Women’s History Month Honoree: “Beautiful People” Mentor Mary Dean Harvey Evans
This photo collage from my high school days in Omaha, Nebraska, is a precious find, a true jewel. The photos showcases the members of Wantu Wazuri, an organization of Omaha Central High School Black students. It was formed and mentored by our ancestor, noted educator and children’s advocate Mary Dean Harvey (later Evans).
It was Mrs. Harvey — as we referred to her then — who listened to the small number of Black students attending Central HS. We wished to be “heard” and “seen” in a more significant way while matriculating among a larger number of peers comprised of European, Jewish and Caucasian ancestry.
Mrs. Harvey saw it fit to include Wantu Wazuri in her busy teaching day that began with our meetings in her homeroom at 7:30 a.m. Looking back, it must have been quite a power move for Mrs. Harvey to gain the school administration’s permission to allow an all-Black club to form. Central HS was and remains one of the nation’s top college prep high schools with an outstanding listing of alumni. Omaha CHS alumni include famed actors (Inga Swenson, Henry Fonda, Dorothy McGuire), celebrated musicians and philanthropists (Wyonnie Harris; Peter, Susie Jr. and Susie Buffett), stellar athletes (Gayle Sayers, Ahman Green), politicians, human rights advocates and authors (Brenda Council, Dr. Rodney Wead), my grandmother (Helen Wilks Owen Douthy), other relatives and my parents (Dr. Rodney, Angeline Wead).
Mrs. Harvey chose the name of Wantu Wazuri because of its Swahilli word for “beautiful people” and linkage to a larger organization. We routinely celebrated with song, recitations, and group sharing of triumphs and struggles. It was quite a time in Mrs. Harvey’s room that established our success strategies in academics and community outreach.
Beyond High School History lessons
What I re-learned as I researched the genesis of the Central HS name of Wantu Wazuri is that our gathering was a quasi-branch of the 1970-organized college student group by the same name at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. I am not sure if Mrs. Harvey formally connected with the UNC organization. However, I am sure the Louisiana-born educator was intentional in ensuring her Central HS students focused on positive academic and social objectives in a mirrored way as the original Wantu Wazuri organization. UNC’s Wantu Wazuri was later renamed the Black Student Union. According to its Facebook page, the UNC Black Student Union “… we’ve been observing and improving the general welfare of Black students at @uncwilmington.”
The Central HS Wantu Wazuri club clearly modeled the college organization. The CHS photograph features one of our Wantu Wazuri community service projects, a Christmas food drive. My sister, Denise “Candy” Wead Rawles and brother, Owen “Gene” Wead, and I were members of the Wantu Wazuri group. My best friends, Debbie Marshall and Leilani Garret, were also members. We were joined by other cool friends such as Drusilla Dillon and John Pennington (see above photo). I recall our Black History Month programs, wearing our African-themed clothing and singing our theme song. These memories bring forth the importance of the extended village serving as a central circle of love during those great years at Central before my family moved to Chicago, IL at the beginning of my junior year.
My sister, upon seeing the photograph that I retrieved from www.ancestry.com, told me that “it made her day.” I told her the same was true of me for findilng this gem.
The Take Away for Genealogy Researchers
- Start your research with a hunch to locate an ancestor.
- Mrs. Harvey was the primary ancestor I was seeking.
- Go to the source of your interaction with the ancestor. I chose my Omaha High School and the year of my oldest sister’s graduation year to locate Mrs. Harvey.
- The initial hunch paid off: I gained a photo collage that led to other revelations.
- My find is resulting in at least three other ancestral stories involving Mrs. Harvey who was not a “blood” relative, yet was my favorite mentor and influencer from my high school days.
- Let the research lead you: Mrs. Harvey’s obituary and newspaper tributes also opened additional information about her that I temporarily forgot. It unlocked other brick walls about family ancestors.
- Celebrate your great find(s).
- Publish your findings — no matter how limited.
Honoring the “Champion for Children” Mary Dean Harvey Evans
History lives through the legacy of Mary Dean Harvey Evans. She not only served the Omaha Central HS students for seven years and worked in the Omaha Public School System for nearly 20 years, Mrs. Harvey was a highly regarding state leader for two governors in Nebraska and Georgia.
Mrs. Harvey continues to teach me valuable lessons. She emphasized education, contextual thinking and sharing our stories. Her leadership has added great value to my genealogy research.
Thank you, Mrs. Harvey, for providing me with this jewel of a find through the hunch that she often told us to follow. She insisted that our internal controls — our hunches — would never let us down. Mrs. Harvey, again was right.
Let the spirit of Mrs. Harvey be your guide in genealogy research.