1951 : Olivia Davis Letts, Lansing’s First Black Elementary Teacher

May 20, 2023 all-day

Olivia Davis Letts was the first black elementary teacher in the Lansing Public Schools.  Already with three years’ experience teaching in the Chicago schools, she was hired in Lansing on May 20, 1951 with the help of a community movement.  Her first assignment was at Lincoln School, where she ultimately became principal. In 1965, she became principal at Post Oak Elementary.  Over the years, she attended classes at Michigan State University to earn a doctorate. She retired in 1985 as the city’s director of elementary schools.  In 2016, she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.

The rest of the story:

Letts was living in Chicago and dating her future husband Richard “Dick” Letts when she received a letter from the Lansing Schools saying “they had never made a practice of hiring anyone of her race but they would keep her under consideration”, according to an oral history project sponsored by the Lansing Public Library.

Richard had been living in Lansing and trying to get Olivia to marry him.  The rejection was a setback.

“She sent me a letter in rebuttal to my request for her hand that she would never come to Lansing if she couldn’t get a job”.  Richard shared a copy of the district’s letter with local leaders and that the school board asked her to reapply.  The district hired her the same year she married Richard.

Letts died in Chicago on February 1, 2021.

Sources :

MIIngham-L Archives (2009), courtesy of RootsWeb.

Stacey Range. “Lansing’s First Black Teacher Recalls Integration.” Lansing State Journal, February 18, 2006.

Sarah Lehr, “Lansing’s 1st Black teacher dies at 93”, Lansing State Journal, February 3, 2021.

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