WALKER, HAZEL MOUNTAIN (16 Feb. 1889-16 May 1980), the first black woman principal in the Cleveland public school system, was an educator, an actress, and an advocate for racial integration.
Walker was born in Warren, Ohio, the daughter of Charles and Alice (Bronson) Mountain. She married George Herbert Walker in 1922; he died in 1954. In 1961, she married Joseph R. Walker.
Walker graduated from Cleveland Normal School in 1908 and got her first teaching job at Mayflower Elementary School in 1909, earning $45 a month. Although she never intended to practice law, in 1919, she earned a law degree from Cleveland Law School, the first law school in Ohio to admit women. (It later became the law department of BALDWIN WALLACE UNIVERSITY and then merged with CLEVELAND-MARSHALL SCHOOL OF LAW.) She received a bachelor of science degree from Western Reserve University (now CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY) in 1939 and a master’s degree in 1941.
Walker’s education enabled her to climb the professional ladder. In 1936, she became the principal of Rutherford B. Hayes Elementary School, the system’s first black woman to do so. In 1954, she became principal of George Washington Carver Elementary School, where she remained until her retirement in 1958.
Walker’s years as principal were challenging decades for Cleveland public schools. When Walker began her teaching career on Cleveland’s East side, the children of native-born Americans and European immigrants shared classrooms with black children whose parents recently migrated from the American South. Teachers had to teach all their students not only how to read and write and how to add and subtract, but also how to live with one another. Teaching blacks and whites to live together remained Walker’s professional and personal mission.
In the 1920s, however, white families began leaving Cleveland for the suburbs. By the 1960s, black students became the majority in some East side schools. Neighborhoods and schools on the city’s West side remained predominantly white. After the Supreme Court ruled In Brown v. Board of Education that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional, Walker pointed out that schools would remain segregated as long as neighborhoods were. In 1979, she lamented that court-ordered cross-town bussing of Cleveland’s public school students was necessary to achieve integrated classrooms.
Racial integration was also the goal of KARAMU HOUSE, where Walker had a second distinguished career as an actress. Karamu was founded in 1915 by RUSSELL and ROWENA JELLIFE, who believed that inter-racial theater would encourage inter-racial understanding. Walker is credited with giving Karamu its name, which in Swahili means a “place of joyful meeting.” As forceful on the stage as she was in the principal’s office, Walker performed at Karamu for more than two decades in productions that ranged from contemporary plays with racial themes like Carson McCuller’s “Member of the Wedding” to classical dramas like Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” In 1951, marking the centennial of the woman’s rights convention in Akron, Walker re-enacted the dramatic speech of the former slave Sojourner Truth, “And Ain’t I A Woman?” That year, Karamu honored her as a pioneer in social service and race relations.
Walker also pursued racial integration in her personal and political lives. In 1957, she was one of five black women in the WOMEN’S CITY CLUB. She was also active in Republican Party politics: in 1924, she was part of the women’s committee for the REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION in Cleveland, and in 1932, of the central committee of the CUYAHOGA COUNTY REPUBLICAN PARTY. In 1943, Walker and L. PEARL MITCHELL were appointed to the Cleveland Womanpower Committee to advise on the integration of black women into the war-time work force.
Throughout her career, Walker was a frequent speaker on race relations in Cleveland. In 1960, she was honored by the URBAN LEAGUE OF GREATER CLEVELAND for being an officer in its forerunner, the Negro Welfare League. She was inducted into Karamu House’s Hall of Fame in 2007.
Walker had no children. She is buried in LAKE VIEW CEMETERY.