LIMA — Thanks to the efforts of a local radio station, Alberta Shurelds was named “Hero for a Day” by the ABC Radio Network on Oct. 13, 2002.
“At first,” Shurelds told the News, “I thought it was a joke somebody was playing on me.”
It was no joke. Shurelds — nominated for “her work in enhancing opportunities for minorities,” according to The Lima News — possessed a resume that made her a hero for every day.
“Community involvement brought her more joy, frustration and sense of purpose,” her family wrote when she died at 79 on July 5, 2011. “She’s been on the executive committee of Eta Phi Beta Sorority, the Democratic Minority Caucus/Black Elected Democrats of Ohio, Lima Technical College, Rhodes State College, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Hope Neighborhood Association, Allen County Health Partners and Fourth Street Missionary Baptist Church …” At her core, though, Shurelds was a teacher.
On May 15, 2012, Shurelds was posthumously inducted into the Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame. Her short induction biography read: “Mrs. Shurelds was a teacher who found a call as an advocate for truth and fairness. She was active with many causes and counseled policy makers and others about civil rights and opportunities for all, regardless of age, race or situation.”
She was born Jan. 8, 1932, in Belzoni, Mississippi, the daughter of Malachi “Dan” Robinson and Leanna Cooper Robinson. Her sister, Annie Mae Banks, born two years after Shurelds, also was a teacher and active in many causes. The sisters came to Lima when their stepfather, Ashley Brownlow, took a job at Ohio Steel.
“Strangely enough,” her family wrote, “moving to Lima from Belzoni didn’t prevent her from marrying John L. Shurelds, whom she met in Ohio even though they had lived just a few miles from each other in Belzoni.” The couple had four children, Vickie, Valeria, Rosemary and John Audic. Her husband died Jan. 28, 1986.
“Moving to Ohio had its own challenges,” the family noted. “Working as the elevator girl at Three Sisters clothing store, or as a salad girl at the Alpine Village, or even as a worker in the nursing home were all positions she readily engaged.”
Shurelds attended Shawnee High School before entering Mississippi Valley State University near Itta Bena, Mississippi, not far from her childhood home in Belzoni. “She began teaching in Belzoni, in an African-American school,” her family noted.
Soon, though, she had settled down to raise her children, two of whom were labeled as “physically challenged.” Shurelds in a Feb. 24, 2008, interview told the News: “Nobody knows how hard it was to give up my second child, a mentally retarded and physically disabled child. I go to visit her. It’s a wonderful place. They’ve brought her to see me. She’s always happy.”
Shurelds returned to teaching in the mid-1960s. In April 1965, the Lima school board voted to participate in the federally funded Head Start program which, through an eight-week program, aimed to prepare children from low-income areas for school. Shurelds and her sister, Annie Mae Banks, were among the early teachers in the program.
“Of course, life had led her to be a teacher,” her family wrote of Shurelds. “Always there to give the children guidance and a solid start on a life she knew would not be easy.” Shurelds, who earned a degree from Owens Technical College in addition to the one she received from Mississippi Valley State, spent the better part of three decades with the Head Start program.
Shurelds offered guidance to older people as well, both as an active member and secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP and on the minority caucus of the Democratic Party, always stressing the need for education and the vote. “Those are the only tools we have to gain a better standard of life for now and tomorrow,” she told the News on Oct. 15, 2002.
“She was precious to me,” fellow Democrat Carolyn Pennington told the News on July 6, 2011, the day after Shurelds died. “To me she was one of the greatest soldiers we had in the Democratic Party. She treated people the way she wanted to be treated. She was golden, really.”
“A soldier is right,” the News noted. “Shurelds never wanted the job of president or chair, but she often served as secretary and treasurer.”
In 2002, however, the soldier stepped up, filing to run in the Democratic primary for a seat on the County Commission. “A retired preschool teacher and county central committee member for many years, Shurelds said parts of the county are not being represented,” the News wrote on Feb. 22, 2002. “The disadvantaged need someone to speak up for them. I worked with children most of my life,” Shurelds said. “We’re losing so many of them now. We can’t save them all, but we can’t give up. We need to make a better Lima and Allen County.”
Shurelds eventually withdrew from the race but still drew praise from local party chairman Gary Frueh. “While she will not be running for commissioner of Allen County, I know she will still be there volunteering to help make our community a better place to live,” Frueh wrote in a statement published in the News on July 24, 2002. “She is one of a very few that gives her time freely and asks for nothing in return. Alberta Shurelds is not one that has asked for respect, but is one that has earned it.”
By 2008, at 76 years of age, she was looking back on her life of service. “I miss being on the board of Lima Tech, Allen County Democratic Party, black caucus, poll worker for 30 years, secretary of NAACP,” Shurelds told the News in February 2008. “I gave that up, gave up working in my church and mission. I know it’s time to turn it over to someone else.”
“I love working with underserved and unemployed and underemployed,” she continued. “There’s no excuse for what some people do, but I know what happens when there’s no hope.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected]