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'She's a true trail-blazer' | Stockton’s first Black teacher turns 102-years-old

Wilhelmina Henry grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. Her father was a railroad fireman and her mother was also a teacher.

STOCKTON, Calif. — On an elementary school campus in southeast Stockton, 13-year old Gabriel Gonzales has learned he has a knack for understanding numbers.

"It's kind of hard to explain, but I feel like the math, geometry, algebra it all just kind of makes sense in my head, like it kind of just speaks to me," Gabriel said.

And perhaps what's speaking to him too is inspiration from the namesake of his school, Wilhelmina Henry —the first Black teacher ever in Stockton.

"I feel like the influence she has had on a lot of kids is very big amount because 102 is a very long time," Gabriel said.

Henry grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. Her father was a railroad fireman and her mother was also a teacher.

"This is the only picture we have of her when she was a girl," said Rachelle Mimms, Henry's daughter.

Mimms, a third-generation retired teacher, said her mother had aspirations for becoming a teacher playing make-believe school as a child. 

"And she would be the teacher," Mimms said. "She would ask a question and if you got the question right you got to go up a step. And, if you got the question wrong you had to go down."

But for Henry, it was only up from there.

She took the steps to become a teacher, graduating from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Education.

Teaching six years in segregated schools in the south, in 1947, she moved west, applying to teach in Stockton Unified School District.

She passed the exam but was still told she had to wait.

"But, there were other people that said, no, time is now we need to have somebody black in this school," Mimms said. "We have black children going to school here."

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So it happened, the color barrier for teaching in Stockton was broken. 

Her teaching career spanned 52 years, teaching thousands of students.

As for her historic accomplishment?

"I think my mom would say children are children," Mimms said. "They need to learn and that's what I do."

On her 100th birthday, the school bearing her name celebrated her life, as she told stories of her career for others to learn from.

"She's a true trailblazer and she made a huge difference and huge impact on our Stockton community, especially the kids here," said Henry Elementary School Principal Eddie "Mr. Van" Bun.

Today, Wilhelmina Henry is retired in Stockton. She is still able to go on short walks with the help of her son. And while her memory is rapidly fading, her legacy and inspiration have not. It's something young Gabriel Gonzales will always take with him.

"Hopefully I can do the same thing as she did," Gabriel said. "I don't have to live up to a long life, but have some influence on some kids, ya know?"

Henry has had a scholarship in her name since 1969. But, perhaps her most rewarding achievement is her legacy of a now diverse teaching staff in Stockton.

Watch: Stephon Clark's brother heads march for racial justice 4 years after police killing

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