People & Places

C.R. district's first black teacher Nelson Evans worked to build diversity

Evans, 78, enjoys reconnecting with former students

Nelson Evans poses for a photograph in his office at his southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. Evans was the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s first black teacher. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Nelson Evans poses for a photograph in his office at his southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. Evans was the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s first black teacher. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Nelson Evans still remembers his first day as a teacher at Tyler Elementary School.

He was tidying up a bulletin board with his back to the room as children filtered in. Sounds of shock and excitement filled the classroom.

“I heard a commotion at my door and I heard, ‘He’s black! He’s black!’ and I turned around and there’s a bunch of African-American kids, looking and pointing. I never will forget that,” Evans, 78, said, sitting in his Cedar Rapids home.

That was 1964. Evans was the first African-American to teach in a Cedar Rapids Community School District classroom.

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Evans said his community was predominantly black. His neighbors were loving, and he remembers that adults were “honored and respected.”

However, Evans said, that changed over time.

“A lot of our leaders, they moved out of the old neighborhoods,” he said. “A lot of the people that you looked up to, they moved out into those neighborhoods that were considered to be more upper-class and more upper-crust, if you will.”

Evans likened that shift to what happened to Cedar Rapids’ Oakhill Jackson area after the 2008 flood, as residents splintered off to other neighborhoods.

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In 1960, Evans moved to the small town of Fayette to get his bachelor’s degree in education from Upper Iowa University. He later attended graduate school at the University of Iowa.

In 1964, after a push for diversity by civic leaders such as Percy Harris and Viola Gibson, Evans was hired as the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s first African-American certified employee.

“The good Lord has always supported me in terms of getting here so I might be that person who could be an encourager, a role model for and to whomever,” Evans said. “But again, it was made known to me by the community in terms of the effort that they had to push to get an African-American in the school system.”

In addition to Tyler Elementary, Evans worked at Monroe, Johnson and Madison elementaries. He eventually became a principal and retired in 1999 as the district’s director of elementary and secondary schools.

As an employee, Evans worked alongside civil rights leaders to further build diversity among the district’s staff.

Statewide, diversity among teachers remains a concern.

One in four students is a child of color, according to the Iowa Department of Education, yet more than 97 percent of Iowa teachers are white.

Soon after retiring, a friend recruited Evans to Louisville, Ky., where he worked in a school dealing with challenging racial matters. He returned to Cedar Rapids about 10 years ago.

During his career, Evans said he had to deal with his share of racism, but he said he was always mindful that his students had differing backgrounds and upbringings.

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Ultimately, Evans said he always focused on his role as an educator — he was there to teach, and his students were there to learn.

“I’m not your enemy, but this is an educational system,” Evans said. “This is like a church, this is hallowed ground.”

Nancy Humbles, who in October became the Cedar Rapids school board’s first African-American president, said she has known Evans for many years.

His positivity set him apart, Humbles recalled.

“Folks haven’t forgotten that. Nelson, he made a difference in students’ lives,” she said.

Now retired, Evans said he enjoys running into former students to see the successful adults they’ve become.

“That’s been a blessing to me that I’ve lived long enough that a lot of my former students, I’m able to see them and I’m grateful to see how they have developed in terms of being good citizens,” Evans said.

Breaking barriers the way Evans and Humbles did can have a critical impact on African-American students.

“That makes a difference in their lives,” Humbles said. “We need to be in the classrooms, we need to be in positions of leadership so our children know they can achieve this too.”

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The intersection of race and education will be the focus of a program from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the African American Museum of Iowa. It is the first of several free Not Without Me discussion events co-sponsored by the Cedar Rapids NAACP. Future Not Without Me events are planned every month through October.

Humbles said the events are meant to bring the community together to discuss why, both locally and nationwide, African-American students are not performing as well in school as their white classmates.

“It really takes a village. We’re really asking families, community members, to become engaged and help come up with a solution,” Humbles said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

IF YOU GO

l What: Not Without Me! Interfacing With the Education Process

l Where: African American Museum of Iowa, 55 12th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

l When: 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. today

l Cost: Free

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