MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Inside the hallways of Frederick Douglass High, it’s easy to sense how a school with the right leader at the right time can be a beacon of hope for students.
For decades, the old Douglass High produced students who became leaders around the nation, but it closed in 1981 and its doors would remain that way for 27 years.
That is, until 2007, when then-Memphis City Schools Superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson chose Janet Ware Thompson to return to her alma mater and lead the reopening of the new Douglass.
“We have so many scholars, leaders, and everything that you can imagine,” said Thompson.
She created an atmosphere where pastors, alumni and community leaders would visit the school with a vested interest in supporting students.
“I think it was important because of the students, because I knew knowing firsthand that there was a support system here in this community that only this community could provide for these students,” Thompson said.
Her mission: create strong academic programs, school pride, leadership development, strong athletics and strong arts programs and make Douglass the foundation for the community.
“The students here would walk in with pride. They were going to be students you would be extremely proud of. You’ll always feel welcome in our building and will will take care of it,” she said.
Thompson’s unstoppable work ethic is praised by fellow educators.
“I definitely want to be like her. To me she’s not a hero. She’s a superhero,” said Elizabeth Maryble, who was hired by Thompson to work at Douglass 16 years ago. “She’s the person i want to most emulate in this world.”
Thompson mentored her staff, showing what it means to care for children and not just during school hours. Maryble remembers when Thompson wanted the name of every child who didn’t have a winter coat.
“She had gone out during the school day and bought those children coats. That told me about her. She didn’t wait on others. She steps up and does the job herself,” Marble said.
After more than 40 years of service to Memphis and Shelby County Schools, her next jobs and journey would also involve improving the lives of children. She’s a board member with Girls Inc. and is coordinator for in-schools leadership, partnerships and engagement for the Memphis Music Initiative.
She’s also an advisor for the Memphis City Youth Council, which introduces government to students.
Trinity Chism says Thompson helped her find her voice.
“She was really adamant about service,” Chism said. “The fact that before you are served…make sure you serve someone else and that’s really impacted my future because whether I’m a teacher, lawyer, news anchor.”
Back at Douglass, Thompson is still teaching life lessons about serving even when she talks about art.
Janet Ware Thompson is all about public service and giving back, making her a remarkable woman.
“I never sought any type of recognition, accolades for doing the human thing to do and that’s being a strong educator, an example for students,” she said.