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Thelma Lee Russell

Early childhood education advocate Thelma Russell was born Thelma Lee Cox in Charleston, Missouri, on July 15, 1931. Russell's parents, Gerline Fulks Cox and Ernest Cox, migrated to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Russell attended Harmar Elementary School. An award winning school artist and youth church leader, Russell wanted to be a teacher; however, when she graduated from Central High School in 1950, she immediately married Robert Russell, Jr., with whom she started raising a family. A serviceman’s wife, Russell lived in Baumholder, Germany, from 1957 to 1958; when she returned to Fort Wayne, she attended St. Francis College (now St. Francis University) where she studied early childhood education and business.

From 1962 to 1970, Russell, then an office assistant and teacher’s aide at James Smart School, noticed that children were missing school to take care of their preschool-aged siblings. Feeling inspired by God, Russell decided to start a preschool program in a large apartment building she owned; brushing aside various forms of community racism, the building was remodeled to adhere to state and local standards and regulations. In 1970, Russell quit her job and opened The Gingerbread House, the first black owned educational and developmental child-care center in Fort Wayne. Starting with one child, the enrollment grew to fifty-five children in the first three weeks, and eventually grew to one hundred and twenty-eight. With an integrated staff, Russell emphasized school readiness in reading and math with two hot meals a day and regular field trips. Russell soon offered after school tutoring and a learn to read program for children six to ten years old. With the addition of a large multi purpose room, The Gingerbread House became a center for African American art and history, celebrating the lives of great black heroes and inventors. In 1990, The Gingerbread House’s 20th Anniversary Celebration featured actors and activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, who read to the children and conducted workshops for the parents. In 1995, one hundred Gingerbread House alumni gathered to celebrate the institution.

Russell, who retired as executive director of The Gingerbread House in 1999, also served on the board of directors of the Urban League, the Fort Wayne Club, and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. The NAACP, Kappa Alpha Psi, Y.W.C.A., Links Inc., Times Corner Kiwanis Club, Zeta Phi Beta, Fort Wayne Club, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Day Committee have honored Russell. Russell received the Hoosier of the Year Award and the Mayor’s Twenty-Five Years of Excellence Award from the City of Fort Wayne. In addition to her professional activities, Russell raised six children.

Russell passed away on December 11, 2016 at age 85.

Accession Number

A2005.123

Sex

Female

Interview Date

5/24/2005

Last Name

Russell

Maker Category
Marital Status

Divorced

Middle Name

Lee

Organizations
Schools

Central High School

Harmar Elementary School

University of Saint Francis

First Name

Thelma

Birth City, State, Country

Charleston

HM ID

RUS06

Favorite Season

Summer

Sponsor

Lincoln Financial Group Foundation

State

Missouri

Favorite Vacation Destination

North Carolina

Favorite Quote

I Can Do All Things Through Christ That Strengthens Me.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Indiana

Interview Description
Birth Date

7/15/1931

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Fort Wayne

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Broccoli

Death Date

12/11/2016

Short Description

Education entrepreneur Thelma Lee Russell (1931 - 2016 ) founded The Gingerbread House, the first black owned educational and developmental child-care center in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Employment

James H. Smart School

Gingerbread House Inc.

Main Sponsor
Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275247">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Thelma Lee Russell's interview</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275248">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Thelma Lee Russell lists her favorites</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275249">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Thelma Lee Russell describes her mother's family background</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275250">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Thelma Lee Russell describes Charleston, Missouri</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275251">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Thelma Lee Russell describes her father's family background</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275252">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Thelma Lee Russell describes her family's move to Fort Wayne, Indiana</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275253">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Thelma Lee Russell describes her earliest childhood memory</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275254">Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Thelma Lee Russell describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275255">Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Thelma Lee Russell describes her childhood neighborhood</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275256">Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Thelma Lee Russell describes the African American community in Fort Wayne, Indiana</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275257">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Thelma Lee Russell describes what it was like being a stepchild</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275258">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Thelma Lee Russell describes her experience at Harmar School in Fort Wayne, Indiana</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275259">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Thelma Lee Russell describes her leadership and speaking roles at Central High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275260">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Thelma Lee Russell names her favorite teachers</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275261">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Thelma Lee Russell talks about deciding to attend college</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275262">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Thelma Lee Russell describes her husband and his time in the U.S. military</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275263">Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Thelma Lee Russell describes working at St. James Elementary while enrolled at St. Francis College in Fort Wayne, Indiana</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275264">Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Thelma Lee Russell recalls her inspiration for the Gingerbread House</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275265">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Thelma Lee Russell explains how she was inspired to create the Gingerbread House</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275266">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Thelma Lee Russell describes remodeling the building for The Gingerbread House</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275267">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Thelma Lee Russell describes launching The Gingerbread House</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275268">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Thelma Lee Russell describes educational programs at The Gingerbread House, pt. 1</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275269">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Thelma Lee Russell describes educational programs at The Gingerbread House, pt. 2</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275270">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Thelma Lee Russell describes her teaching and management for The Gingerbread House</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275271">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Thelma Lee Russell describes using government subsidies at The Gingerbread House</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275272">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Thelma Lee Russell describes graduation ceremonies at The Gingerbread House</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275273">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Thelma Lee Russell describes a theft from The Gingerbread House, pt. 1</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275274">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Thelma Lee Russell describes a theft from The Gingerbread House, pt. 2</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275275">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Thelma Lee Russell describes The Gingerbread House's twentieth anniversary celebration</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275276">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Thelma Lee Russell describes generational differences in parenting styles</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275277">Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Thelma Lee Russell talks about her retirement</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275278">Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Thelma Lee Russell describes her hopes and concerns for the African American community</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275279">Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Thelma Lee Russell reflects upon her life</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275280">Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Thelma Lee Russell talks about her family</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275281">Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Thelma Lee Russell talks about her father witnessing her success</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275282">Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Thelma Lee Russell reflects upon her legacy</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275283">Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Thelma Lee Russell describes how she would like to be remembered</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275284">Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Thelma Lee Russell narrates her photographs, pt. 1</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/275285">Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Thelma Lee Russell narrates her photographs, pt. 2</a>

