Lafayette’s first Black woman school board president reflects on faith and community

School Board President Mary Morrison
Like many students in Lafayette Parish this year, Mary Morrison completed her education online. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Mary Morrison leads by example. Though she is just weeks into her new role, Morrison, the first Black woman to serve as the Lafayette Parish School Board’s president, has been active in education for years.

And she knows a thing or two about virtual learning. Like many students in Lafayette Parish this year, Morrison completed her education online. Her path, however, was not a straight one. She was years into her career in healthcare administration with three kids in high school when she decided to enroll at the University of Phoenix.

At the time, getting into education was about making her work life align with her family life.

“I was interested in education to be off on holidays and weekends with my kids,” Morrison says.

Looking back, the devout Christian believes God was guiding her in a way that aligned with her family history. Morrison is a descendant of Robert and Frances Dozier, founders of Erath’s first school for African Americans. The Doziers were former slaves who moved to Erath for a new life in the 1900s, and they established the Beard Congressional Church in 1910 and put a school there.

Her family spoke English and French in their home in Erath. French was for the adults to discuss issues over coffee in the kitchen. She loved the civics class she took at R.F. Dozier Elementary, the integrated Vermilion Parish school named for Robert and Frances. Her ancestors’ eponymous school was small, but it was the community setting — her mother chatting with her teachers in the grocery line wasn’t uncommon — that seeded her observant and hands-on approach as an educator.

Morrison taught medical billing and coding at the Teche Area campus of SLCC while working at Lafayette General (now Ochsner Lafayette General) full-time. Incoming freshmen communicating in run-on sentences and fragments raised her concern.

“I started digging into education,” she says. “That led me to running for the school board 12 years ago. I got 43 percent of the votes, but it didn’t feel like I lost anything. I got to know so many people who had that passion to provide the best opportunity for [students].”

Meanwhile, Morrison’s husband, Purvis Morrison, was voted mayor of Scott, and Mary took her husband’s place on Lafayette’s formerly consolidated council for the remainder of his term.

“It was very exciting and interesting and, and I learned a whole lot,” Morrison says, explaining that she had to pause her school board ambitions while serving on the council.

She dove into her work with SLCC’s student engagement office, the National Association of University Women, her sorority, and the League of Women Voters while serving on the council. Eight years later, a position opened with the school board, and Morrison went for it. She later served as vice president before reaching the top spot.

“With the makeup of my district [mostly white District 1], you wouldn’t think you would have someone who looks like me represent it. It says so much about who you are and what you can do.” Morrison notes. “And it says, ‘Yes, you can.’ It doesn’t matter what you look like. Represent and prepare yourself.”

Morrison credits her success to the community she saw her mother, grandmother and the Doziers nurture. She reflects on her exemplary circumstances that allowed her to become who she feels she was destined to be in addressing educational disparities.

“It’s going to have challenges, especially in the middle of the pandemic. This is my dream. I wanted to be president, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be president in the middle of a pandemic,” she continues. “But we’re just trying to give our teachers what they need, wanting them to be safe. You have to make those tough decisions sometimes.”