Former Poughkeepsie School Board President Dies

POUGHKEEPSIE – Marie N. Tarver had not yet won a school board election in April 1965.
She had been appointed to the Poughkeepsie Board of Education six months earlier – becoming the first Black resident to occupy a board seat – serving the balance of an unexpired term following a resignation.

Regardless, she spoke up for what she believed the district needed, such as the expanded use of “integrated” textbooks.

“I recommend strongly the use of textbooks showing the role of all races in our democracy and the contributions of those races to our culture,” she said in a Poughkeepsie Journal article written at a time in history when it was usual to see her referenced in articles as “Mrs. Rupert J. (Marie) Tarver Jr.”

Marie Tarver made a name and reputation all her own as a trailblazer and community advocate for roughly six decades. Tarver died at the age of 98 on April 2, according to a release from her family.

She was elected in May 1965 to remain on the school board, and in 1969 became its first Black president. During her six years on the board, she advocated for the hiring of teachers of color and accelerating a reorganization of schools aimed at remedying racial imbalance. As president, she presided over the opening of Poughkeepsie Middle School.

“That was major, for a black woman to be a board member,” said Dr. Felicia Watson, a longtime Board of Education member and former president. Watson noted Tarver joined the board just a decade after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision striking down the idea of “separate but equal” in public schools. That she won an election in a city that, at the time, was not predominantly Black or Latino “was such a powerful thing. It makes me extremely proud.”

Tarver also worked for the Poughkeepsie Model Cities Agency, part of a federal program that worked with the school district in improving the city, rising to the rank of executive director. After the federal program evolved into the Community Block Grant Development program, she remained in charge of local administration for years and became vice president of the national organization.

Prior to that work, the New Orleans native was an English teacher who spent time working at Dutchess Community College and Marist, where she was its first Black instructor.

In a statement, State Sen. Rob Rolison, a former city mayor, said Tarver was “unassuming yet possessing an iron determination,” calling her “a leader in the development of Poughkeepsie and the broader Dutchess County community.”

Rolison also noted her numerous accolades, of which the list is long and notable: an Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal, a Marist College President’s Award, the Alexis de Tocqueville Award – the United Way’s highest distinction for philanthropy – and in 1982 was named the Poughkeepsie Branch of American Association of University Women Woman of the Year.

She also served on the boards for many non-profit organizations, including Dutchess County’s branch of the United Way – “where she was the first African American to chair the Board of Directors and the annual campaign,” her family’s statement notes – the Poughkeepsie Housing Authority, Family Services, among others. She was also a founding member of the Grace Smith House and co-chair of the race relations committee for the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Partnership.

A scholarship at Marist is named after Tarver and her husband, Rupert, who passed in 2005. He was also a distinguished community activist and a Poughkeepsie district employee in various roles. The pair moved to Poughkeepsie in 1956 from Galesburg, Illinois, where Marie Tarver was its high school’s first Black teacher.

The family’s statement said Tarver “was acutely aware of the responsibilities that came with being either the first or the only African American serving in a given position and sought to open doors and pave the way for others to follow.”

Watson was among those for whom Tarver opened a door. Tarver pointed Watson toward a job in City Hall in the city manager’s office and helped the then-17-year-old high school senior get it. Watson said Tarver also helped her understand etiquette and how to dress properly for the workplace. Watson spoke proudly of what it was like being a Black face that would greet visitors to City Hall’s third floor.

Watson called Tarver “one of the core people that impacted my life,” and said she and Rupert Tarver were ever-present figures in the community. But, she said, Marie never portrayed her role as being a trailblazer or the “first” to break color barriers.

“They were foot soldiers who did the work without the fanfare and the celebrity,” Watson said. “They kept their hands dirty in the community. She didn’t just impact Black children, she and her husband impacted all children. They were doing it from a very earnest place in their hearts.”

Watson recalled in later years Marie and Rupert would sit on the porch of their home near Warring Elementary School and “teach” the children passing by, her daughter included.

“If you would walk by, you’d stop and there would be some lesson,” Watson said. “Just, ‘Stay out of trouble; keep your head up,’ affirmations.”

Despite Marie Tarver’s already long list of accolades, Watson said there’s one missing: a place among the city’s new “Champions Walk” collection of monuments to community contributors. The inaugural class of six monuments at the roundabout connecting Smith Street and Creek Road were unveiled in February.

Watson noted it would be especially fitting, as the Tarvers lived in the Fifth Ward.

“The impact of her life, the impact of her actions, have left an indelible mark on so many of us,” Watson said. “She definitely needs to be there.”

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