“I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood...”
— Langston Hughes
At 87, Helen Anderson Toland may be finally acting her age.
Like Dill Harris, the four-year-old boy in To Kill a Mockingbird who declared, “I’m little but I’m old,” Helen had acquired knowledge growing up in Depression-era Marceline that put her ahead of her years. And like Atticus Finch, she had firsthand knowledge of racial injustice and resisted it in both principle and practice.
“I loved to read when I was a child growing up here,” Helen told me as we recently sat surrounded by row upon row of books in the Marceline Carnegie Library. “I wanted to see what the adults were reading. I checked out an adult mystery from this little library when I was in grade school and nothing was said, so I kept on checking them out.”
Recalling how she had been required to memorize poems at Marceline’s one-room Lincoln School over seven decades ago, the bespectacled former speech therapist a, elementary school principal and civil rights activist effortlessly recited lines of verse: “To knock, unheeded, at an iron gate, to be a Negro in a day like this...This is the debt I pay...Poor was the loan at best.” Helen transitions from the writing of James D. Corrothers to that of Paul Laurence Dunbar so seamlessly that the two poems seem as one; in spirit they are, as both describe the denial of admittance to African Americans that was segregation.
Groping for an experience or perception we shared to bridge the chasm of race, I suggested that libraries like Marceline’s Carnegie were ‘special’ places for both of us. Helen quickly corrected, “I wouldn’t say this was a special place for me; it was the only public place we could go here that wasn’t segregated.” As I struggled to regain my composure, she added, “The Reece’s had a soda fountain, but black people couldn’t go in and sit down. Lomars was the same...I once sat in an area at the Uptown Theater that was reserved for whites, and the usher asked me to move. I said, ‘No, and don’t you touch me!‘”
Just as she was unafraid to breech the boundary of age-appropriateness in her reading material, Helen began defying the limits imposed by segregation at an early age and has since devoted her life to fighting for civil rights.
In 1940, following the lead of Augustus Anderson, Helen’s teacher at Lincoln School, she left the Marceline community to attend an integrated high school in Springfield, Ill. and eventually to pursue a college education. But unlike Anderson, who attended an all-black college during summer break, Helen earned a bachelor’s degree full-time at the fully integrated University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana...And she paid for it by successfully competing for an academic scholarship. Afterward she earned a master’s degree at the University of Southern California. Helen majored in ‘speech correction’—what we now call ‘speech pathology’ or ‘audiology’—after discovering a talent for public speaking. For many years, she was a speech therapist in the Louisville, Kentucky public schools, and her school district’s first black female elementary school principal.