WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Commentary - Mrs. Thelma Glass: Teacher-Activist

Mar 3, 2021

As we leave Black History Month and enter Women's History Month, I am delighted to share with you something of the life of Mrs. Thelma Glass, a civil rights activist and professor of Geography at Alabama State University in Montgomery from 1947-1981. I interviewed some of her former students, who recounted the many impacts she had on their lives, and later I had the honor to meet her. Thelma Glass' career spanned a period of great change in social, political and race relations in this country, especially in the South, and Mrs. Glass was one of those quiet laborers who toiled to bring in the harvest.

I believe America’s strength lies in such workers, whose lives are dedicated to the perfecting of our nation. This month, I am reminded of Mrs. Glass and her work—especially the seeding of the geographic imagination among young African- American students, at a time when there was no Google Maps, no Internet, and when even atlas books were not widely available in some communities. That she did so despite the many constraints working against her, makes her life both compelling and inspiring. 

Thelma McWilliams was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1916, where she spent her early years. She moved to Montgomery to attend Alabama State Teachers College and, after graduating in 1941, she went on to get an MA degree from Columbia University in 1947.  She returned to teach Geography at her alma mater soon after, and became    secretary to the Women’s Political Council, an organization founded by a group of teachers at Alabama State University in 1947 to fight racial injustices and oppression in Montgomery. Though the best-known accounts of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, focus on the organizing actions of Martin Luther King Jr., and the resistance of Rosa Parks, the boycott had its genesis in work begun earlier, work in which the Women’s Political Council played key strategic and tactical roles.  In Mrs. Glass’ own words to an interviewer years later, “The men talked about it, you know, but we were ready to take action.”

I first heard of Thelma Glass in 2004, when I worked on a project of the AAG (the  American Association of Geographers), the nation’s premier organization for academic Geography.  We were celebrating our centennial and wanted to recognize the historic work of geographers who developed and grew the discipline in America.  As my coauthor and I learned about Geography at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the work of Mrs. Glass at Alabama State University stood out.  Though she was unwell at the time and could not speak to us, we interviewed some of her former students who were then professors and administrators at Alabama State University, and included the noted attorney, Fred Gray, who had litigated several civil rights cases, including the defense of Rosa Parks. 

They told us how her approach to teaching Geography had galvanized their education, especially for many of them who, as one of them put it, came from rural counties in Alabama and were not exposed to the world beyond.  They told of the strategies she used to widen their horizons both by formal geographic tutelage about the world, and also by pastoral care in directing them to resources and opportunities created by the Civil Rights Movement.  Hers was a life-long engagement with her students and she saw the value of a geographic education as a means to understand both the local situation, as well as one’s place in the world.  In her own words, “Life in all aspects…is global in its outreach.  We live in a world where anything that happens anywhere affects us all.”

I finally met Mrs. Glass at the inauguration of the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture at Alabama State University, where our paper is archived.  I had a long chat with her then, and what I remember most vividly of our meeting was her incredible warmth and vivacity.  She held my hand the whole time, and apologized for not having been able to give me an interview for our paper, but said that she had read it and was pleased.  She seemed a bit intrigued that I was more interested in her teaching career than in her contribution to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights Movement.  She said, "I always told my students that we are all connected, and everything is linked.  And I still believe that." 

That we are all connected. That everything is linked. Aren’t these words to live by in these fractured times?  Happy Women’s History Month!

Sunita George is an Associate Professor of Geography at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.