Woman who broke color barrier visits Rosa Parks
Author: Tammy L. Lane • First Posted: Monday, March 01, 2010
Children at Rosa Parks Elementary, which is named for a civil rights icon, heard from what one teacher called “living history” when Helen Caise Wade shared her own story.
Wade was the first African-American to attend a white public school in Fayette County when she took a summer school class at Lafayette High School in 1955.
“I did not realize … I had no clue I was making history,” she told fourth- and fifth-graders gathered in the gym Feb. 26. “I just thought I was doing what I had a right to do.”
Jennifer Jones, a Rosa Parks teacher, has known Wade all her life. Wade, who went to school with Jones’ mother, is now a retired teacher living in Cleveland, Ohio. When Jones heard she was in Lexington to speak at a church, she asked Wade to stop by the school, too.
With 30 years of classroom experience, Wade had no trouble holding the kids’ attention as she explained the realities of a segregated society during her youth. She talked about how most blacks lived in a certain part of town and how students didn’t mix because they had separate schools.
“Our books may have been outdated, but our teaching was not,” Wade said. “We were taught to believe in ourselves and that we could be whatever our imaginations led us to be.”
She noted how she heard on the radio about the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case “Brown vs. Board of Education” and came to respect Thurgood Marshall, the attorney who represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“I was 15, but I knew the importance of what was happening,” Wade said.
At the time, she was attending Douglass High School, one of Lexington’s two all-black high schools. Always a history buff, she wanted to take an American History course offered in summer school – at all-white Lafayette.
Fearing for her safety, several uncles and her grandfather escorted her to class for a while. But Wade said nothing much happened.
“It was not a bad experience because nobody really mistreated me,” she said. “They weren’t mean to me. They just ignored me.”
One classmate, a Jewish girl, did befriend her, and Wade’s teacher was supportive, along with her family, of course. However, the personal fallout was far-reaching.
“I had doubts when my parents lost everything. That’s when it hurt,” Wade recalled, describing how her father could no longer find work because of the controversy. “The roof over my head was the only thing they were able to salvage.”
After that summer, Wade returned to Douglass High and the next year graduated at the top of her class. She later earned her degree at Kentucky State University. Over time, she has come to realize the significance of her actions back in 1955.
“I knew I had the right to go to any school, but I knew it would take time. You cannot pass a law to change a person’s heart. I knew they’d have to get to know me and appreciate me as a person,” Wade said. “I was the catalyst that started the change. … I was just an instrument to start something that needed to be done.”
As she looked around the gym at Rosa Parks Elementary, she marveled at the rich diversity of races and cultures all living as neighbors and growing up together.
“You are blessed beyond measure,” she told the children, reminding them several times: “It’s not the color that makes the person. It’s the character.”