Over the decades, a vast number of superb teachers and administrators have served the public school students and families of Queen Anne’s County.
Mrs. Madelyn Hollis is among the finest.
Mrs. Hollis, ‘Matt’ to her friends, was born to Willie and Lillie Matthews on March 30, 1927. She grew up on tenant farms in Accomack County on Virginia’s rural Eastern Shore with four sisters and three brothers. Her parents raised their children to value faith, education, and hard work. At an early age she learned to pick “cucumbers, tomatoes, string beans, you name it. If something grew down there and people ate it, I picked it.” She also earned money for herself and her family by shucking oysters and working the line at the canning factories where food companies packaged local produce.
In the days of segregation, African Americans were lucky to have any access at all to education and in the time and place of Mrs. Hollis’s youth, neither their taxes nor their community at large covered the costs. Students, or their families, paid out-of-pocket to ride the school bus and for the use of hand-me-down books.
Those times were often hard and almost always unfair, but the young, self-described “country girl” craved knowledge, and bolstered by her mother’s encouragement to “make a name for myself and to do something worthwhile,” saw education as a path toward a productive life. She graduated high school at sixteen and a year later entered Delaware State College in Dover where she studied chemistry and education.
Discovering that Maryland paid teachers better than Virginia, when she graduated college in 1948, the young scholar applied to every county in our state. Only a couple responded, one of which was Queen Anne’s, who told her there were no positions available at the time. Instead, she took a job at a one-room “negro” schoolhouse in Metompkin, VA. where she taught fifty-four children in grades one through seven. Her annual salary was $1,500. Officials bumped that up by ninety-five dollars because as the school’s sole employee, she was also, technically, the principal.
Three years later, Queen Anne’s interviewed her for a job teaching math and science at Kennard, the county’s first and only high school for African Americans. Opening in 1936 and named for Lucretia Kennard, a visionary “Supervisor of Colored Schools” who advocated for Black students to have access to more than a rudimentary childhood education, the community had realized the construction of Kennard High School primarily through many small, most likely hard-earned, private donations. A few months after the arrival of the young teacher from the lower Shore, a new Kennard opened. This more modern brick building is the present location of Centreville’s Kennard Elementary School.
It was 1951. Her starting pay would be $2,500 per year.
She spent the next fifteen years there, teaching from a cramped and crowded classroom that sometimes was so full she instructed from the doorway. Because his staff had difficulty finding lodging, Kennard principal Larrie Jones obtained what became known as “the teacherage” a boarding house on Holton Street that housed half a dozen female teachers.
In 1966, Miss Matthews married Centreville native Randolph Hollis, a widower who worked at the local Acme grocery store. Hollis had a young, adopted daughter, Mary Ann, who would go on to give her parents a grandson named Lance.
This was the same year that the county school system, under the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Harry C. Rhodes, integrated and combined Kennard with the three county high schools for white students into one centrally located institution, Queen Anne’s County High School. The newly wed Mrs. Hollis helped make the transition run as smoothly as possible. “It was an adjustment for everyone because it was new,” she remembers, “but I soon realized students were students no matter their race or where they were from.”
As a teacher, Mrs. Hollis never sat much. She liked to walk around her classroom. It helped her keep an eye on her students’ behavior and make sure everyone understood the lessons she taught. Inattentiveness on the part of her pupils might earn them a pinch on the ear. At one point she started collecting notes she confiscated. She says the clandestine communiques were rarely scandalous, just mild school gossip, weekend plans, “everything but math.” She calls this file “What Students Are Doing While You Think You’re Teaching.”
After another fifteen years, including time spent as chairperson of the math department, Mrs. Hollis retired in 1981. Having prided herself on learning all 100 of her annual students by name in the first two weeks of the school year, she felt it was nearing her time to call it a career the day that she called one of her students by the wrong name.
In 1985 she was appointed to the county Board of Education, the first black woman to serve in that position. One of her goals was to recruit more minority teachers. She spent ten years on the board, two as president. She was also an engaged partner in successful efforts to transform the original 1936 Kennard school building into a community center and noted historic landmark.
In 2022, former colleagues, students, and the community in general united to celebrate Mrs. Hollis’s 95th birthday. The event was held in the Kennard African American Cultural Center, her first home as a Queen Annes County teacher, just down the hallway from her old classroom, now restored and named in her honor. Poems were read, songs were sung, gifts were presented, and refreshments were served to the large turnout of well-wishers who attended.
Thinking about her long career, Mrs. Hollis says that she only ever wanted the best for her students. “I was a good disciplinarian,” she says. “I had to work hard. I didn’t have it easy, and it always bothered me to see kids waste time, but to watch a child’s eyes light up when they’ve come to understand something after struggling with it has been one of my greatest joys. It makes me feel good to know I’ve been a positive part of so many lives.
“And if nothing else,” she chuckles, “I know that to graduate, they all had to get past me.”
Brent Lewis is a native Chesapeake Bay Eastern Shoreman. He has published two nonfiction books about the region, “Remembering Kent Island: Stories from the Chesapeake” and a “History of the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department.” His most recent book, “Stardust By The Bushel: Hollywood On The Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore”won a 2023 Independent Publishers award. His first novel, Bloody Point 1976, won an Honorable Mention Award at the 2015 Hollywood Book Festival. He and his wife Peggy live in Centreville, Maryland.