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Adele McQueen: A pioneer in and out of the classroom

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Adele McQueen learned most of the lessons that would serve her for her entire life when she was a youngster, growing up in Texas and Kansas, when the American Century was still new and prospects for black girls were limited. She learned that you helped out wherever you could, with all the gifts you had. That you stood up for yourself, and for people who weren’t able to stand alone. And that a lot of times, people had to be convinced of things that just made common sense.

They were lessons she put in practice over and over during her 100 years, when she became an educator, helped run a teacher training program in West Africa during the 1960s, and pioneered parenting classes for poor and young mothers long before others saw the wisdom.

When she was little more than a toddler, her mother, who had only an eighth-grade education, left a husband so controlling he swept the front yard before heading to work so he’d know if someone had visited during the day. McQueen was raised in the home of her great-grandfather, the son of a slave woman and her white master, surrounded by grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. A 1918 flu swept through the house, but didn’t touch Adele. For more than a week, in a house with more than a dozen relatives, she was the only one able to rise out of bed. She made potato soup and kept everyone fed until the worst of the illness had passed. Her adored grandmother had always acted as family nurse, and McQueen absorbed her take-care-of-one-another ways.

After studying education at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, she taught elementary school in a small town near Selma. The white land and shop owners called her “Miss Bolden” at a time when they generically called young black women “Annie” and old black women “Granny.” Decades later, in a 2003 video interview, McQueen said she didn’t know why she was singled out, but speculated that “it could be the way I spoke up for what I wanted. I did that there, and at Tuskegee. I never took a back seat, really.”

She once disagreed with a store clerk over some medicine she was trying to buy, and he called her “nigger.” “Since I’m a nigger, you can keep it,” she said, and left. In Wichita, “we didn’t have to take that kind of foolishness,” she said. And even though she was in the Deep South at the time, McQueen said in the 2003 video, she had learned not to be afraid. “My mother and my great-granddaddy ... they weren’t afraid of anything.”

She met her husband, Finley McQueen, at Tuskegee, and the two married the year after she graduated. They taught at Tuskegee for decades before Finley moved to Liberia to establish several teacher training institutes in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Adele joined him in 1963 and, while there, wrote a cookbook of Liberian dishes. “I think my mom was always a pioneer, so it wasn’t something unusual for her to be doing,” says her daughter, Anita McQueen, a teacher at Wheaton Woods Elementary School in Rockville.

Anita McQueen says her mother hated the teachings of celebrated child expert Benjamin Spock, who contended that kids should be largely self-directed and parents needn’t be strict. She taught that “parents should assert firm control,” recalls Anita McQueen.

After returning to the states in the early 1970s, McQueen accepted a position teaching early childhood education on the faculty of Howard University. At night she would moonlight, teaching free parenting classes to young mothers from poor sections of the city whom she had encountered on the bus. “These children weren’t receiving preschool education that would prepare them for grade school, so she held these classes,” Anita McQueen says. “And in order to get them to come, she baked rolls and fried chicken.”

She reached out to young women wherever she saw a need, which included striking up conversations with prostitutes, who often had young children. “She’d go to 14th Street and try to get ladies of the night to come to her class. That’s why she would feed them, because if she cooked, they would come,” Anita says.

Adele McQueen never called attention to her efforts at outreach. Your work shows the world who you are, she taught her three children. In the 2003 video, which was filmed because she was being honored by the National Visionary Leadership Project, McQueen was asked to describe herself. “I would describe myself as being a person who loves people,” she said. “I am a person who will see to it that the other person has even before I have.”

She retired from Howard in 1994, and the university renamed its preschool after her. For years she returned to every fall recital and spring graduation. She talked to young teachers and bought plants for the courtyard when it needed sprucing up.

Anita McQueen and her brother Alan, a library technician at the University of the District of Columbia, recall their mother once telling them she had been in a horrible car accident as a teenager. Doctors said she’d never walk again, she told them, but she asked a cousin to help her with rehabilitation exercises every day after school. Eventually, she regained the ability to walk. Alan McQueen says he thinks the experience helped her see past her limitations — and everyone else’s.

Lonnae O’Neal Parker covers arts and museums for The Washington Post.

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