington University. She continued to teach in Alexandria schools, and served in local teachers groups. Elected president of the Education Association of Alexandria in 1973, she ran for the presidency of the VEA three years later, and once again, was counseled to stay out of the race. Instead, she won the election and became the groups first AfricanAmerican president. Around this time she married Donald Futrell, physical education teacher and coach. During her stint as VEA president, she took a leave of absence from her teaching job, but went back to the classroom in 1978. That same year, she was elected to the board of her union, the National Education Association (NEA), and became head of the unions human relations commission.

Two years later, Futrell was elected secretarytreasurer of the NEA, a fulltime post for which she gave up her teaching job. The NEA was the leading teachers union in the United States, with 1.7 million duespaying members. Again, Futrell faced some determined opposition in her campaign: her male opponent for the secretarytreasurer post claimed that Futrell was unsuited to the job, too political, and would work only for minorities in the union. She won the campaign anyway, and three years later, when she decided to run for the presidency, she ran unopposed.

Futrell took the helm of the secondlargest employees union in the United States in 1983, at a contentious time in its history. There was much talk of educational reform during this era: the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued a study that warned of a rising tide of mediocrity in public education, and other research provided evidence that some schools were failing to provide an adequate education for some studentseven in basic reading and math skills. Researchers and education advocates advocated tougher standards and a number of other measures to remedy the situation.

At the time, some saw teachers unions like the NEA as the main obstacle to improving education standards in the country. Teachers jobs were protected, some argued, and poorly performing teachers were protected, to the ire of school boards and disgruntled parents by union laws. Yet Futrell argued that the declining educational situation in the United States was hardly the fault of teachers. Several other economic and social factors made educating students for an increasingly complex world a tough job. Teachers are easy prey, Futrell said in an interview with the New York Times in 1983. Were easy people to blame. If we should be blamed for anything, though, it should be for not standing up to protest against all the burdens that society puts on us.

Futrell earned a reputation for making such frank statements, and soon became one of the most vociferous critics of the conservative Republican president of the United States, Ronald Reagan. The president had set a notoriously antiunion tone to his administration in 1981 when he fired all members of a national union of striking air traffic controllers. Reagan advocated the abolition of the Department of Education, and urged reforms that would establish competitive, businesslike standards within the teaching professioninstead of union- negotiated contracts with school districts that set salaries, Reagans idea of a merit pay system would give teachers pay increases based on job performance. Meanwhile, Futrell was adamant that the profession was changing, and a new era was coming. She vowed to battle any Republican cutbacks to education. If we sit back and do nothing, they will push us around, she told People. Teachers are no longer going to be the passive little old ladies who accept whats handed to them.

In the summer of 1983, Reagan spoke before the NEAs rival union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), at their national convention, and claimed that the NEAs new curriculum plans for students, which included conflict resolution and multiculturalism units, amounted to brainwashing. In press interviews at the time, Futrell pointed out that her union was a large contributor to Democratic political candidates and causes. She did concede that some of Americas teachers were not doing their jobs, a figure that was perhaps as high as ten percent, but noted that such statistics were common to many fields. Underperformers, she told People, sift through in every profession, even at the White House.

Futrells energetic work as NEA president caused the rank and file to reelect her twice. She was also invited to serve on the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, which issued a 1986 report on the teaching profession. It called for higher base salaries for teachers and an overhaul of the certification system. Futrell, however, did not agree with reports suggestion about instituting merit pay in the profession. Ultimately, the attitude of experts like Futrell may be the key to the Carnegie programs success or failure, noted Times Ezra Bowen. For just as teachers are central to the studys implementation, they will also determine whether the program will be accepted or rejected.

In the end Futrell did manage to impact the teaching profession through her leadership: she was influential in the formation of National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) with the AFT, and enjoined her NEA members to support it, despite some opposition. This was one of her greatest legacies in six years as NEA president. She stepped down in 1989, but was already active in number of other endeavors, including the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission. Futrell next became associate director of the Center for the Study of Education and National Development at George Washington University. In 1995 she was named dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the university. She has been integral in revising the education curriculum at the school, which has become a model for other colleges and universities.

Futrell and other forwardthinking educators argued for a more teambased approached to learning, and she also stressed that mentor programs for new teachers are crucial to the ultimate success of the teaching profession at every level. We know that teachers who receive mentoring during their first year or two are far more likely to stay in the profession longer and to be more successful than those teachers who were not mentored, she told Goldberg in the Phi Delta Kappan. She also used the occasion to reflect on the special challenges that urban schools faced in the United States. Futrell spoke of a covert pressure among minority youths not to achieve academically in school, as she stated in the interview with Goldberg. Its perceived as acting white and not being macho. Parents have to encourage their kids to excel academically and then support their efforts to do so. Churches, sororities, fraternities, businesses, and neighbors have to be involved in this problem.



Contemporary Newsmakers 1986, Issue Cumulation, Gale, 1987.

Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1992.


Ebony, July 1989, p. 76.

New York Times, July 3, 1983.

People, July 25, 1983, p. 54.

Phi Delta Kappan, February 2001, p. 465.

Time, May 26, 1986, p. 58.

U.S. News & World Report, June 10, 1985, p. 94.

Carol Brennan