Saturday, August 04, 2007

Honoring Hazel Harvey Peace

Hazel Harvey Peace turned 100 today – or at least Fort Worth celebrated her 100th birthday. There are some who think she may be older than 100, but believe me, no one is about to challenge her on that or any other fact.
Mrs. Peace may be a tiny woman but she can control a roomful of adults or children with one look. After all, she taught almost all the African American leaders in this city and county, and many in the state. All over Fort Worth and Tarrant County, African American women and men in positions of responsibility and respect pay her honor as their teacher, mentor, and inspiration. The white community also loves and honors her, but we came late to this appreciation because of the shameful legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Mrs. Peace began her teaching career at I. M. Terrell High School, her alma mater. Terrell was the “Negro” school in the days of segregated Fort Worth. She graduated from Howard University in 1926 with a bachelor's degree and got a master's of art degree from Columbia University. She served as counselor, dean of girls, and vice principal before retiring. Many women who attended Terrell in the 1950s and 1960s have anecdotes of how Mrs. Peace influenced their lives. Phyllis Allen, a local writer, said, “Any high school girl who received a Hazel Harvey Peace lecture on deportment that began, ‘Young lady, a lady never...,’ was not likely to forget it.”
Today at the party at the downtown Fort Worth Public Library, Mrs. Peace told the little girls sitting the front row to cross their legs at the ankles, to fold their hands in their lap, and to hold their heads high. All over the room, whole rows of mature African American women were nodding -- and every one of them was sitting with her legs crossed at the ankles, her hands folded in her lap and her head held high.
Mrs. Peace was generous to me when, as a young reporter, I would go to her to try to understand issues arising out of or affecting the African American community in Fort Worth. She would patiently explain the history behind the issue – usually a story of injustice and racism – and then quiz me to make sure I understood.
I knew she read everything I wrote, because whenever I ran into her, she would give me a report card on how I was doing. She was the first person to teach me about the interlocking nature of oppressions. She taught me about the importance of understanding issues related to class, especially in a southern city, where one’s class still can be more of a problem than one’s race.
I have often said I want to be Mrs. Peace when I grow up. I still do.
Her years of dealing with segregation gave her a keen understanding of the weariness that comes with constantly refusing to bend, of refusing to give in to other’s low expectations. A feminist from birth, she constantly tells women – black, white, Hispanic, Asian -- to stand up for themselves, to not let others define them.
She knows about anger, especially righteous anger that can propel one into action. “Just be sure it’s constructive action,” she would say. “Anger that burns down neighborhoods does no one any good.”
Several years ago, when a gay man active in AIDs work was refused membership in the prestigious Downtown Rotary Club, she spoke up in protest. Many were surprised, but it was consistent with her insistence that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.
So you can see why she was picked as an Olympic torchbearer when the torch came through Fort Worth on its way to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Mrs. Peace is probably best known for her work encouraging reading with small children. The Hazel Harvey Peace Youth Center at the Fort Worth Central Library is named in her honor. Every time my grandsons and I walk into the children’s library, we walk by the portrait of Mrs. Peace in the entrance. The boys always ask me about her, and today they got to meet her.
Gavin, age 3, observed, “She’s very little.”
Curran, age 5, asked, “Has she read all the books in the library?”
I told him that if anyone has, it would be Mrs. Peace.
In 2004, the UNT School of Library and Information Sciences created the $350,000 Hazel Harvey Peace Professorship in Children's Library Services to continue Peace’s devotion to literacy by producing future educators of children's librarians. It is the first professorship at a four-year state-funded institution in Texas named for an African-American.
All this for a woman who for many years was not allowed to come into the city’s libraries or touch any of its books.
Mrs. Peace is still teaching. Today she had many lessons for all us “young people” at the party. For one thing, she told us that if we had grandchildren, we were young people. She reminded us that children can’t learn how to behave if adults won’t teach them. She kept threatening to tell stories on her former students who are now the dignitaries who were there to speak, but always, she relented with a twinkle.
She says she’s doesn’t know why she’s lived so long, but suspects it has to do with her faith in God, her faith in power of learning, her simple diet, and her sense of humor.
Fort Worth went to a birthday party today, but the best gift already has been given to us – it is the treasure that is Hazel Harvey Peace. Her community knew this long before we white people recognized her for the gift she is, but having been well taught by her, they graciously share her with us. She is a blessing to this city, this county, this state.
Happy Birthday, Mrs. Peace. And many happy returns.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Happy Birthday, Ms. Peace. And, many happy returns of the day.

Jan said...

Happy Birthday, Ms. Peace. Thank you for the pictures of her and telling us about her. She is an amazing woman. I'm glad to know about her.

Caminante said...

Thank you for this image of hope in a world that seems crazier and crazier every day. Blessings on Ms Peace and thank you for telling us about her. Lee