Article by Sarah Raines, Photos by Sarah Raines and Sarah Massey
A park that memorializes individuals who have had a lasting impact on Civil Rights in Oktibbeha County has gained two new honorees. On Martin Luther King, Junior’s birthday, two educators who made great strides toward unity in Oktibbeha County were added to the walls of the Unity Park on Douglas L. Conner Drive in Starkville. These two women were Rosa Stewart and Sadye Wier.
Nominations were opened in October of 2017, and members of the Unity Park Committee chose from six potential honorees. There were four requirements for each nomination. The nominee must have lived in Oktibbeha County for at least part of his or her life, been deceased at least five years before the nomination, made a significant contribution to civil rights in Oktibbeha County, and advanced community unity within Oktibbeha County.
The Unity Park Committee Chair, Jeanne Marszalek, said both women were “breaking new ground.”
“Both of these women worked their entire lives to improve the wellbeing of people and to bring unity to our community,” Marszalek said before the plaque was unveiled.
Dec. 8, 1904 to Sep. 7, 2004
Rosa Stewart taught the children of Oktibbeha County for forty-six years, beginning in 1922, at the Oktibbeha County Training School, where she worked her way to become the head of the English Department before retiring in 1968 and joining the Civil Rights Movement.
Stewart’s impact did not stop with her career in education. She retired during the era of integration, and when others marched against Starkville businesses’ unfair hiring practices, Stewart was in the crowd protesting local businesses’ refusal to hire African-American employees. As a result, Stewart spent three nights in jail.
“The first time we marched from my church, I felt like I was free,” Stewart said in a quote found in her biography assembled by the Starkville Unity Park Committee. “I had the courage because I figured I was right and didn’t worry about it anymore.”
Stewart was the first African-American to run for Starkville’s Board of Alderman. When Stewart joined the race, the voting system was changed from the ward-based system used today to an at large voting system.
“She (Stewart) lost because they changed the voting system from the ward system so that a black ward wouldn’t vote a black person to be on the Board of Aldermen,” the Unity Park Committee Chair Jeanne Marszalek said.
Because of the change, Stewart sued the city of Starkville and the state of Mississippi to return to a fair voting system. After three years, Stewart won the case, reinstating the ward-based voting system still used today.
“Rosa Stewart just blew me away,” Diana Lyon, who nominated both Rosa Stewart and Sadye Wier, said. “She marched in protests and then she ran for alderman.”
In 1978, the 8th grade building at Henderson Junior High School was named for Stewart, and the school is now called Henderson Ward-Stewart Elementary School.
December 3, 1904 to October 14, 1995
Sadye Wier earned a degree from Talladega College in 1923 and moved to Starkville, a town not far from where she was raised in Macon, to be near her sister and become a teacher.
Wier taught at the Oktibbeha County Training School for 13 years, and later became the first African-American home demonstration agent for the Mississippi State Cooperative Extension Service in 1943.
Wier worked in surrounding counties as well as Oktibbeha County to improve the lives of others, from installing plumbing to teaching skills such as cooking, knitting, quilting and crocheting to residents.
With the help of Wier’s efforts, the local African-American 4H Club members were able to display their work at segregated county fairs.
“I was an ambitious woman. I wanted to accomplish something,” Wier said in a quote in her biography created by the Starkville Unity Park Committee. “I wanted to help my people, to see them get by.”
Wier’s husband, Robert Wier, was the first African American business owner on Starkville’s Main Street. A book written by John F. Marszalek, “A Black Businessman in White Mississippi,” tells much about the Wier’s lives, from their successes to their struggles. Marszalek was able to gleam much of the information in his book from Sadye Wier, herself.
Yvette Conner Williams has two family members featured in Unity Park. A picture and quote from her father, Douglas L. Conner, is now only a few feet from her great aunt, Sadye Wier’s name. Williams grew up seeing her great aunt and inherited her house, and said she cherishes the memory of her aunt, who loved to cook and entertain.
“She just was a wonderful community advocate,” Williams said. “You know, when you’re a kid, sometimes you don’t realize you’re around greatness until later, but she just always made us feel like we were important. My sister, my brother, the neighborhood kids, all of us were important to her.”
Williams said Wier also worked behind the scenes with Douglas L. Conner to help improve the community.