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College of Education > News and Publications > 2020: 04-06 news > ‘Her heart never left Penn State’

‘Her heart never left Penn State’

Vanessa Siddle Walker knew about Penn State from the time she was born in the late 1950s, even though she grew up in North Carolina.

One woman’s story of teaching — and learning — in the Brown v. Board of Education era

Vanessa Siddle Walker knew about Penn State from the time she was born in the late 1950s, even though she grew up in North Carolina.

“I grew up hearing about the Nittany Lions,” said Siddle Walker, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Educational Studies at Emory University in Atlanta and the immediate past-president of the American Educational Research Association. “My Mom was at Penn State and she loved it. I grew up my entire life hearing about Penn State.”

Siddle Walker’s mother, Helen Elizabeth Beasley Siddle, originally wanted to be a doctor, but having grown up in the segregated South, found that was not an option.

“While my grandparents were able to put together a beautiful life for their family, they didn’t have the economic resources to support her education, that would let her go to medical school,” Siddle Walker said.

They also didn’t have the money to send her three hours away to Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, so she went to Elizabeth City State, which was within walking distance of her home, to become a teacher.

Siddle classroom
Helen Elizabeth Beasley inside the two-room Rosenwald School where she taught. While she may not have had resources from the county, the materials she put on the walls demonstrate the ways she still sought to educate the children in her class. (Photo provided by Vanessa Siddle Walker)
Upon graduation, “Miss Beasley” took her first teaching job in Milton, North Carolina, in the town’s Rosenwald School.

“Of course, we also know from the work of James Anderson and others that the black communities at the end of the day put in more money than the Rosenwald Foundation actually put in, but it was a way to get school houses for black children in the South,” said Siddle Walker, whose own research focuses on segregated schooling of African American children.

“So, my mother, I now know, was in one of those Rosenwald Schools in Milton, North Carolina, and she would have confronted all the challenges that went with being a black teacher in 1951 in Rosenwald Schools. We know it’s well documented, the inequality in facilities and resources and equipment,” Siddle Walker said. “But, as I have written about, we also know that there was not a lack of spirit among black educators during this period. They were determined to figure out how to help black children to actually be able to obtain the full citizenship rights that America owed them that they had been denied.”

Siddle Walker said that when her mother graduated from college in 1951, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case was looming. She said although they had to deal with the inequality in facilities and resources, there also was a sense of resilience and hope for change. “And I wonder, though she never talked about it, if she might have been part of that,” she said.

“She never talked about what she thought about the Brown decision. She didn’t talk about the challenges, but she did always talk about how she wanted to be the best teacher she could be, in a period where inequality in salaries between black and white teachers dominated the era. I can remember my mom saying, ‘I just wanted to make sure that I earned the salary that I made,’ which in retrospect is an interesting statement because she could have been saying ‘they didn’t give me enough money’ and be mad about it. But she didn’t talk about that. She talked about the importance of teaching, and that shows this kind of resilient mindset.”

Siddle membership card
Helen Elizabeth Beasley Siddle likely knew about how to obtain the North Carolina scholarship money to go to Penn State through her membership in this black teachers’ education organization. (Photo provided by Vanessa Siddle Walker)
In 1954, the year of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Helen Elizabeth Beasley was ready to further her education. “We know even before that decision southern states were providing all kinds of money in order to get black teachers to go north for their studies. That was a way of circumventing petitions to the southern white universities to come study there,” Siddle Walker said. So, Beasley made the trek north and first set foot on the Penn State University Park campus in the summer of 1954.

“Penn State had programs where you could be a teacher, and then you will come every summer for four summers and get your master’s degree,” said Siddle Walker, whose research showed Penn State was one of several northern schools with similar programs. “Whether these institutions were intensely catering to black teachers or whether these programs already existed before black teachers started coming, I don’t know.”

Siddle Walker said with the Brown decision, there was the immediate backlash of threats to fire black teachers if the decision was ever implemented. “It’s in that moment that Mom, as well as other black teachers, chose to go to Penn State … and remember that all the years she was at Penn State would have still been during segregation,” she said.

Siddle wedding
Helen Elizabeth Beasley Siddle with her husband, the Rev. Theodore R. Siddle, on their wedding day. (Photo provided by Vanessa Siddle Walker)
Unfortunately, Siddle Walker’s mother was not able to complete her master’s degree at Penn State. She married the Rev. Theodore Siddle in the summer of 1955, returned to Penn State in the summer of 1956, but was pregnant with Vanessa the summer of 1957, the year she was scheduled to finish her degree.

“I heard that story so many times about how she did not get to finish her last summer at Penn State, and go to Europe with her class, because she was pregnant with me and she couldn’t go, as though it was my fault,” Siddle Walker said.

Ultimately, Siddle earned her master’s degree from North Carolina A&T. “But this is what is important. Mom went to A&T because that’s what she had to do – at that point she’s married and she has a child. But her heart never left Penn State,” Siddle Walker said.

She said she has no idea why her mother chose Penn State, but suspects that she wanted to be ready for desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. “She was part of the North Carolina Teachers Association and I found her membership card,” Siddle Walker said. “I know they were encouraged to go on to school, to be ready when integration came. My guess is that Penn State provided the program and North Carolina provided the money.”

Siddle Walker’s mother was able to make one last trip to Penn State before she passed away, nearly 30 years ago. She was terminally ill when she and her husband visited Siddle Walker, who was then a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

“As a surprise to her, I decided to drive my mother to Penn State. It was the only time she was back on the campus since she left in 1956,” Siddle Walker said. “She was very moved. She was so happy to be back. All I did was drive her around the campus. Between ‘56 and ’90, it’s grown a lot. We were trying to find buildings that she might remember. I remember her saying, ‘oh, it’s so different.’

“And I remember taking her to the bookstore to get a Penn State shirt. And then that afternoon we drove back to Philadelphia. So actually, our very last family trip was back to Penn State. I think that is appropriate and fitting, since I grew up my entire life hearing about Penn State from her.”

By Annemarie Mountz (May 2020)