This editorial first appeared in The Journal Gazette on Dec. 31, 2006:
Hana Stith is living proof that good things come in small packages. While she doesn't top 5 feet, she's a force to be reckoned with and uses her considerable determination to make Fort Wayne better.
Stith, 78, spent her working years educating local children. Her current passion is preserving local black history so that future generations can understand what it was like to be a minority in Fort Wayne. Throughout her life she has fought valiantly for social justice and to make her hometown a better place -- for everybody.
For her dedication to preserving this community's past and improving its future, The Journal Gazette has selected Stith as our Citizen of the Year.
"I'm a little lady. I'm a short lady. But I've always stood as tall as I can for what's right," said Stith, the president of the African/African-American Historical Society and founder and curator of the African/African-American Historical Museum.
The Rev. Mike Latham, local NAACP president, couldn't agree more. "She is a woman who carries herself in a way that has to be respected. She is a truth teller. She tells you what she thinks even if it's not what you want to hear."
Latham also said, "When you disagree with Miss Hana, you better get ready to go into battle. But you can go into and out of that battle without losing her friendship."
Stith, a Fort Wayne native, is an outspoken advocate for neighborhoods. In 2005 she received a Golden Pen award for a letter to the editor she wrote chastising Neighborhood Code Enforcement for failing to fight blight on the city's south side. She wanted the city to enforce its rules so that unsightly and unkempt properties would not overshadow the gains the city was making toward revitalizing that area of town.
She is history
Vince Robinson's favorite Hana Stith story goes back to when he was serving as Mayor Graham Richard's spokesman. Because of a schedule that was too full, the mayor had to miss the grand opening of the African/African American Historical Museum on Feb. 1, 2000. To make it up to Stith, the mayor scheduled a visit soon after the museum's opening.
The mayor's plan was to quickly drop by the museum, congratulate Stith on her accomplishment and then move on. But Stith had bigger plans for the mayor's visit. Always the teacher, she gave Richard an extensive tour of the museum. "So often people who grew up in our town speak fondly of the days of yesteryear," Richard said. "Hana not only speaks, but teaches others about Fort Wayne and African American history and lore."
The museum, at 436 E. Douglas St., is in an unassuming house just southeast of downtown. The museum's modest appearance makes it likely to be dismissed among local tourist destinations, but it is an asset to the community that should make residents proud. And it should not be missed.
"We are the premier African-American museum in the state of Indiana. They don't even have one in Indianapolis," Stith said.
"To me, the value of the museum is the local history," said Robinson, who serves on the museum's board of directors. "And it is something I'd love to see more of." He said there are a large number of historical items in storage that are being cataloged but are not on display. The local history items are things that can't be found anywhere else and give the museum its greatest value.
There was a need, but previous attempts to create a museum for local black history failed until Stith took the lead.
"It took someone like Hana Stith, with her determination and her stature in the community to pull it off," said Quinton Dixie, a religious studies professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne and former museum board member. "The museum has filled a void in this community. I just don't think there are many people in the African-American community that command the respect that Mrs. Stith does to get the things done that she is able to accomplish."
"The museum is her greatest accomplishment," Latham said. "She is an historian."
But Stith is more than the museum's curator. She is local black history itself. She was one of the first black teachers hired by Fort Wayne Community Schools and the first to work at McCulloch Elementary, a school at 1220 Wabash Ave. that was torn down in 1982.
A passion for education
Stith worked in Fort Wayne's inner-city elementary schools for 36 years, retiring in 1996. The first 22 years she taught elementary school, and then she worked as a resource instructor, teaching remedial reading skills to struggling students.
Her passion for education continues at the museum. Most of the museum's visitors are students from local schools. But increasing demands on classroom time and decreasing resources for field trips have created a challenge for teachers wanting to take their classes to visit the museum. Stith said she works hard to ensure the programs offered at the museum are of the highest quality and meet changing educational requirements. She doesn't want any child to miss out on what a visit to the museum can provide.
Her former students still seek her advice on a regular basis. Stith gets sentimental when she talks about her students. "I've never outgrown my educational experience," said Stith, her normally strong voice halting with emotion. "As you get older you have these things that you can go back and remember and it makes it a very worthwhile life."
"The gift she's placed -- a little bit of herself in the young people of this community - to me, that's the greatest gift you can have," Latham said. He said that few people can imagine the many young people whom Stith has helped and how those people go on themselves to contribute to the community because of her teachings.
One of the lessons Stith teaches students by example is the importance of contributing to their community. "I've tried to be a worthy person and do some payback time," Stith said. "And I still feel like I have some work to do, and I'm glad to be a part of this community. I've had a good life in this community."
Stith served on the Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission for 12 years -- the commission's first female member. During her tenure on the commission many downtown revitalization projects such as the Grand Wayne Center, the Hilton Hotel and Midtowne Crossing were completed. She also served for four years on the Metropolitan Human Relations Commission and six years on the Fort Wayne Board of Public Safety -- a term she herself acknowledges did not go smoothly. She suggested that the city administration during her tenure in the mid-'90s regretted asking her to serve.
Stith was a bit of a rabble-rouser in the position. She said she was not willing to rubber-stamp proposals from the police department's leaders, butting heads with Neil Moore, then the police chief, over changing education requirements for officers. In the end, Stith won the argument by doing her homework and presenting cogent arguments for her opinions.
"You should want a board that is representative of the community you serve and one that's going to question the decisions you make -- even if you don't like it at the time," Moore said. "In my opinion, Hana Stith was absolutely a blessing on that board."
Her longest tenure of service to the community is with the NAACP.
"I believe in the NAACP very strongly," Stith said. "It's at the forefront of fighting for justice and civil rights for all people. I believe as long as there is injustice and segregation and discrimination there will always be a need for the NAACP."
Latham said that Stith was helpful when he first took over leadership of the NAACP. "She taught me a lot of things about keeping my cool and knowing when to compromise," Latham said. She guided him when he took on the Allen County commissioners over fees charged to inmates at the county jail. He thought the fees were unfair to the poor.
More recently, she wisely advised Latham that he needed to listen to suggestions from his critics to improve the local chapter of the civil rights organization. Latham said Stith told him he should meet with Robinson, who ran against him for the presidency of the organization, after the election was over. "She was the chairperson of our election committee, and one thing I knew was she would do right," Latham said.
While her physical stature is not great, her dedication to her community is impressive. Stith's passion for education, preserving an important, but often overlooked part of local history, and her longtime service to Fort Wayne have had a lasting influence on the city.