A Woman of Principle
March 11, 2007
When Verna Bailey walked into her first-year biology class, she sat front and center in the auditorium. Her peers–more than 100 of them–gave her a wide berth, leaving her entirely alone in the first three rows.
“Worse yet, my professor stood right in front of me and told racist jokes about the ‘nigger in the woodpile’ and expected me to laugh,” Bailey recalls.
The year was 1965, and she was the first African American woman to attend the University of Mississippi.
The experience shocked Bailey, who came from a loving, supportive, predominantly black community and whose family and friends were considered leaders.
Samuel Bailey, her father, was president of the state and local chapters of the NAACP and a friend to civil rights activists James Meredith and Medgar Evers. Meredith urged Bailey’s father to encourage her to attend Ole Miss, the alma mater of the state’s governor, his daughter, his friends, and a long list of esteemed leaders. It was considered the best school in the South.
Despite her struggles, Bailey can’t imagine going through life bitter and angry.
“Ole Miss gave me inner strength and fortitude that I wouldn’t have if I’d attended another university,” she says. Honoring Bailey’s leadership and achievements in education and diversity programming, the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy and the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at Ole Miss established a $100,000 scholarship in her name in 2001. Four years later, she was inducted into the Alumni Hall of Fame.
On her way to becoming principal of Montclair Elementary School in Beaverton, Bailey was a counselor at the Mississippi Employment Commission and worked in Seattle and Lake Washington schools. Her career continued to flourish in the Beaverton School District, where she held numerous positions: director of human relations, assistant principal at Cedar Park and Five Oaks middle schools, principal at Cedar Park Middle School, and central office administrator. Along the way, she earned her master’s degree in education from Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling and entered a doctoral program at Portland State University.
At Montclair Elementary, Bailey is known as a hands-on principal, a kid magnet. Each morning, she greets nearly 340 students by name. She visits classrooms and spends time talking with kids on the playground and in the cafeteria. And she strongly encourages parent involvement.
Looking back on her career, Bailey is most proud of her ability to reach all kids–struggling, average, and gifted students. She has pushed each one to reach and to excel. And she’s convinced her teachers to do the same and to embrace her philosophy that all kids can learn.
“I’ve always wanted every child in every school I work in to feel like he or she belongs, and connects with someone.”
–by Pattie Pace