In The Steps of Esteban: Tucson's African American Heritage

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Willie Ernestine Hall-Fears

Summary of a 1988 oral history by B. Muhammad; 1996

Willie Ernestine Hall-Fears was born in 1932 in Ferris, Texas, the second child of Nathan and Lucille Hall. Her family moved to Arizona in 1938 when her father, a cowboy, hired on as a ranch hand at the 3C (Old Hugget) ranch in Oracle, Arizona. They moved into a home on East Sixth Street in Tucson.

Willie and her older sister, Bobbie Jewel, were enrolled in Dunbar School which was two miles away from their home. Although this was not the closest school, it was the school they were forced to attend because of segregation. Willie was an honor student who won the Constitutional Medal in the eighth grade and went on to graduate from Tucson High School in 1949. She attended the University of Arizona, majoring in Elementary and Physical Education.

Until her retirement in 1980, Willie worked for several Tucson social services agencies. These included the Estevan Recreation Center, the Motor Vehicle Department, Legal Aid, the University of Arizona's placement office, the Tucson Urban League, and the Department of Economic Security. In all of these positions she worked to help people get the information, resources and services that they needed to better their lives.

Willie is a divorced mother of two sons, Nathan, Jr. and Michael, and has two grandsons. She continues to be actively involved in the Tucson community, participating in religious, educational, and youth-oriented organizations. She is truly an asset to our community.

An Interview with Willie Ernestine Hall-Fears; 1988
by Baiza Muhammad

Ms. Fears was interviewed by Baiza Muhammad, an honor student in the African American History Internship Project. Mrs. Muhammad also wrote this narrative.

Willie Ernestine Hall-Fears was born in 1932 in Ferris, Texas. She, her older sister Bobbie Jewel, and their parents, Nathan and Lucille Hall, moved to Arizona in 1938. Willie's father, a cowboy, hired on as a ranch hand at the 3C (Old Hugget) ranch in Oracle, Arizona and took up residency on East Sixth Street in Tucson.

In 1938 Willie and Bobbie Jewel were enrolled in school, not in Roskruge, a neighborhood school two blocks away, nor in a school of their choice. They were enrolled in Dunbar School, two miles away. It was earlier known as the Colored school created by a territorial mandate, later upheld in 1912 State Legislation issuing segregated education for children of African descent on the elementary and junior high school levels.

Willie Fears recalls:

"We had to walk, rain or shine, two miles away from Roskruge, to Dunbar which was located on West Second Street. It was an older, plastered adobe building that had classes in the basement and on the first floor. Other children, who came from farther away, rode two busses: one from A Mountain and one called the sardine can, because it was so stuffed with children.

"In the beginning, Dunbar had no auditorium, no real library, no cafeteria, and no gymnasium. The class books were used and handed down from other schools to us. Despite those inadequacies, there was among us an atmosphere of unity and togetherness. We had African American teachers who were deeply motivated to teach us beyond our standard studies. They taught us about the great achievements of Paul Laurence Dunbar (an honor to our school name) and Langston Hughes, two famous poets and writers, as well as other African American writers. We learned about the scientific work of Dr. Charles Drew, pioneer in blood preservation, and other scholars of his status. There were plays, assemblies, and during certain weeks we celebrated outstanding people and events. When African American notables came to Tucson, they came to our school. We met and talked with Witter Byner Prize recipient for excellence in poetry Langston Hughes, illuminating actress Hattie McDaniel, world famous contralto Marian Anderson, soul searching blues singer B.B. King, and world champion boxer Joe Louis. The knowledge of our peoples ability to excel in any area, in spite of the conditions of segregation and racism, inspired us to strive for high achievements.

"Our teachers encouraged us and instilled in us a sense of pride and dignity. They reinforced principles of morality and decency, and they motivated us to leave a positive academic mark on Arizona, never to be forgotten."

Indeed Willie Fears did just that. She was an honor student who won the Constitutional Medal in the eighth grade (her sister, Bobble Jewel, earned equal achievements) and went on to graduate from Tucson High School in 1949. Continuing her education, she attended the University of Arizona, majoring in Elementary and Physical Education.

For 32 years (and through the trauma of open heart surgery), Willie worked for Tucson agencies: the Estevan Recreation Center, the Motor Vehicle Department, Legal Aid, the University of Arizona's placement office, the Tucson Urban League, and the Department of Economic security -- positions designed to help Arizona better serve its people. In 1980 she retired. Willie has given freely of her time and service to Mount Calvary Baptist Church, Action Agency, the Eastern Star, PTA, Little League, and the Eureka Club, a women's group.

In 1987, she served as chairperson for the "First Dunbar School Reunion." That event received a Proclamation from Mayor Lew Murphy which exclaimed:

WHEREAS, in a day when Tucson was younger and immature, there was a school that would became a symbol of an unfortunate past in our community; and WHEREAS DUNBAR SCHOOL was a segregated experience... WHEREAS, despite the injustice of its being, DUNBAR provided a solid education for hundreds of black youngsters, with student bodies that produced outstanding achievers in all disciplines and adult leadership for all manner of human endeavor; and WHEREAS, in 1951, the DUNBAR reality was ended by community conscience... NOW, THEREFORE, I Lew Murphy, Mayor of the City of Tucson, Arizona in order to call attention to this event, do hereby proclaim Saturday, the 28th day of November 1987, to be DUNBAR SCHOOL REUNION DAY in this community, and urge that all citizens take this occasion to reflect that good memories can take wing even when denied the full flight of fancy due them....

More recently, in April, 1988, Willie provided oral history information, numerous photos, and a video on the Dunbar School Reunion for the African American History Internship Project (AHIP).

Ms. Fears, divorced, is the mother of two sons, Nathan, Jr. and Michael, and has two grandsons. Willie has great love and respect for her parents and always remembers her sister, Bobbie Jewel, who now lives in Phoenix, as someone special who helped her through many difficult times in her life.

AAHIP and the Arizona Historical Society are pleased to feature Ms. Willie Ernestine Fears in this exhibit. She has left a mark on Arizona history, never to be forgotten.

Addenda: January 5, 2002. From the obituary notice in the Arizona Daily Star

Willie Ernestine Fears, 70, of Tucson, left this earth to be with her maker on December 31, 2001. Mrs. Fears is survived by her sister Bobbi J. Hall; sons, Nathan and Michael Fears; grandsons, Nathan, Jonathon and Miles; granddaughters, Leeya, Chrystal, Brianna and Jasmine; sisters-in-law, Lisa Cavazos and Barbara Kelly-Fears; and a host of relatives and dear friends who will miss her smile, humor and zest for life. Mrs. Fears was an active member of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church as well as being an active community leader and social equlity advocate. Memorial service will be held at 11:00 a.m., Monday January 7 at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, 210 E. Lester St. with Paster Harvey and Rev. Mark Toles of Texas officiating. Interment to be held at a private family service at a later date at South Lawn Cemetery. Remembrances may be made to Mt. Calvary Baptist Church.

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