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Dolores Silas, First Black Woman On Tacoma City Council

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Dr. Dolores Irene Silas was the first woman of color to become a school principal at DeLong Elementary School in 1970, the first to become a member of the City Council (1991), the first to be Deputy Mayor (1995), and the first to have a high school named after her (Woodrow Wilson HS) on July 1, 2021.

Dolores Irene Silas was born to Harold and Janabae Burrell on April 3, 1926, in Elkhart, Indiana. Her mother instilled in her the value of education and enrolled her in her teens at the Lincoln Institute boarding school in Simpsonville, Kentucky, which was led at the time by Whitney Young Sr, the father of the man who would later become the National Urban League Director in the 1960s.

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Silas went on to Tuskegee University in Alabama, where he earned a BA in education in 1949. In 1962, she earned a Master of Education from the University of Arizona, and in 1977, she earned a doctorate from United States International University, San Diego.

Burrell moved from Gary, Indiana to Tacoma in 1951 to accept a teaching position at Lister Elementary School, where she discovered she was the school district’s third Black teacher. That year, she met and married Roosevelt Silas. They eventually divorced.

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Silas was appointed as Tacoma’s first Black principal and administrator at DeLong Elementary School in 1970, describing the position as “absolutely my toughest job.” “The all-white staff…just looked at me, and I was wondering how we could communicate and educate kids together.” Because I am a woman of color, I had to work hard to gain their trust.” In 1982, she retired from that position after twelve years.

Dr. Silas was appointed to the Tacoma City Council’s vacant central area district seat in 1991, coming in first place out of nineteen applicants. She had previously served as President of the NAACP in Tacoma and the Northwest Area, as a member of the Human Rights Commission, as Chair of the Allenmore Hospital Board of Directors, as a member of the YWCA Board of Directors, as a member of the Tacoma Urban League, and as a successful small business owner. On November 5, 1991, she was formally elected to the position, defeating Craig Steve Rice by a citywide vote of 18,253 to 13,996.

 

Dr. Dolores Silas High School Unveiling (Tacoma Public Schools)

 

Dr. Silas was an outspoken council member who challenged her colleagues to walk the streets of the central district with her. She also hosted gang members in her home, and she was amused when some of them addressed her as their “Little Mama.” Despite the Police Union’s and two council colleagues’ opposition, she was re-elected in 1995, defeating Jan Bejarano by a vote of 2,663 to 2,245. (By then, the Tacoma City Charter had been amended to allow for direct election by district.)

The Tacoma School Board of Directors unanimously voted on February 11, 2021, to rename the 61-year-old Woodrow Wilson High School in Dr. Silas’ honor. T

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