As a legend in her own time, Waco education innovator & pillar LaRue Dorsey with Bosque County roots speaks to Clifton High School youth about overcoming obstacles as an American American & a woman over the last century
With her 90 years of age, LaRue Dorsey is a living history icon for Central Texas’ African American leaders. Her educational philosophy and pre-school learning center changed the educational journey for many disadvantaged children in Waco. As African American History month ended, on the first day of Women’s History month, Clifton High School students packed the Performance Arts Center March 1 to hear a presentation by Waco education innovator and pillar LaRue Dorsey.
CHS Social Studies Teacher and Interact Club sponsor Ted Jones often saw Dorsey in one of her seemingly endless supply of beautiful hats at a Bellmead cafeteria after his ministry Church Under the Bridge in Waco. He noticed she knew everybody, and finally had the courage to talk to her. He felt her unique and fascinating life’s story would benefit the students at the school.
“The day I was born, there were three things wrong with me,” Dorsey said, “I was black, I was poor, and I was a girl.”
Born in Waco in 1932, Dorsey was the eldest child with four younger brothers. As a minister her father earned $25 per week to support his family, so they were poor, often relying on food and monetary donations from others. In spite of this economically disadvantaged situation, each of the Dorsey children grew up to be successful in their lives and helped other throughout their lives.
In a Q and A after her presentation a student asked what the biggest struggle was growing up in her youth, Dorsey said “being poor and living in segregation.” She went on to explain that the family picked cotton for $2 per 200 pounds; and that the schools were inadequate, using outdated text books from white schools; that the colored league could only use the gym after the white schools competitions were done, which meant they played well after 10 p.m.
Besides some clichés about seeing future leaders in the room, telling them to “have a dream,” “set goals,” have a good attitude and to see challenges as opportunities, “You can rest, but don’t quit,” to do what is right, just and honorable, Dorsey’s main message at the CHS presentation was the message her father instilled in his five children, which was that “You can be somebody if you choose to,” and to do so with God in our heart and education in your head.
Dorsey grew up in segregated, all-black schools. She graduated from A.J. Moore High School in 1949, earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Mary Allen College in Crockett in 1952, and earned a master's degree in secondary education from Texas Southern University in Houston.
Another defining person in Dorsey’s life was her fifth-grade teacher, who had the knack of making everybody feel special. Dorsey went on to become an educator, making it her mission to make each and every one of her students feel special. She believed that if you make a child at a very young age feel like they are somebody, nurture them with much love, they will be better students once they mainstream into school.
After her education, Dorsey became a teacher in the Waco Independent School District and when Waco public schools integrated in 1970, Dorsey transferred to an all-white school. Overall, she taught for Waco ISD for thirty-four years. Following her retirement in 1986, Dorsey used her retirement savings to fund the creation of a preschool program LaRue's Learning Center in an effort to help children from minority or low-income families in Waco.
“I wanted these children to feel good about themselves,” Dorsey said in a Baylor University oral history taped on April 6, 1993, interviewed by Noelle Moreno Stepp. “We hug every day we say “’I am somebody. I may be poor and without skills, but I can learn. I’m a special person. I have determination and dedication on my side. I am God’s child.’”
Clearly proud of her brothers and their life’s achievements, Dorsey explained that one brother was a Veterans Administration Nurse, two brothers were pastors, a third retired from the Air Force after serving 20 years. But one brother, Robert Gilbert deserves a special mention.
Due to his small stature yet enormous heart and passion for justice, Robert Gilbert’s family referred to him as "Little Giant." In 1967, Robert Gilbert graduated from Baylor University as the first African American. He became a well-known civil rights leader in Central Texas. He served as pastor at Carver Baptist Church 1980; was named Citizen of Texas and in 1992, received Waco's Outstanding Humanitarian Award.
His book “No Excuses Accepted” highlights his journey as a courageous spiritual leader and a fighter, being wheelchair bound due to a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis since the age of 14. Clearly following his father’s advice too, he states in his book "God says, You can! God says you can do anything. There is nothing on this earth strong enough to hold you back."
According to Dorsey, she rose from her humble background thanks to the determination to become somebody; her strong identification with her supporting family; and lastly elevation.
She explained the elevation, the breaking of a mental barrier through the Eagle and the Chicken fable. It is a story about a man finding an unusual egg in his chicken yard. After the egg hatched, while the chick did not look like a chicken, the chickens took care of it the best they could. A traveler came by and pointed out to the farmer the chick was an eagle, but when the farmer threw the chick up in the air, it did not spread its wings to fly; because he had been walking like the chickens around it. The next day the traveler returned and took the eagle up to the top of the mountain, saying “You were born to fly.” At that point, the eagle saw other birds at the horizon that looked like him. And using them as an example, the eagle started to flap its wings and slowly elevated into the sky and flew away.
“Through this story I learned that with a little help,” Dorsey said. “I could be elevated above my circumstances and realized that couldn’t get where I am by myself. I had a whole community supporting me.”
Dorsey feels the seed to succeed in life begins with strong families or a strong support system. But Clifton ISD Superintendent Andy Ball’s favorite message of Dorsey’s presentation showed the importance of taking responsibility for your own actions and your own future.
“I sowed a thought, I reaped an action. I sowed an action, I reaped a habit. I sowed a habit, I reaped character. I sowed character, and I reaped destiny,” Dorsey said.
After her presentation adults and students alike came onto the stage to shake her hand and thank her personally saying “learning about your experiences is a blessing for us.”
Two other things Dorsey impressed upon the young people in the PAC, was that when someone gives of themselves they leave this world a better place than they found it. She also said to use unity, love, strength, joy, peace, courage, compassion and mercy while becoming the best person you can be. And not to forget a sense of humor and to have fun. Teaching school was fun for Dorsey, and she strived to make it as fun for her students as it was valuable for their betterment.
And with that, two songs spring to mind: the 1991 “Heal the World” by Michael Jackson with the lyrics “Heal the world. Make it a better place for you and for me, and the entire human race,” and the 1984, James Brown/African Bambaataa “Peace, unity, love and having fun.”
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS
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