Black History Month: Trailblazers

Thursday, February 15, 2024
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As a Historically Black College, Texas College honors and recognizes the contributions of Black individuals for their preceding and continuous monumental work and achievements that have paved the way for current and future generations. This circadian reverence for the aforementioned remains engrained into the campus of Texas College, standing on the shoulders of giants that have made Texas College what it is today.

In celebration of Black History Month, the College has compiled a brief list of eight Black influential figures, or trailblazers, that are also Texas College Alumni and have greatly impacted the institution, as well as beyond. With 130 years of rich history and countless successful trailblazing alumni, this list is by no means exhaustive, nor is it aimed to be. Rather, this feature is a mere glimpse into just some of the individuals that were impacted by Texas College and utilized their education to become meaningful influencers beyond the gates of the College.

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On October 16, 1936, Billye Suber Aaron was born in Texas' Anderson County to Nathan Suber and Annie Mae Smith Suber. She attended Clemons School in Neches, Texas, and later graduated from Lincoln High School in Dallas in 1954. In 1958, she graduated from Texas College with her baccalaureate degree in English. She received a fellowship to attend Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia, and earned the Master of Arts degree in 1960. Aaron continued her post-graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

Aaron taught English in the Atlanta public school system, as well as at Spelman College, Morehouse College, South Carolina State College, and Morris Brown College. In 1968, she was hired as a co-host for WSB-TV's 'Today in Georgia,' becoming the first Black woman in the southeast to co-host a daily, hour-long talk show. In 1973, she married baseball legend Hank Aaron and began hosting her weekly talk show, 'Billye," for WTMJ-TV. Her career in television afforded interviews with a multitude of the era's leading personalities such as Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Sidney Portier, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, Willie Mays, and Ernie Banks.

In 1980, she served as the development director for the Atlanta branch of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). Throughout her 14-year tenure with UNCF, she co-hosted the annual telethon, 'Lou Rawls Parade of Stars,' co-founded the Mayor's Masked Ball, and became the second woman in the organization to serve as of the southern region's vice president. After retiring in 1994, she and her husband started the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation to award scholarships to financially assist the educational pursuits of students, many of which have been Texas College students.

A longtime member of the NAACP, Aaron chaired its premiere fundraiser, the annual Freedom Fund Dinner, for five years. She was named director emeritus of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and has been honored with numerous awards for her service, including the 2003 Martin Luther King, Jr. "Salute to Greatness" and the YWCA Woman of Achievement Award. Aaron has received honorary doctorate degrees from Texas College, Talladega College, Fisk University, Voorhees College, Spelman College, and Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University, and Allen University.

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On October 15, 1918, Lillian Katie Bradley was born in Tyler, Texas. In 1938, Dr. Bradley earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Texas College. Following her degree from Texas College, Dr. Bradley earned a master's degree in Mathematics Education from the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor in 1946. In 1960, 10 years after the school began the admittance of Black students, Dr. Bradley would become the first Black woman to earn any type of doctorate degree from the University of Texas at Austin, earning her PhD in Mathematics.

Dr. Bradley began her service as an educator, teaching at a segregated Black high school in Hawkins, Texas. She would transition to higher education and serve as professor at Texas College, Paul Quin College, and Prairie View A&M College, now Prairie View A&M University. Dr. Bradley would become one of the first people to win a National Science Faculty Fellowship.

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Leonard Evans, Jr. was born in McKinney, Texas, in 1924. Не graduated from McKinney's E.S. Doty School, the district's only school for Blacks in 1942. Evans was then drafted into the U.S. Army and served as a radar technician during World War II. Following his service, Evans enrolled at Texas College and earned the Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics in 1952. He later joined Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated.

In 1953, Evans joined McKinney ISD as a school bus driver, math teacher, and coach for multiple sports at his alma mater, E.S. Doty. In 1963, as McKinney decided to integrate the district, Evans transferred from E.S. Doty to teach at the all-White Finch Elementary. This transfer made Evans the first Black educator in McKinney ISD to cross the lines of segregation. On his first day, Evans recalled that 150-200 men awaited his arrival outside Finch with coarse words, but Evans "depended on the Lord," and all went well. This step would begin integration for McKinney ISD.

After more than 30 years, having been named Teacher of the Year a multitude of times throughout, Evans retired from McKinney ISD. However, Evans would remain in service to the district. In 1989, Evans garnered another first when appointed to McKinney's school board, the body's first Black member, which yielded another 16 years of service.

