A former Racine resident recalls her childhood teacher in the Historical Racine Forever Facebook group. The online group has nearly 8,000 members and shares content about life in Racine. One member, Judy Collins, was looking to connect with others who remember their first-grade teacher, Bernice Bass. Mrs. Bass was one of the first, if not the first, female African American educator in the area.
“Mrs. Bernice Bass had a strong and positive influence on how, as children of color, we saw ourselves in a school environment that did not look like us. She encouraged academic excellence from all of her students,” Collins writes.
The response to the post was overwhelming. Former Howell Elementary School and Racine students came forward to share their educational experiences as children. Mrs. Bass was a teacher in the Racine area for about three years. In addition to Judy Collins, Bernice Bass Abner and Harry Bass share their mother’s journey to Racine as a way to give insight to other teachers.
Moving North to Racine
According to Bernice’s children, Mrs. Bass’s teaching career began at 15 years old, even before she had a degree. The Bass family lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, before coming to Racine in 1958. Mrs. Bass received her Bachelor’s degree from Spelman College and her Master’s degree from the University of Arkansas.
Spelman College is a Historically Black University and College (HBCU) and global leader in the education of women of African descent. She was pursuing her Doctorate but was unable to complete it due to family circumstances.
Marrying Reverend William Harry Bass was noteworthy because it was rare to be a black college-educated couple, in Racine, Wisconsin, in the 1950s. Her husband was a minister and an activist. His days of activism included being the executive director of the Urban League in Little Rock. Click to learn more about the Urban League here. Mrs. Bass supported her husband’s activism. Together, they were pioneers.
Leading the Little Rock Nine
Bernice Bass was happily married to a man whose work heavily influenced her career locations. As an educator, Mrs. Bass valued her husband’s efforts to end segregation in public schools. Reverend Bass was one of two ministers to escort the Little Rock Nine to school. To learn more about the Little Rock Nine, click here.
In 1957, Little Rock Central High School was one of the first schools to implement the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka order. This decision drew national attention to the civil rights movement and ended public school segregation. The members of the Bass family were instrumental in leading the way towards integration.
“As a result of my father’s participation leading the Little Rock Nine, he received death threats. My sister had no place to go to school because they were closed in September of 1958, because government officials did not want to implement the Supreme Court decision. The high schools were closed. There were two reasons to leave” says their son, Harry Bass. The Methodist Bishop decided to transfer his family to Racine. The move was the right choice, even if it was hard for the children to understand.
Teaching in Racine
Starting in January of 1959, Bernice Bass began her teaching career in Racine. Judy Collins was in Mrs. Bass’ first grade class during her second year of teaching at Howell Elementary in 1961. The school is no longer functioning today.
The school was named after Richard P. Howell. He was an immigrant, carpenter, businessman and politician. Howell was a member on the Racine Board of Education. He was proponent of building a new school on, what was, then the western edge of town. The wish was fulfilled. Mrs. Bass’ classroom was on the first floor, on the left, facing Washington Avenue at Valley Drive.
The Bass children also attended Racine Unified School District schools. Harry Bass attended Garfield Elementary and Washington Junior High School while his sister, also named Bernice, went to Horlick High School. Bernice Bass Abner remembers being one of the few black children at her new school.
Bernice Bass Abner says she felt like “a grain of pepper in a mountain of salt.” She adjusted, but that was her initial reaction of a high school girl transitioning from a segregated school to the integrated system in Racine. Abner graduated in 1961.
Throughout Mrs. Bass’s personal life and professional career, people saw her as a black woman. But her story was unique, and her students admired her. Judy Collins may have been young at the time, but Mrs. Bass made a lasting impression on her that would last a lifetime. It was the mindset that Mrs. Bass had that made an impression on children. Mrs. Bass never let her skin color determine her path; she paved her way.
Discrimination in the Schools
When segregation, racism, and inequality were prevalent, this educator took the high road. Collins recalls reading curriculum that was racist and unethical. Schoolchildren felt emotions of frustration when viewing graphic illustrations in books such as “The Tar Baby.”
Institutional racism affected both Collins and Mrs. Bass’ children. “Mrs. Bass would teach us to read the words, but not to value to the content,” a lesson that Collins learned as a student. Bernice and Harry agreed that their mother would not let discrimination control their lives.
Also, Mrs. Bass expected the best from her students. She was always positive and influential. Mrs. Bass formed a close friendship with Mrs. Jeane Staaf, another educator at Howell Elementary. It was an example of uniting those of different races. Collins will never forget the actions Mrs. Bass took as a black educator.
Bernice Bass and her family left Racine after 3 and a half years. Reverend Bass’ advocacy efforts earned him a position with the John F. Kennedy Administration. Reverend Bass also worked alongside Gaylord Nelson. Mrs. Bass went on to teach in Washington, DC and, Montgomery County, Maryland. She took her experiences from Little Rock, Arkansas, and Racine, Wisconsin, and shaped the Montgomery County’s program for children with Specific Learning Disabilities. There was no doubt that she saw abilities in every child. Her career as an educator ended in 1964, retiring as a Supervisor of Special Education, after nearly 50 years in education.
Lasting Impact Beyond School
Judy Collins was one of many students that Mrs. Bass taught. However, Ms. Bass’ impact never left this particular student. For years, Collins thought about her former teacher and the impression this teacher had on her life. It wasn’t until recently that Collins learned that Mrs. Bernice Bass had passed away at the age of 103.
Collins followed in her educator’s footsteps, becoming college educated as well. Then life took Collins to the Washington DC area. In conversations between the Bass children and Judy Collins, they discovered that they only live 30 minutes from each other.
Collins says “All these years, she’s been with me. My teacher was always there for me, even when I didn’t know it.”
The Bass Children and Judy Collins plan to meet for a lunch date, when it is safe to do so. Due to COVID-19, they are keeping their distance physically. For now, Judy Collins, Bernice Bass Abner, and Harry Bass converse by phone sharing memories of their greatest teacher.
Educator of the Week
If there is a Racine educator who has heavily influenced your life, share that story with the Racine County Eye. The Local Media Foundation is raising funds to support Racine County Eye efforts to inform the public on education-related issues. Along with this, stories like Ms. Bass will be posted weekly to honor an Educator.
We are also committed to providing resource pages for parents looking for mental health and covering the impact of COVID-19 on education in Racine. To view our COVID-19 information, click here. For mental health resources, visit this tab here.
To donate to this specific fund, click here for the fundraiser page. Our goal is set at 10,000. Can you help?
Nominate an educator to be the Educator of the Week by submitting a form here. Contact Emma Widmar at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.