Helen Toland: Together we shall keep our children

A vibrant connection to the past and a visionary of a community future, Helen Anderson Toland, 92. reads widely, cultivates a garden of sculptures collected during her many travels to Zimbabwe and practices yoga with the same grace-filled agility and drive that made it possible to journey out of a small Missouri town to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. A master’s degree in speech therapy from USC led to a storied life in Las Vegas. Long retired from Kit Carson Elementary, Mother Toland was the first black woman principal in the Clark County School District and continues to educate through the work of the Helen Toland Foundation. The school district has decreed that an elementary school be named in her honor.


Good Friday in 1964, I came up here to what I want to call a celebration, but it was bigger than a celebration — it was a banquet for Dr. Martin Luther King. Having come from other places, one of my greatest surprises was that he was introduced by the governor of Nevada, Grant Sawyer. It was an exciting time. At that time the Convention Center had a rotunda, and it was filled with all the NAACP members, political figures and other dignitaries. I knew James Anderson from his work with the NAACP in Los Angeles. He had arranged for Dr. King’s visit to Las Vegas. When I was up here for the banquet, Jimmie Anderson said to me, “Why don’t you go out and put in your application for a job with the school district.” And I said to him, “Well, now, just why should I?” Then he said, “Well, you know we’re gonna get married.” And that was my proposal. So, we got married that August. I was younger. I didn’t know much about any place I had not been. I didn’t have any particular thoughts about Las Vegas. If I’m not mistaken, my first plane ride was coming up here from Los Angeles. And, yes, we were steadily making progress. The NAACP was active. The black churches were active. The black sororities and fraternities were active and we had a growing population of people coming from other places, bringing their talents. This has been a place where if you had a talent, you could start working at it. The population was growing and there was a need for whatever your talents were. And people are doing that right this minute. Using their talents. I was the first black woman principal. There was already a black man. His name was Fitzgerald — I believe he was from Virginia — Hugh Philip Fitzgerald. There was a process for becoming a principal. They advertised in the fall. You came to a series of meetings and they gave you information, and so forth. At the end of this, you would take a test. At this time the schools were growing. I read and I studied. When the grades came back from the test, I made the highest score that had ever been made in Las Vegas. They said to my husband, “She knocked the top off that test.” I stopped teaching around 1970. My husband died that year and I married someone who lived in Los Angeles. When he died, I moved back here. Las Vegas just seemed like home for the rest of my life. I did everything I knew to do that would be helpful and broadening to kids. I said to my teachers, “You have experiences that I have not had, and I have experiences you do not.” They had all studied in the education curriculum for teachers. I had studied speech therapy. They called it speech correction back then. So, I said to the teachers that we would have a marriage. I put in what I knew; they put in what they knew. And we would combine them because these were our children. You would have thought we gave birth to them. My mind is busy.


The work is what I know. We live together and the community, in many ways, is like a big, big family. When they speak of me and my legacy, I want them to speak of “her love for Africa; her love for education. Her love for civil rights.


Photo Credit:

Jeff Scheid of Jeff Scheid Photography


Special Exhibit: Obsidian and Neon