News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 1, 2007

Historical Perspective: A look at the life of Barbara Laffoon Sizemore (Part I)

By Mike McCormick

From the day she was born, Barbara Ann Laffoon was exposed to racism.

And, in her youth, she was forced to confront a grave family tragedy.

Seemingly undeterred, Barbara overcame the adversity and utilized her substantial education to empower the disenfranchised.

The only child of Sylvester “Sy” Walter and Delila Mae (Alexander) Laffoon — both graduates of Terre Haute Wiley High School — Barbara was born Dec. 17, 1927 at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago because the hospital in Evanston, Ill., where her parents were residing, would not deliver black babies.

Sylvester was the son of William and Viola Laffoon, who owned and operated Laffoon’s Confectionary and Cafeteria at 1532 Wabash Ave., as well as a “soda parlor” at the northeast corner of 25th Street and Fourth Avenue. Sy and his older brother Herb were outstanding high school athletes, excelling in football and track.

When the Laffoon brothers and Dick Ray were in Wiley’s backfield, Terre Haute Tribune sports editor Ralph White referred to them as “The Red Streaks.” The name stuck and was officially adopted several years later. Herb earned All-State mention in 1922 and 1923, one of the first blacks to achieve that status.

Both Laffoons were key components of Wiley’s 880-yard relay teams that won consecutive Indiana titles in 1923 and 1924. Herb graduated in 1924 and moved to Evanston. Sylvester graduated in 1925 and enrolled at Indiana State Normal School, where he played football.

Sy and Delila Mae married soon after she graduated in January 1927.

To support his family, Sylvester worked at Terre Haute Malleable & Manufacturing Co., North 19th St. and Maple Ave. The marriage did not last. When Delila secured a divorce in December 1934, Barbara was a student at Booker T. Washington School.

According to court records, Sylvester frequently failed to pay support promptly. In January 1936, he was found in contempt for failing to respond to an order to appear.

Laffoon apparently failed to appear for a scheduled court appearance on Monday, Dec. 7, 1936, and four days later, Vigo Superior Court Judge Albert Owens issued another bench warrant.

At about noon on Saturday, Dec. 12, Vigo County deputy sheriffs Harry All, Carl Ellis and Harry McCabe went to the Malleable to serve the warrant. When Deputy Ellis attempted to hand the warrant to Laffoon, Sy apparently struck the officer and the two men grappled.

Laffoon allegedly pushed over a pile of iron and threw a pipe at the officers. Then, ignoring an order to surrender, Laffoon bolted.

“Deputy All called to him to stop, repeating the call with a threat to shoot,” the Tribune reported. When Sy continued to run, according to the newspaper account, All fired one or two shots into the air and, finally, two more shots at the fleeing man.

Laffoon fell with a bullet entry wounds in his back and in the back of his head. An ambulance was called but legendary Wiley athlete Sylvester Laffoon was declared dead upon arrival at the hospital, four days before his daughter Barbara’s ninth birthday.

Delila Mae Laffoon later married Aldwin E. Stewart.

Barbara graduated from Wiley in January 1944, a few weeks after her 16th birthday, and promptly enrolled at Northwestern University in Evanston, securing the Maude G. Reynolds Classical Languages scholarship.

She received a B.A. degree in classical languages in 1947 and began teaching in the Chicago Public Schools. As an elementary teacher, Barbara quickly realized the ability of educators to empower their students. She also learned that human spirit and will can overcome many obstacles.

Even during her early teaching years, she was identified as “dynamic,” “charismatic” and “passionate” about obligations to her students.

Upon completing an M.A. degree in elementary education at Northwestern in 1954, she continued to teach and, in 1963, was appointed principal of Anton Dvorak Elementary School, the first black to become principal of a Chicago school.

Meanwhile, Barbara wed Furman E. Sizemore, a college professor, and began to raise a family, including daughter Kymara (Chase) and son Furman, both of whom became college professors. In 1965, she became the principal of Forestville High School.

Between 1965 and 1967, Barbara was a recipient of the Danforth Fellowship for women and the Chicago Board Fellowship, awards permitting her to progress toward her goal of securing a doctorate in educational administration from the University of Chicago.

Meanwhile, in 1972, she became superintendent of the District of Columbia public schools, becoming the first black woman to be appointed superintendent of a metropolitan school system.

Sizemore’s views on several issues created so much public controversy and criticism that she was terminated in 1977. Nevertheless, she gained nationwide respect by continuing to express her views. A 788-page analysis of her two-year battle with the Washington, D.C., school board was published in 1983 by a Howard University professor.

Barbara completed work on her Ph.D. in 1979 while employed as a faculty member and interim department head in the Department of Black Community Research, Education and Development at the University of Pittsburgh.

She also wrote “The Ruptured Diamond: The Politics of the Decentralization of the District of Columbia Public Schools,” her first book, in 1981.

While doing research in Pittsburgh, Dr. Sizemore identified effective educational principles and practices to serve low-income black students. Extremely dedicated, Dr. Sizemore spent many extra hours tutoring students. Perhaps as a result, her marriage to Sizemore ended in divorce and Barbara later wed Jack Milliones, former president of Pittsburgh School Board.

Milliones died several years later and Barbara resumed using the name Sizemore.

She also was a member of the board of “The Journal of Negro Education” and a leader in the National Alliance of Black School Educators.

By the time she agreed to become dean of the School of Education at DePaul University in 1992, Dr. Barbara Sizemore boasted a national reputation as a dedicated scholar and a mesmerizing speaker.

Continued to next week