RACINE — Tommy F. Bishop, Racine’s first African-American substitute teacher and 1957 president of Racine’s NAACP, dedicated his life to ensuring that black history would not be forgotten.
Bishop died April 9 at age 87 in his home state of Alabama, leaving behind a legacy of education in Racine and a massive library dedicated to black history and black authors.
From the time Bishop was a young child growing up near Birmingham, his father used to say: “You have to have an education to step up to the next level, be able to compete,” sister Joyce Bishop Offord said. “That’s what drove him from the time he was a little boy.”
In 1951, Bishop graduated from Alcorn State University, a historically black college in Mississippi. He came to Racine in the mid-1950s as he pursued a master’s degree at Marquette University, according to his sister.
It was around that time Bishop met Bob Ruttgers.
“We were probably as different as night and day,” Ruttgers, 77, recalled. “He was a black guy, I’m white.”
Despite their seeming differences, Ruttgers said their friendship lasted their entire lives. “He was a heck of a guy ... very smart, humorous,” Ruttgers said.
In 1953, Bishop became Racine’s first black substitute teacher, teaching social studies at Franklin Junior High School, according to “African-American Firsts in Wisconsin,” a book by local teacher Andrea Bell-Myers.
He would later go on to serve as a student counselor at Gateway Technical College in Racine. There, Bishop put his father’s advice into action, assisting students to pursue degrees that would help them get ahead, with special attention to minority students, archived articles show.
Bishop’s other push was to teach and preserve black history, a passion fueled from experiencing discrimination first-hand, according to Offord.
Even in Racine, Ruttgers remembered going to a local restaurant (now closed) for a drink. Ruttgers received his coffee in a porcelain mug, but Bishop’s came in a paper cup, he said.
“I can still remember the hurt that caused him,” Ruttgers said.
As early as 1961, Journal Times archives show Bishop spoke to NAACP youth about remembering their people’s history and achievements. At the time, what’s known today as Black History Month was only five years old.
His concern that black history “is getting lost” would follow him throughout his life, according to the newspaper’s archives, and spurred him to collect what his sister called “the most extensive black library I’ve ever seen,” totaling about 300 books, by her estimate. Fittingly, that collection has been willed to Bishop’s two nephews, Offord said.
Although her brother’s work with the black community was extensive, Offord said, “He was just a God-sent person ... He helped the human people, not just his own race.”