Polly Campbell reports
Helena Harris Dorsey lived a long life of passion and creativity despite being constrained for much of it by racial segregation and inequality.
She was a teacher dedicated to the children who had the most to overcome, a fiercely protective mother, a wife for 63 years, and an important part of a circle of friends so close they lived on the same street. She fought throughout her life, especially on behalf of her children, to break racial barriers and resist stereotypes.
A resident of West Chester, she died at home July 10. She was 84.
Mrs. Dorsey was born Feb. 6, 1928, in Ecorse, Mich., the oldest child of Emma Gretchen Harris Vinegar and James William Harris. She grew up in Paulding, a town in Northwest Ohio, on a 150-acre farm belonging to the family of her stepfather John Boyd Vinegar.
“There’s a work ethic that comes from growing up on a farm that’s completely different,” said her daughter, Jocelyn Dorsey of Atlanta. “She had a real foundation for her life from that farm.” She graduated with honors from the local high school and she was always expected to attend college.
She graduated from Ohio State University in 1949 with a degree in elementary education. She joined Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority while at Ohio State.
Because blacks could not live on campus at the time, or anywhere within 10 miles, she took the bus to campus. When there was a transit strike one year, she and friends hitchhiked. One rainy morning, she and her friends convinced the driver to give a young man waiting in the rain a ride too. Helena married that man, Robert Sherwood Dorsey, when they graduated in 1949.
John Dorsey was one of five “dream team” African-American engineers to integrate General Electric. After living in several other places around the country, the couple settled in Cincinnati, where he stayed for his entire career in the jet engine division.
The Dorseys were among the first black families to live in Avondale. Because African-Americans were barred by segregation from many establishments, their socializing was done at home. Eventually, the whole block was occupied by a circle of their friends, 25 professional African-American couples.
“There was a music teacher who we all took piano lessons from. We took art lessons from another woman on the block, whose husband was a doctor. Everyone shared, and my sisters and I thought they were all our aunts and uncles,” said Jocelyn. Some of the group took vacations together, and as they grew older, they became important support systems for each other. Some even bought adjoining plots in Spring Grove Cemetery.
Helena taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grades at Rockdale Elementary School and later at Westwood Elementary School. “She had a real passion for students, and her favorite students were the ones who needed more, who might have behavioral issues or other difficulties. She believed every child could learn,” said her daughter.
She retired from teaching in 1989. She was often contacted by former students and never tired of long discussions with family members and friends who were also educators. She was a voracious reader, who often had brown paper bags full of books ready to give away to friends.
Her three daughters attended Walnut Hills High School. “It wasn’t until much later that I understand how tirelessly she had waged battles on our behalf to shield us from the trauma of segregation,” said Jocelyn. “The principal told me she had been in his office all the time working for the equality of African-American students.”
She made sure her daughters took swimming lessons to disprove the idea that black kids couldn’t swim. She arranged for several girls to take ballet lessons so if they tried out for a dancing team, they couldn’t be turned down.
“Later, I was struck at the sacrifices they made for us. “I never knew what a student loan was,” said Jocelyn, who, along with her two sisters, also graduated from OSU. “They did not allow us to work while we were at school, because they didn’t want anything to interfere with our studies. My mother ate peanut butter sandwiches and walked four blocks to the laundromat so they could do that for us.”
Mrs. Dorsey was active in political campaigns, and served on the Mayor’s Friendly Relations Committee under former mayor Theodore Berry. She helped promote and organize college tours for students in the Jack ‘N Jill organization, traveling with the students and encouraging them to explore beyond their comfort zone. She was a member of the Cincinnati chapter of Sophisticates, Inc., an organization of women founded at Ohio State to promote cooperative friendships, and of the Cincinnati chapter of Girl Friends, Inc., a national social and civic organization that gave her a means to perform charitable work
“My mother had so much common sense,” said her daughter Jocelyn. “We’d talk once a week on the phone and wouldn’t hang up until 1 or 2 in the morning. “Not everyone has the opportunity to have such great parents. She was a tremendous gift to me.”
In addition to her daughter, survivors include two other daughters, Karen Dorsey Bonner of College Hill and Robin Dorsey Alexander of Naples, Fla.; a grandson; and four great-grandchildren.
She was preceded in death by her husband in 2011.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to Thanks Mom & Dad Fund, a foundation that honors and provides services to senior citizens. Please mail checks to the fund, attn. Maureen Kelly, 40 Courtland St., Atlanta, GA 30303-2538. Please indicate Helena F. Dorsey on your check. Donations can also be made online at www.thanksmomanddadfund.org.
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