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$3

DAStory

8$1

DATitle
Thelma Lee Russell recalls her inspiration for the Gingerbread House
Thelma Lee Russell explains how she was inspired to create the Gingerbread House
Transcript
Now we're getting up to, now tell me if I've skipped anything but we're almost getting up to your, your starting the Gingerbread House [Inc., Fort Wayne, Indiana]. And what were some of the conditions that you were noticing? I mean, when, when, I know when I read about the Gingerbread House you said that, that you just noticed a lot of, of mothers, well a lot of the students at, at the school would miss days 'cause they had to watch their brothers and sisters--$$Yeah.$$--little brothers and sisters at home.$$Yeah.$$So these are little, little kids watching smaller kids--$$Yeah.$$--missing days in school.$$Well as I told you before there was a lot of migrating to Fort Wayne [Indiana] and with that came the jobs for black people and with that came the large families. In those days you didn't just have one or two children, almost every family you met had three, four, five, or six kids 'cause I had six of my own. And being at [James H.] Smart [School, Fort Wayne, Indiana] there at elementary school, I could see that the children in the first or second grade were very, they were not ready for school. They had, and then so many of the older siblings would miss school to babysit their younger brothers and sisters because mom and dad had got these nice jobs, paying this big money and they would keep 'em at home to babysit their younger ones. And I saw so many that weren't ready for school. And it bothered me because they became discipline problem and would end up standing in the hallways and sitting in the principal's office and that meant to not only did they, were they discipline problems but they would miss another day of learning because they weren't in the classroom even though they were at school. And I began to ponder and wonder, "How could I help these kids?" And because kids, I've just always loved working with them and I thought this is so unfair that this child is spending her day either at home babysitting or in the office. So that's when owning this building that we owned, we owned an apartment building, this was in the '60s [1960s]. And there was still no hotels or apartment buildings that blacks could move into. And we owned this large brick building on Pontiac Street which was just a half a block from the school where I worked. And there was one night when I left Saint Francis College, which is now Saint Francis University [sic. University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, Indiana], I had go by to collect rent and just as I was coming out, it was if God was just talking to me and he said why not take this building and make a childcare center.$All right. Now I wanted to ask you, you talked about acquiring, having this building, you know, and I was asking you off-camera, how did you acquire this building and, and, and--$$We acquired this building from an--$$And this is you and your husband [Robert Russell, Jr.], right--$$Yeah.$$--acquiring a building?$$Yeah, we acquired the building. This attorney owned the building because his mother and brother, his brother had a little slight mental problem and his mother and brother lived there and he was, I think, wanting to move them out of the neighborhood so they wanted to--$$Is this a white gentleman?$$Yes, a white family.$$Okay.$$And we acquired the building from him. And we rented it a long time for apartments and extra income because in the '60s [1960s] I think we had one black hotel here in Fort Wayne [Indiana]. And I can remember when people like Cab Calloway and used to come to Fort Wayne and didn't have a place to stay, they would live in someone's homes or in this one hotel. So that's when we bought the building and our intentions was to make a hotel out of it. But we rented it for years as a apartment building. It had about eight apartments in it, two big ones down stairs with double bedrooms, about four apartments on the second floor and two on the third floor. And, but we rented it to blacks because at that time blacks had a terrible time finding a place to live. And some time you got paid and some time you didn't. This was why the night that I, that God revealed to me that I could take the building and make a childcare center I was going by there at night to collect, trying to catch some of the tenants at home, they would leave, leave before you come by in the morning so I was trying to catch 'em at home to collect some money. And when I come out of the building, it was just as clear to me as if it had been God standing right there on the porch by me. He said, "Take this building, make a childcare center with emphasis on education and preschool readiness program." And the tears just began to come because I had wanted so badly to help those children that I had seen at [James H.] Smart School [Fort Wayne, Indiana] get ready for school and the older children be able to go into school. I had spent evenings when school was out trying to tutor them and some would, would absorb it and some wouldn't. But I think it's because there was no concrete foundation for them to, to, to be ready. And I began to, that night that I went by the building, I became to walk around the building and to see what I could do and it was just so clear to me that that, this building is large, remodel it according to state, fire marshal, and board of health standards and get a program going and teach these kids. So that was my first teaching experience, even though I hadn't got finished at Saint Francis [College; University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, Indiana] but I had enough and I wanted it. It's just in me to be a teacher.