ALBANY, N.Y. -- Malik Jones knows he’s following big footsteps. He’s co-principal of the Edmund J. O’Neal Middle School of Excellence, named after Albany’s first African-American principal.
"He serves as a role model, you know to many other African-American boys and girls, and I in turn want to kind of pick up that torch and keep it moving,” said Jones.
Mr. O’Neal became the city’s first black principal in 1969 leading staff at the old School 6. Former students remember him fondly.
"When you would see him there was this whole presence about him that showed love for the kids," said Shameka Brown-Johnson, a former student and current teacher at the school.
"People didn't even know that he would buy students clothes and shoes and sneakers," said former student Warren Mackey
Last July, the new middle school at 50 North Lark Street was named after the trail blazer, who died in 2009.
"The students helped us come up with the name then we had our vision and we knew that he was a man of excellence,” said co-Principal Kandie Antonetti.
Mr. O’Neal’s daughter Angela says her father would have been overwhelmed by the honor.
She says her father was well aware of the challenges that came with being the city’s first black principal.
"You always had to be careful and you always had to present yourself in a certain way," said Angela.
Whether it was the way he dressed or how he carried himself Angela says her father was all about excellence.
"Excellence in how you conduct yourself. Excellence in respect for your elders and your peers," she said.
Excellence is a message people who knew Principal O’Neal say he shared with his teachers and students and now it’s also a message reiterated not only in the school’s name but also its culture.
"It's very rewarding to now teach in the school for him and I always remind students becuase Mr. O'Neal I remind them this would not be acceptable," said former student and current teacher Lynette Smith.
In all, 340 kids make up the inaugural student body with 600 students expected to walk the halls by the 2019-2020 school year.
"It was very important for him to let them know that everyone can go to college or whatever your talent is and your passion you've got to go for it," said Angela.
The school plans on building a display in Mr. O’Neal’s honor in lobby.