Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-El and Hazel Jackson were “forces to be reckoned with” when they were alive. Now, the two will live on for many generations with the announcement that schools in Lancaster County will be named after the Grand Dames of Millersville University.
After a nearly year-long search for new school names, the School District of Lancaster school board officially approved new names for the former Southeast (Hand) Middle School and for Buchanan Elementary School: Hazel I. Jackson Middle School and Rita Smith-Wade-El Elementary, respectively. The new names become effective on July 1.
“As a freshman at Millersville University, she encouraged me to find my voice and to be that person who will advocate for what is right and just,” Timika Baxter Tyson.
“I cannot think of a more fitting way to honor my late mentor, Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-El,” said Dr. Amber Sessoms ’06, ’08M, principal and founder of Natural Inclisions, LLC, and a member of the Council of Trustees at Millersville. “All that she represented on campus and within the greater Lancaster community evoked a spirit of liberation. She taught me to be my full, authentic self by teaching the truth and giving Black and Brown students a powerful reflection of who we innately were created to be.”
“Renaming these educational buildings in honor of Rita and her mentor, Ms. Hazel I. Jackson, is a physical reminder of the power they both held in disrupting harmful narratives of belonging, as well as the power of mentorship. This renaming is liberatory and affirming to the next generation of powerful scholars, who will understand how important it is to see the humanity in those who are so often dehumanized,” said Sessoms.
“When I think of Black Excellence, Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-EL comes to mind,” says Dr. Felicia Haywood-Brown, Chief Diversity Officer at Millersville. “A tireless seeker and speaker for social justice, intellectual prowess and mental health, she made a great impact on my life. She was a disciple of truth who understood and taught that Inclusive Excellence is not Excellent unless it represents and meets the social justice and academic needs of the marginalized populations in our society.”
Hazel I. Jackson was an English teacher at Edward Hand Middle School from 1961-1970, the first female African American teacher in the School District of Lancaster. In 1970, she became the first female African American professor hired at Millersville University. Her presence made an immediate difference as she introduced African American literature to the curriculum and brought Black cultural celebrations to the campus.
Dr. Melvin Allen ’69, the first African American faculty member hired at Millersville in 1969 and described her as a “graceful woman.” “Her early contribution was developing a course in Afro-American Literature,” says Allen. “She became a force for whatever she wanted to accomplish.”
The year after Jackson’s retirement in 1994, Smith-Wade-El, director of the African American studies program, initiated a lecture series and scholarship in Jackson’s honor. Each year a visiting literary artist brings shining moments of African American expression to the Millersville campus and the Lancaster community.
Cheryl Hodges, from Human Resources at Millersville, knew both women, “From the very first day I met Hazel, I felt the warmth and love that she always exuded. Whenever she walked in a room, people would immediately notice and make their way to her to hear a kind word or feel the warmth of her embrace as she extended her arms for a loving hug.”
Smith-Wade-El was a renowned advocate for social justice in the Lancaster community and a longtime professor of psychology and African American Studies at Millersville University. Called “a fierce advocate for civil rights,” she received the prestigious Essence of Humanity Award from the Crispus Attucks Community Center in 2015.
Millersville continues to honor the legacy of Smith-Wade-El through the Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-El Intercultural Center. The center is about creating and sustaining a welcoming and inclusive campus that recognizes, accepts and celebrates differences within our campus and surrounding community.
“Rita’s outreach and legacy are truly unmatched; this naming in the SDOL coupled with the Intercultural Center named after Rita, will provide everlasting reminders of the work she did, the impact she made at MU and in the Lancaster community and the legacy of a social justice-centered educator who passionately worked to uplift marginalized communities,” says J. Whitlow, acting director of campus life at Millersville. “I am excited about the possibilities the naming will bring to make stronger connections between Millersville University and the Lancaster community.”
“Rita could be as forceful as a tornado and as meek as a lamb, but she never got tired of doing what was right and necessary to help our students succeed,” said Hodges.
A colleague of Smith-Wade-El, Allen says agreed that she was a force. “She is the one who took African American Studies from an idea to actualization. I was an admirer of hers and of her contributions.”
“Anybody who knew Dr. Rita Smith Wade-El knew that she was authentic, vivacious and fearless said Timika Baxter Tyson ’91, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Calbert School in Baltimore. “She approached life as a series of teachable moments. As a freshman at Millersville University, she encouraged me to find my voice and to be that person who will advocate for what is right and just. She had a way of making everyone in the room comfortable with the uncomfortable. As a diversity practitioner, a term that I often use is “leaning into discomfort.” That was Rita, she knew that change can only occur if we have honest conversations, they might be messy but very necessary for change to occur.