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Central Standard

This Kansas City, Kansas, Educator Is Trying To Make Up For Her Mother's 'Code Of Silence'

Paul Andrews
Sonya Willis is an accomplished educator. Her mother was, too.

As she was dying, Sonya Willis' mother gave her daughter a warning. 

"She watched me sit back and put my head in my hand and she said, 'Don't you cry.' ... It's like, 'Don't you cry. You get the job done.'"

Willis believes her mother, and other black women who had experienced Jim Crow segregation, lived by a "Code of Silence” that allowed them to rise above their own suffering to accomplish difficult things on behalf of others. By adhering to that code, Sonya’s mother accomplished great things in Kansas City, Kansas – but never told her own story.

That's the story Sonya Willis tells in Touch: Breaking My Mother's Silence, to be published in June.

Willis is an accomplished educator. As one of two black administrators in the Shawnee Mission School District, she created a leadership program designed to motivate disengaged students of color. She later worked as assistant principal of Sumner Academy, a plum job working with high-achieving students, but one she left in order to help students in correctional facilities make the leap from juvenile detention back into the schools.

It's what her mom did, too.

Gloria Willis worked for Kansas City Kansas Public Schools for 41 years. She started as a teacher in 1953, when segregation was still the rule of law. She led the charge to desegregate the school district, where they just broke ground on a new middle school in her honor: Gloria Willis Middle School.

"I had to piece together my mom's past because she absolutely would not talk about it," Sonya Willis remembers.

"I have this theory that because my mom faced so much when she was younger, she just kind of shut it away in order to survive. She was able to power through for the rights of the children of Wyandotte County, but when she had to teach me ... it was done at arm's length, and that was pretty painful."

Because of her mother, Sonya Willis knew how to read before she started kindergarten.

"Every morning, she would sit me up between her legs, do my hair, and we would practice reading, we would practice math." 

Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography
Sonya Willis poses with family photos in her home office. The black-and-white photo is of her mom.

As Willis got older, her mom started quizzing her, reviewing her answers to homework questions, drilling her on the reasoning behind the choices she made. But that's where her involvement in her daughter's life ended.

"I used to watch television, I would see these images of the mother, you know, caressing the cheek of her child, or making soup when the child was sick ... my mom was not that parent."

She saw something similar throughout her community of what Willis describes as strong black women.

"When I watched TV it seemed like the women, the white women on television, just shared everything: 'I feel.' 'I think.' 'I want to do this.' 'I want to do that.' My mother never shared. I never saw her share anything about her feelings, her desires, her wants, her needs, her likes, her dislikes. I never saw that in my mom and I never heard any black woman do that."

Gloria Willis was born in 1931. She was one of three sisters growing up in Innis, Texas. She went to a historically black college, received a masters degree and moved to Kansas City, Kansas, for her first teaching job.

"She worked long hours," Willis recalls. "I remember her grading papers. I remember her just grinding away."

The school where her mom first taught, Hawthorne Elementary, a predominantly black school, no longer exists, but as her daughter remembers it, the entire faculty at the time was entrenched in the community.

"They were so incredibly solid," she says. 

The Willis women's shared passion for education as a tool for justice might not have been the result of a close emotional bond, but it did give the younger Willis the opportunity to learn how proud her mom was, even if she couldn't say so. The two overlapped in Kansas City Kansas School District for one year before Gloria Willis retired. 

"My colleagues in the district would come up to me and say, 'Your mom is so proud of you that you did this or that,'" Sonya Willis recalls.

It was also one of those colleagues who told her that her mom had stayed on an extra year so that the two could be administators at the same time. 

Coming from someone who had spent her life getting the job done, that was perhaps a greater compliment than the words that went unspoken.

Portrait Sessions are in-depth interviews with the most interesting people in Kansas City, with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews.

Gina Kaufmann is the host of KCUR's Central Standard. You can reach her on Twitter, @GinaKCUR.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.