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Austin Civil Rights Leader Bertha Sadler Means Dies At 100

Bertha Sadler Means in an undated photo.
St. James' Episcopal Church
Bertha Sadler Means held many roles in her life – a community leader, political activist, businesswoman and educator.

Austin civil rights icon Bertha Sadler Means died Tuesday, just two months shy of her 101st birthday. Means held many roles in her life — a community leader, political activist, businesswoman and educator.

She enjoyed a long career in education. Before retiring, Means worked at the Austin Independent School District where she taught elementary and secondary education, including segregated schools when that was still legal.

Cheryl Bradley, a former AISD school board member who represented East Austin, attended segregated schools when Means was teaching. In 2014, the board was debating a new name for Pearce Middle School as it transitioned to an all-girls school. Bradley suggested naming the school after Means because she would be an inspiration to the young women who attended.

The outside of Bertha Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy
Julia Reihs
Pearce Middle School was renamed for Bertha Sadler Means in 2014.

The trustees voted to rename it the Bertha Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy.

Bradley said Means was excited about school's renaming. At one meeting, Bradley said, Means hugged her and said, "Oh, we can really do some things now."

Means became very involved with the school, helping fundraise and regularly visiting students.

She was also a professor at Prairie View A&M College and UT Austin, and hosted workshops on professional development at Huston-Tillotson University. The Bertha Sadler Means African American Resource Center at Huston-Tillotson University was named in honor of her philanthropic support over the years.

Harrison David Eppright, an artist and Austin tour guide, says one of his earliest memories of Means is seeing her protest the segregation policies of a new skating rink on Airport Boulevard. It was the early 1960s, and he was only 7 years old.

"She worked within the system, but she was not afraid to make waves within the system," Eppright said.

Congressman Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, remembered his friend in a tweet, calling Means an inspiration and champion for social justice. "She lived an extraordinary life with major contributions to Austin, which continue through her children,” he said.

Her cause of death was not immediately available.

In a 2016 interview, Means said she used to help Doggett knock on doors in East Austin back when he was a student at UT Austin. “Even at the joyful community celebration that was her 90th birthday," Doggett said, "I was pleased to be identified as 'one of her boys,' from my student days working out of her kitchen on NAACP voter registration drives."

"She worked within the system, but she was not afraid to make waves within the system."
Harrison David Eppright

Means was born a few miles from Valley Mills, Texas, she said in the interview. After her family moved to Waco, Means graduated high school then left to continue her education at Tillotson College, now Huston-Tillotson University. She later received her master’s degree in education from UT Austin.

Means said she met her late husband James, a math teacher, while working as a secretary at Huston-Tillotson. In 1941, the couple was part of the small group of faculty and students from the university who helped found St. James' Episcopal Church in East Austin. Those 16 members organized and created a church where African-Americans would be welcome during segregation, according to the church's website.

“In her living and in her dying, Bertha Sadler Means has been a model of Christian joy, generosity of spirit, and fortitude and resistance in the face of powers that would seek to divide us,” Rev. Eileen O’Brien told KUT.

O’Brien said it was the community’s honor to be a part of her legacy.

“She taught her peers and her many spiritual children to walk together and never get weary in the work of facing injustice in the world and in the creation of spaces of radical hospitality inhabited by the spirit of joy.”

Huston-Tillotson President Colette Pierce Burnette called Means one of the university's most distinguished graduates and a force of character.

"Dr. Means lived her life intentionally and on purpose — she courageously chose a life of vibrancy and to live a life out loud in full color," Burnette said. "And as Dr. Means allowed her own light to shine, she unconsciously gave myself and other members of our Austin community permission to do the same."

Means had five children, multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

St. James' Episcopal Church, which she helped found for the Black community, will host a remembrance of life Saturday. The service is not open to the public because of the pandemic, but the church will post the service online after.

Dani Matias is a former producer and fill-in host for KUT's Morning Edition show.
Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.