In 1989, he also started a family business, McKinney Driving School. Thousands of teenagers learned to drive during the school's 24 years in operation. Evans was a life-long member of St. James CME Church in McKinney.

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Irma P. Hall was born in Beaumont, Texas, in 1935. In 1942, her family moved to the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, where she grew up. Hall would return to Texas to pursue her education at Texas College, earning her degree in 1956. Following graduation, Hall became an English and foreign languages public school teacher for nearly three decades in Dallas, Texas. The then educator co-founded a small repertory theater in Dallas.

Impressing director Raymond St. Jacques at a poetry reading, the filmmaker requested she essay a role in his 1973 crime film Book of Numbers. Her acting career subsequently snowballed, and it did not take long for the increasingly busy actress to make quite a name for herself on both the stage and screen.

In 1973, Hall's performance in Book of Numbers resulted in frequent small-screen work. Her career continued to blossom throughout the 1980s, and with feature-film work increasing in the 1990s, she became more recognizable than ever thanks to work in such features as Backdraft and Straight Talk. Despite the fact that the roles she essayed were frequently relegated to the supporting variety, her onscreen presence was undeniable, and Hall continued throughout the decade with roles in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Beloved. In A Family Thing, her role earned Hall a Chicago Film Critics Association Award. An Image award for her role in the feature Soul Food followed in 1997, the same year she was voted "Chicagoan of the Year."

The early 2000s found Hall flourishing on the small screen with roles in such series as Soul Food (a spin-off of the film). A Girl Thing, and All Souls, in addition to meatier parts in features such as Miss Lettie and Me and An Unexpected Love. For her role in The Ladykillers, in which she co-starred with Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall received the Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Films following included the family short Gift for the Living, as well as the Michael Mann thriller Collateral, starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. Overall, Hall has collected nearly 100 credits in television and film.

Ms. Hall is an accomplished educator, actress, beloved mother and grandmother who now resides in Dallas, Texas.

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Mildred Jefferson, MD, was born in Pittsburg, Texas, in 1926 to Millard and Guthrie Jefferson. In 1945, Jefferson earned her baccalaureate degree from Texas College, graduating in just three years. Following her studies at Texas College, Jefferson earned a master's degree from Tufts University and then enrolled at Harvard Medical School, where she would make history.

In 1951, Dr. Jefferson became the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, receiving the Doctor of Medicine degree. She would also become the first woman employed as a surgeon at Boston University Medical Center.

Additionally, Dr. Jefferson was an influential activist at the local, state, and national level, notably garnering influential meetings with President Ronald Reagan.

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Born in Troup, Texas, Jesse W. Jones, PhD, grew up in Tyler and graduated from Emmett Scott High School with honors. Following high school, Dr. Jones enrolled at Texas College and graduated in 1954 with the Magna Cum Laude honor distinction. Following his baccalaureate degree, Dr. Jones received a Master of Science degree in Chemistry from New Mexico Highlands University and then completed a fellowship at Utah University in Biochemistry. Though the first Black student accepted to Southwest Medical School, he pursued his PhD instead at Arizona State University. This endeavor would make Dr. Jones the first person to receive the Doctor of Philosophy in Chemistry from Arizona State. Dr. Jones would also receive two honorary doctorates from Arizona State and Texas College. Dr. Jones is also a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., a Shriner, and a 33rd Degree Mason.

Following Dr. Jones' educational pursuits, he returned to Texas College as a professor. Dr. Jones would spend the next two decades devoted to teaching at both Texas College and Bishop College collectively. In 1988, Dr. Jones joined the faculty at Baylor University, where he served as Professor of Chemistry for 32 years. Throughout his career in academia, Dr. Jones served as the principal investigator on a multitude of projects, notably including the National Institutes of Health Minority Biomedical Research Program, as well as a Department of Defense contract involving the preparation of potential antimalarial drugs. His successful career congruently garnered several awards and recognitions, inclusive of the Milton K. Curry Education Award and the Junior Black Academy of Arts and Letters' Dallas Black Living Legends Honoree.

