Dorothy Hollingsworth, the first Black woman in the state to serve on a school board and a leader in the Seattle education and civil rights community, died Tuesday at age 101.
Hollingsworth extolled the importance of education as a pathway to a prosperous future, and was a champion for equal access in the classroom.
“She was fierce,” said her granddaughter, Joy Hollingsworth. “She loved education. She loved children. She knew the heartbeat of activism, equity, social services was (being) able to bring resources to families.”
A trailblazing figure, Hollingsworth built a reputation as an empathetic advocate for students and as a person with an unbreakable moral compass. Having spent years as a teacher and social worker, Hollingsworth eventually served as Seattle’s first director of Head Start, the program that helps children from low income families, and was elected to the Washington State Board of Education.
Born on Oct. 29, 1920, in Bishopville, South Carolina, Hollingsworth spent most of her childhood in North Carolina. When her family struggled financially, Hollingsworth, then a teenager, asked to join her mother at the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
“Her mom said, ‘No, this place will kill your dreams, you’re going to go to school,’ ” Joy recalled her grandmother saying.
Her church took up a collection to send Hollingsworth to Paine College, a historically Black school in Georgia, in 1941. Hollingsworth would become the first in her family to attend college.
She returned to North Carolina to become a teacher, but she found her town becoming increasingly hostile.
“She was in downtown Winston-Salem and ran into a white woman who said, ‘You won’t be nothing but scrubbing floors for white folks,’” Joy said, recalling a story her grandmother had told her.
“To hear someone say that, and you go and accomplish all this stuff in your life,” Joy said. “That ceiling people put on you as a Black woman taught me about the South, the racial tensions, but also taught me about the joys of overcoming them and not letting them get you down.”
Hollingsworth moved to Seattle with her husband a few years later, in part looking to escape the discrimination and racism prevalent in the South.
But Hollingsworth quickly realized that the “separatism” she had hoped to leave behind was rampant in her new home, recounting her early experience in the city in a 2005 interview for the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.
When she applied for a teaching position at the school district, the personnel director told Hollingsworth that the district had already hired a Black teacher, and that “it’s not overwhelmingly ready to hire Negros.” When she toured a home in Washington Park, the real estate agent told Hollingsworth he could sell her the home but she wouldn’t be able to live in it.
She persisted. “Don’t let one personal experience stop you or destroy you,” she would later tell her students. “Keep going.”
Hollingsworth joined the Christian Friends for Racial Equality, fighting to end housing discrimination. She’d help organize marches down Fifth Avenue and pickets at the former Seattle department store Bon Marché. She became active with the Madison Branch of the Seattle YWCA and the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, and found friendship among fellow sisters of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.
Ultimately graduating from the University of Washington’s School of Social Work in 1959, Hollingsworth took a job at the Seattle School District as a social worker, supporting families and students in the city’s Central District.
In 1965, she became the first director of Seattle’s Head Start program, the first one in the state. The next year, she was tapped to serve on the national advisory board for the beloved PBS children’s TV show “Sesame Street.”
Between 1969 to 1972, she served as a deputy director in the Model Cities Program, which brought neighborhood improvements like updated lighting and renovated playgrounds to underserved communities of color.
In 1975, Hollingsworth was elected to the Seattle School Board, where she would help lead the effort to racially desegregate schools by busing students across the district. Later, she was elected president of the school board, and in 1984, she was elected to the State Board of Education.
“No one could work a room like my grandma,” Joy Hollingsworth said.
In retirement, Hollingsworth kept busy. She served on the board of Seattle Central College, and was an “active socialite,” Joy Hollingsworth said. Hollingsworth founded a bridge club for Black women and regularly hosted dinners with friends — holdovers of the past when they were frequently racially excluded from restaurants, hotels and social clubs.
Later in life, as many of her close friends began to pass away, Hollingsworth cherished her time with her children and grandchildren, Joy Hollingsworth said.
“She was a big family person, and she loved to be the center of attention, she loved a microphone, she loved to tell stories,” Joy Hollingsworth said. “We’re grateful for 101 years with her.”
Hollingsworth is survived by her children Jacqueline (Hollingsworth) Roberts of Mercer Island; Raft Hollingsworth Jr (Rhonda) of Seattle and grandchildren Joy Hollingsworth (Lesha), Raft Hollingsworth IIII, Natalie Long and Melvin Roberts Jr.
Her family will host a celebration of life Thursday, Aug. 25, at Seattle’s First AME Church.