Urbana has lost one of its most distinguished citizens, Willeta Mae Hassell Donaldson. She passed away on February 2. Willeta, who worked at the University of Illinois in the Office of Admissions and the School of Social Work, also served on the city of Urbana’s Human Rights Commission, sometimes as chair. But her most lasting contribution to our community was, without doubt, her pushing the Urbana School District to desegregate its schools.
In 1963, the state of Illinois’ legislature amended the school code “prohibiting school boards from erecting, purchasing, or acquiring buildings for school purposes that would promote segregation based on color, race, or nationality.” While segregation was not a problem in Urbana’s high school or junior high (now called middle school), it was an issue when it came to the elementary schools. Almost all of the African American residents in the North End went to J. W. Hays school, since renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. A coincidence of factors—including an influx of African American children from Southern states, where they had not been well prepared for schooling, a dissertation by a U of I student showing that Hays students were underperforming compared with students in the other schools, and the above change in the Illinois school code—led a number of African Americans to demand that the school board desegregate Urbana’s schools. Among those people were Willeta and her husband Carlos Donaldson, Paul and Shirley Hursey, Evelyn Underwood, and Jo Ann Jackson. They became known as the Ellis Six because they all lived on that street in the North End. It was Willeta who made the presentation for desegregation to the school board.
In the summer of 1966, due largely to the pressure of the Ellis Six and their supporters, the Urbana School District was the first one in Illinois to desegregate. But the school board faced a problem. If they bused African American children out of Hays schools to the others in the district, where would they find white children to go to Hays?
They thought that most white parents would resist having their children go to Hays. So “cross-busing,” in which white children from all of the mostly white schools would be sent to Hays, was ruled out. They hit upon Orchard Downs as a solution. The residents of Orchard Downs were easy pickings, because they were graduate students who were not permanent residents and they were less likely to vote in local elections, especially school board elections. While the residents of Orchard Downs are largely nonwhite now, in 1968 they were white. So it was their children who were obliged to go to Hays. While the scheme was quite Machiavellian, it turned out well for the Orchard Downs children, because of the fine multicultural programs that were introduced there. But they were the only white children who needed to be bused.
Of course, all racial problems were not solved. After desegregation there remained issues of racially disparate suspensions and placements of children in special education and gifted programs. So the Ellis Six and other residents in the North End were constantly keeping their eye on disparities and the board’s reaction to them. Younger activists, like John Lee Johnson, took up the battle. In 1997, they brought a successful complaint to the U.S. Office of Civil Rights over the underachievement of African American students.
One of the saddest aspects of the story is that the memory of the contributions of Willeta and her Elllis street cohorts faded so quickly. A 1972 desegregation report submitted by the district to the office of the State Board of Education made no mention of the contributions of the Ellis 6 or their supporters in the Hays PTA. The president of the school board said that the drafters of the report did not know about the efforts of these African American citizens. But the report did praise the all-white Community Council on Integration and the League of Women Voters.
Well, we remember your work Willeta, and that of the other members of the African American community who were so instrumental in bringing school desegregation to the schools of Illinois. You all did great work that is never-ending.