Kaz Muhammad was born to a mother who lived her early life as a sharecropper. He holds degrees in mathematics and mechanical engineering. In the 1990s, he worked at NASA when the number of space shuttle missions doubled and proved to be Earth’s bridge to space. Today he holds what some may believe is one of the most meaningful jobs in the country. He’s an educator at an elementary school.
"My grandfather was a sharecropper. They had eight children. My mom being one of these that grew up on a sharecropper's farm."
“Of course, you know if you know anything about sharecropping most of the time to practice this wasn't fair,” Muhammad said. “When it was time to pay the farmers for the work they did when they turned in the product at the end of the season, then let's just say they didn't do the right thing by the farmers.”
Despite a formidable battle, Muhammad had an aunt who was determined that through education she could equip herself to leave the life of indentured servitude and chart her own course. So she left, went to school and moved the entire family to Albany, Georgia.
The year was 1955.
The amazing journey that took Muhammad’s family from picking cotton in the fields of Georgia to his odyssey of being part of innovative engineering work at NASA to his choice to follow his calling to teach is an inspiring tale.
If you ask Muhammad, the transformation started with education. His mother and her seven siblings all graduated high school and four attended college. His mother and his aunt both graduated from Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith University and went on to receive their master’s degrees.
Muhammad says the hard-working ethic of his family was the catapult that launched his future.
“I remember you know the first time that I really realized that I was living in financial poverty was when integration took place. This was in the late ‘70s for us down Albany, Georgia,” Muhammad said.
Muhammad was bused from his neighborhood to the other side of town where more affluent residents lived.
“Wow, you know there's more to the world than what I've been exposed to, and that just started that whole thirst of ‘we got to get this for the same people that I grew up with,’” Muhammad said. “They need to have this same exposure. Just having the people from where I'm from you know that there is something else out in the world,” he said.
“My mother and my grandmother really drilled into us, “Look, you go over there you better represent us,” Muhammad said. “I got to show them that I belong here, and that was kind of like a mission. I went with and those students and that bus with me went over there and we knew that we might not understand everything at first, but we got to do just as good as everybody else here.”
Muhammad excelled in school, and after graduating high school his mother took out a loan for one semester at Morehouse College, the same alma mater as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Muhammad received the Ronald McNair scholarship to finish his degree in mathematics, and earned a mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Tech.
During his summers at Morehouse, he began internships at NASA in Langley, Virginia. His mentor was astronaut Leland Melvin, who served as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.
“You know as a child we all see I want to be astronaut, but this is a black guy was actually trained to be an astronaut,” Muhammad said. “He took me under his wings and I mean he was kind of like my grandfather in a way. He always told me, ’Look you at NASA. This is the best of the best. You got it. You got to make me look good. I'm your mentor I'm taking you in. They don't expect much of you anyway cuz they know you’re African American child from Georgia.’”
From NASA, Muhammad entered the corporate world. He received offers from some of the world’s top companies like Johnson and Johnson, Honeywell, and AT&T.
He took a job at Dupont in the small town of Florence, South Carolina, because the landscape and environment reminded him of home.
“This was a huge plant site. I remember the HR guy brought me in office and he said, ‘you know you'll be the first you know black engineer we ever had here’ I was like, OK I'll sign a contract right now. He said, ‘You sure about that?’ Yeah."
"I took it as a challenge. I took it as an obligation. You put me here so I can make a way for the same people that made a way for me," Muhammad said.
However, a promise Muhammad made to his mother decades before was that one day he would teach like she had done for nearly half a century.
“The plan was, OK, I’m going to honor my commitment to my mom, but it's only gonna be a short time. Now in my mind I'm thinking I'm just gonna be here for a few months in there,” he said. “I'm going to have to tell him the bad news. I love you all but you gotta get back to making money.”
That was 15 years ago, and he’s never looked back.
“Just the way that again when I saw my (students) coming in, and I got involved with not just them, but I knew that I needed to know their lives,” Muhammad said. “That's when it all kind of clicked for me. You know what I'm not going back to corporate.”
He’s now the assistant principal at Hidden Valley Elementary School, his mission of giving back to the community is clear and never-ceasing.
“When I went home and saw my mom and saw the expression on her face if she had that look like, ‘Oh yeah, I finally got him where I want him.’”
He said that he didn’t understand her plan at the time, but now knows that his mother wanted him to be an educator.
His mother knew that he would have a positive impact on the next generation of children who may struggle.
Muhammad knows from his own life that education is a major factor in lifting people out of poverty.
“I knew how to make a difference in terms of children and families lives, and it's real simple. It’s not money. It's your time,” Muhammad said. “The most valuable resource you can give is your time. I know that it's my responsibility to put forth the best image of African American males that this community can see.”
Muhammad wants every child in Charlotte to have the same opportunity no matter where they live or what school they attend. And for the generation he is now teaching, Muhammad said it is up to this generation to ensure that they continue to support those who follow them.
“You are responsible for your brother and your sister. You have a responsibility to help everyone go and be successful that's the key you know,” he said.
His goal is to have everyone involved to have the entire community invested in our children.
“It takes the same village that got me where I am now right I had everyone participate,” Muhammad said. “That's what we have to get back to where everyone genuinely cares about everyone else.”
If you have an inspiring story to share, email Kevin Campbell, WSOC-TV/WAXN-TV/Telemundo Charlotte public affairs manager, at Kevin.Campbell@wsoctv.com.
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