Obituary: Gertrude Wade / First black woman to be principal of a city school

Nov. 3, 1922 - Nov. 9, 2012

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Gertrude Wade, the first black female principal of a Pittsburgh school, died Friday at her home on Race Street in Homewood, where she had lived for more than six decades.

She had seen that street deteriorate from solid middle class to urban blight over the years, and her family had often tried to get her to move out.

She refused until the end -- she was found dead on her couch at age 90.

"She said, 'You're going to have to take me out feet-first,' " said her cousin, Rachel Poole, 87, who was raised with her in East Liberty. "She was stubborn."

Ms. Wade spent her career in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, teaching for 15 years at A. Leo Weil Elementary School in the Hill District until becoming assistant principal there in 1961.

A year later, she was named principal of Vann Elementary School in the Hill, becoming the first black female principal in the city at the height of the civil rights movement.

She received threats and nasty letters but endured them and pressed on, according to an account she gave the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2007. After five years at Vann, she spent two years at troubled Larimer Elementary before the district tapped her to lead the new East Hills Elementary, an integrated magnet program with innovative, open classrooms.

Ms. Wade always presented herself professionally, dressing crisply and conducting herself with dignity.

"I knew, when I was appointed, that I'd have to represent myself, black folks and women," she said in recalling the goals she set for herself when she first became a teacher. "So, I just set out to do a good job."

She made an impression on many. Long after she had retired, former students remembered her.

"We would be out and people would see her and say, 'Mrs. Wade!' " her cousin recalled. "They would approach her everywhere."

Ms. Wade wanted to be doctor, but her parents didn't have the money to send her to medical school. So she decided to be a teacher, graduating in 1944 from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in elementary education.

She was irritated that she couldn't find a job at first in Pittsburgh.

"I wanted to stay here," she said. "All of my [white] classmates were being hired, and I was a little [irritated] that I couldn't get a job."

But she soon landed a teaching job at Weil Elementary and then attended night school at Pitt, earning a master's degree in education administration in 1946.

When she was 25, she and her parents moved to Race Street. Ms. Poole, who had been raised by Ms. Wade's parents and considers herself Ms. Wade's sister, also made the move.

Ms. Wade married Isaac Wade in the late 1940s, and the couple had a son, Walton Wade. The couple divorced in the late 1950s, but Ms. Wade raised Walton with the help of her parents. He is now the concierge manager for the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Atlanta and married to Brenda Wade, a retired doctor.

Ms. Wade was recruited in 1969 to lead the new East Hills Elementary. It was a magnet school, with some 200 white students bused in from various parts of the city mixing with black children mostly from the nearby East Hills housing project.

Press accounts from that time indicate that reading and math scores were low, at least in the early years, and the job of principal proved challenging.

"There were some who cooperated and also some who were negative," her cousin said. "She had to deal with difficult things."

Ms. Wade stayed there for 12 years, retiring in 1981 to care for her father.

In her retirement, she worked with various community and church groups to try to keep Homewood from decaying. What had been a thriving black neighborhood when she was young was now beset by shootings and drug dealing, and it hurt her to see it.

But even as her health declined -- she needed a walker to get around in recent years -- she would not move out.

"She would say, 'I know you want me to get out of here, but I've been here for 63 years and the only way I'm leaving is feet-first,' " Ms. Poole said. "My sister was something else."

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Sunday.

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