By COSHANDRA DILLARD
Framed by civil rights movements and inspired by strong women in their families, some Tyler trailblazers mapped their own courses despite the odds. Not only did they make contributions to the African-American community, but they showed women could successfully fulfill roles as leaders.
PUBLIC SERVICE Sandra Nauls-Mast and Dianna Jackson
Law enforcement wasn’t Mrs. Nauls-Mast’s first passion. She’d gone to Texas Women’s University to study fashion illustration then went on to graduate school.
“I didn’t finish grad school, but I started looking for a job in that field and got kind of disappointed,” she said, noting her work in retail.
Returning home to Tyler, she was convinced by Willie Johnson — a recruiter for Tyler PD and one of the first black officers in Tyler — to try law enforcement. She was sold on the idea and was never intimidated.
“The way I was raised, my mother and father encouraged us to do whatever we felt like we could do,” Mrs. Nauls-Mast said. “They didn’t discourage us from anything.”
In the early years, it was rough.
“It was different than it is now,” Mrs. Nauls-Mast said. “There were some people who did not want you there and they pretty much told you … It made me more determined.”
Like Mrs. Nauls-Mast, becoming an officer had not been a lifelong plan for Mrs. Jackson, but she was determined to enter unknown territory. Today, she’s the first black person to become assistant chief of police in Tyler.
“We were encouraged to try new things,” Mrs. Jackson said of her upbringing.
She became a dispatcher in her mid-20s. While in dispatch, she observed female officers and enjoyed the camaraderie.
“That inspired me,” Mrs. Jackson said. “I wanted to be out there doing that.”
Today, Mrs. Jackson and Mrs. Nauls-Mast are among the 15 women out of 190 sworn officers at the Tyler Police Department.
“It’s important for a lot of the younger ladies to know that they can accomplish anything that they put their mind to,” Mrs. Jackson said. “The positions that Sandra and I have, probably 75 years ago, you never would have dreamed that you would see black females in these positions. Nowadays, everything’s possible. It’s just a matter of putting your mind to do it and having the confidence to do it.”
POLITICS Gladys Square and JoAnn Hampton
Among the council’s achievements while Mrs. Square was in office were: Broadway Avenue was extended, parks were improved, a half-cent sales tax was approved and a new Rose Garden Center was constructed.
Her husband, Ernest Square, was among the plaintiffs who sued the city of Tyler to create single-member council districts in 1974. It paved the way for his wife to represent her community years later. While Square never ran for public office, he encouraged his wife to do so.
She said women’s involvement in politics used to be frowned upon.
“But I know deep down within I would go there one day,” she said.
Mrs. Square didn’t realize until after she filed that she would be the first woman on the city council, if elected.
“I was really deflated,” she recounted. “I didn’t know what to do. I said, ‘Oh my God. What have I done?”
Nonetheless, she knew a woman’s perspective was not included in local politics, so she wanted to be included.
“I just felt that women needed to be involved in the decision making of all the citizens,” she said. “You were so strongly (influential) in the household, why not be involved in community activities and politics? I felt like I could make a contribution.”
During her three consecutive terms, she was embraced by fellow council members.
“I told them they didn’t have to love me,” she recalled. “They didn’t have to like me, but I’m here to do a job. That was one thing I demanded was respect.”
She added, “Men don’t ever scare me.”
In childhood, she was surrounded by men — her father and four brothers — after her mother passed away when she was 7 years old.
She later went to live with her grandmother and two aunts, who instilled in her the importance of independence, education, honesty and excellence.
She had strong models to follow. Her mother and an aunt attended college as well as four of her grandfather’s sisters following slavery.
“They inspired my life,” Mrs. Square said. “They always told me that I should never worry about closed doors. If I walked down the hall and saw a door and if I knocked and they didn’t open it, turn the knob and go on in because there may be something in there waiting for me. I took that very seriously.”
Before her career in politics, Mrs. Square taught for 38 years, with 33 years at Tyler ISD.
Besides her family, her inspiration to break barriers came from another local trailblazer, Willie Lee Glass.
“She did it for me,” Mrs. Square said. “She didn’t let me go. She kept her hand in my back, pushing me all the way.”
She admits she’s “kind of disappointed” that more women haven’t been on the city council in the last few years.
“I didn’t get out there to fight for this for it to die on the vine,” Mrs. Square said. “I just knew every other term we’d have a female out there waiting, but they don’t seem to be interested.”