In addition to his teaching service, Dr. Jones has also served politically. With immense leadership involvement behind the scenes, Dr. Jones was elected as a State Representative for the Texas State Legislature in 1993 and would serve District 110 in Dallas County until 2007. Throughout his tenure as a State Representative, Dr. Jones would introduce more than 100 bills that focused on crime and family, as well as inequities in educational funding. Additionally, Dr. Jones was the Principal House Sponsor of the bill establishing the University of North Texas at Dallas.

Today, Dr. Jones remains a committed alumnus and supporter of Texas College, with previous service on the College's Board of Trustees.

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Orenthia D. Mason, daughter of Evelyn Delois Burgess and Cleveland Leon Mason, both Texas College 1946 graduates, is a Tyler native and spent her childhood years growing up on the Texas College campus. She would continue the legacy of her parents and earn her baccalaureate degree as a Magna Cum Laude graduate from Texas College in 1973. She furthered her studies with graduate work at Stephen F. Austin State University, the University of Texas at Tyler, and the University of St. Thomas. Rev. Dr. Mason was awarded the Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Texas College.

Rev. Dr. Mason served 30 years in public education and retired as Principal of Mamie G. Griffin Elementary School in 2003. Following her retirement from the public school system, Rev. Dr. Mason served in the following higher education administrative positions: Director of Teacher Education at Jarvis Christian College and Texas College, Chair of the Division of Education, Vice President for Student Affairs, Vice President of Evening, Weekend and External Programs, and Coordinator of Alumni Affairs at Texas College.

Rev. Dr. Mason is also an active community volunteer, serving as the former vice president of the Tyler ISD Board of Trustees for fifteen years, as well as service on the Smith County Appraisal District Board, the Texas College Board of Trustees, the Board of Directors for the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce, the City of Tyler Park Board, the City of Tyler Catalyst 100 Leadership Team, and the Leadership Tyler Class 2 Alumni. Past memberships include the City of Tyler Mayor's Round Table, chaplain for the Rose City Chapter of Top Ladies of Distinction, Inc., the Texas College National Alumni Association Chaplain, Tyler Area Partnership for Education, City of Tyler Municipal Court Advisory Committee, President of the Tyler Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and regional chaplain for the Southwest Region of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. She has been honored as an Outstanding Leadership Tyler Alumni, Tyler ISD Hall of Fame, Pillar of the Community, Who's Who in the South and Southwest, Outstanding Woman in Tyler, Outstanding Woman Clergy. She is currently the presiding elder of the North Tyler District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

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Caroline A. Wanga was born in Nairobi, Kenya. At the age of 10, Wanga immigrated to the United States, settling in Minnesota. Wanga enrolled at Texas College in 2003, and earned her baccalaureate degree in Business Administration from Texas College in 2005.

Following her graduation from Texas College, Wanga joined Target Corporation as a Distribution Center Intern and began to climb the ranks. While in the Supply Chain realm, she served in a variety of transformational leadership roles, including modernizing Supply Chain, Business Intelligence, Digital and Strategy capabilities. In 2014, Wanga became Target's Diversity & Inclusion Senior Director. The following year, she was assumed the role of Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer for Target and would continue to excel, serving in executive leadership roles as the Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility and Vice President of Human Resources. And, in 2019, her role would continue to expand as she became the Chief Culture, Diversity & Inclusion Officer.

In June of 2020, Wanga departed Target and joined Essence Ventures as the Chief Growth Officer. Within the same month of her transition, she was named the interim Chief Executive Officer of Essence Communications, Inc. (ESSENCE), which oversees the ESSENCE magazine, the ESSENCE Festival, and other affiliated ESSENCE enterprises. Then, on February 9, 2021, Caroline A. Wanga was officially appointed as Chief Executive Officer for ESSENCE, as well as maintaining her role as Chief Growth Officer for Essence Ventures, ESSENCE'S parent company.

Wanga is revered as an inspirational thought and transformational leader, public speaker, and an expert at successfully cultivating a work environment that champions accountability, inclusivity, diversity, and innovation in the corporate world. Among other accolades, Wanga has been named Top Executive in Corporate Diversity by Black Enterprise and recognized at Savoy Most Powerful Women in Corporate America, as well as is a member of the Executive Leadership Council (ELC), the Talladega College Board of Trustees and the American Airlines Community Council. She previously served on the Intersectionality, Culture, and Diversity Advisory Board for Twitter and as co-chair of the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) Diversity & Inclusion Initiative. Dr. Wanga was awarded the Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Texas College in 2021.