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Sarah Stevenson shaped Charlotte’s schools and politics for more than 50 years

Sarah Stevenson in 2007.
Jones Photography
Sarah Stevenson in 2007.

Sarah Stevenson, who died Tuesday at 97, has shaped generations of Charlotteans with her leadership in education, politics and civic life.

In the 1960s, Stevenson’s sons went to segregated schools. Their band uniforms were hand-me-downs from white schools, and Stevenson says that launched her quest for equal opportunity.

She chaired the district’s Black PTA, then helped to merge it with the white PTA in the late 1960s. In 1970 she was elected president of the consolidated group, despite protests by some white members. She worked on an advisory panel that helped CMS create a plan to bus students for desegregation in the 1970s. And Stevenson served two terms on the school board, starting in 1980, at a time when a Black woman had never held that post.

Mary McCray, who would eventually chair the board more than 30 years later, says Stevenson was the first person to encourage her to run.

“I would consider Ms. Sarah the person that most of us stood on the shoulders of,” McCray said. “She was one of these people that was very involved in her neighborhood association and making sure that children went to school, got the best out of school and went on to college.”

Current CMS board Chair Elyse Dashew paid tribute to Stevenson’s influence at Tuesday night’s meeting.

“I would not be who I am today and walking on this path that I’m on without her. She had an enormous impact on my life, with her guidance and her love and how she has modeled how to be a school board member,” Dashew said.

A montage of Sarah Stevenson photos created by the Sarah Stevenson Tuesday Forum
A montage of Sarah Stevenson photos created by the Sarah Stevenson Tuesday Forum

Life after politics

When her time in public office ended, Stevenson remained influential in local politics. She worked with the Black Political Caucus and founded the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum, which now bears her name. The forum aimed to give a voice to residents of the historically Black west side. It became known as the place to be if you were running for local office or trying to influence public policy.

When CMS hired new superintendents, the Breakfast Forum was often one of their first meet-the-community stops.

Arthur Griffin, a county commissioner and former school board chair, met Stevenson when he was a student at the all-Black Second Ward High and she was the PTA chair.

“She was a fighter for what’s right and what’s decent,” he recalled.

But she was also a peacemaker, he says, making sure everyone at the Breakfast Forum could be heard and discussion stayed focused on issues, not attacks.

“She just flat-out loved people,” Griffin said. “Whether they were Black or white or Republican or Democrat — she just loved people, and I think that was a function of her religious background.”

Stevenson celebrated her 90th birthday by raising money for scholarships to send students from South Africa to Johnson C. Smith University. But arthritis and ill health eventually limited her to a care facility.

Thinking about the end

Three years ago, isolated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Stevenson had a video chat with her younger sister, Elloree Erwin, and said that her work on earth was done. Erwin said her sister sang “To God Be the Glory” and asked Erwin to share a message with Stevenson’s friends: “Let them all know that she loved them, and that she would see them in heaven.”

But Stevenson rebounded and got to reconnect with family and friends. About a week before Stevenson’s death, Erwin was letting people know her sister would be at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church and would love to see them.

During that first brush with Stevenson’s mortality, Steve Johnston, a friend who records Tuesday Breakfast Forum meetings, thought back to a session in June 2016. As he listened to audio of Stevenson closing the meeting, it struck Johnston that she was summarizing her own life and work.

“I want to thank all of you for coming and especially the young folk! 'Cause you are the future and you are the ones who are going to bring the other young ones in. And we’re going to continue networking,” Stevenson said.

She went on to talk about the end of her own journey: “Now I want you to know I’m 90 and a half and I need to just rest. I’m just so tired. I need you to carry on everything that we’ve started.”

In less than a minute, he says, Stevenson managed to remind everyone who knew her of what they loved about her: Her love, her enthusiasm, her dedication to the forum … and even her bossiness, as Stevenson concluded by saying “Love you very much. Get out of this room!”

The forum has compiled information about Stevenson’s life and invites people to celebrate her life at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Belmont Center, 700 Parkwood Ave.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.