She praises several local women, including Mayor Barbara Bass and Mrs. Hampton, a Smith County commissioner.
“She’s consistent with what she does,” she said of Mrs. Hampton. “She wouldn’t be on the Smith County Commissioners Court if she wasn’t consistent, because they tell me they’re rough over there.”
As a child in Virginia, Mrs. Hampton, 55, witnessed the activity of the civil rights movement. From then on, she knew she’d be involved in politics in some way.
“I saw that, and it was something I wanted to do as far as helping people,” she said.
After moving to Tyler in 1979, it wasn’t long before she found a cause. Mrs. Hampton worked as a regional campaign coordinator when the Rev. Jesse Jackson announced his candidacy for president in the early 1980s.
In 1994, she ran for city council and served six years. She then ran for a spot on the commissioners’ court in 2003, where she remains today.
While she describes herself more aggressive and in-your-face than Mrs. Square, she appreciated the grace her mentor brought to city hall. The two women served together for one year.
“She was always so soft-spoken,” Mrs. Hampton said. “She never raised her voice, but she would tell you exactly what it was that she thought about an issue in a very gracious and nice way. … We all looked up to her. Mrs. Square is an awesome woman. She took care of us.”
Among the things accomplished while she sat on city council were changing how the city used community development block grants to improve neighborhoods.
Mrs. Hampton credits her mother as a role model, who taught her to find her own way in the world.
“I always wanted to create my own path,” she said. “I never wanted to follow in anyone’s footsteps. I was raised to think independently, fight for what I believe in. So, it was never about following in anyone’s footsteps. It was more about the impact that I would have on my community, what I could do to help.”
MEDICINE Dr. Ellen Melton
Back then, the field was comprised primarily of white male physicians who ran their own practices. Dr. William Read took her under his wings.
She said she recognizes that she was a bit na´ve then. She was optimistic and didn’t foresee any challenges as a physician.
But while she thrived in medicine, her career and roles as mother of two and wife would, in fact, be a challenge. Her husband, Frank Melton, was a television station executive and politician who went on run a TV station in Jackson, Miss., and then later become mayor.
Having a two-state marriage meant juggling many duties for Dr. Melton.
“For me, the hardest thing was taking care of my kids when they were young, and I was first starting (to) practice, because I didn’t have good access to sitters,” she said. “But some kind of way I made it through.”
During the times her husband was away, she relied on numerous baby sitters, including nurses who looked after her children while she worked at the hospital.
Dr. Melton came from a family of educators, but she took a “detour” while studying at Stephen F. Austin State University.
She knew she wanted to do something in science. Her interests were peaked after working in a laboratory one summer. She set her sights on becoming a medical technologist, but her husband felt she could achieve even more. He encouraged her to go to medical school.
She chose pediatrics early on because of her love of children.
“If I had specialized I would have done neonatology,” she said. “I just find it to be fascinating.”
She’s been with East Texas Medical Center for more than 10 years. She admits that while working in private practice, the fatigue and burnout was setting in.
“When I started out, everybody was in private practice,” she said. “Everybody had their own little building. Now we have group practices so our call load is so much easier. When I first started 30 years ago I was on call Monday through Saturday, and the only off days I has was every other Sunday.”
Dr. Melton said women trailblazers become so because they don’t limit themselves.
“It won’t be easy, but if it’s something that you really love and desire, you can make it happen,” she said. “You may have to have extended family to help you, especially if you have children, or a husband who is really empathetic.”
“Our role is to perpetuate the past. Never let it die,” Mrs. Square said. “Because it’s a struggle, and if we don’t keep on reaching up and reaching out, we will lose ground. You need to keep moving forward.”
Mrs. Hampton echoed the sentiment.
“You’ve got to know the struggles you’ve gone through so that you don’t repeat the same mistakes again,” Mrs. Hampton said. “We have a tendency in Tyler to repeat those mistakes because people forget that we’re all human. We all have feelings. You’ve got to take my opinions and value it just like I want to take yours and value it.”
An example, she said, is the current debate on whether to repurpose A.T. Stewart Middle School in west Tyler. She said leaders must listen to residents and take into consideration “the culture and history that relates to the school and its community.”
The trailblazers said while women have been “unsung heroes,” it doesn’t take away from the fact that they’ve always been at the forefront of milestones and movements.
“Women have always had the power,” Mrs. Square said. “If you use it right, you can do miracles.”