Dr. Olivia Letts, the first Black teacher hired by the Lansing School District in Michigan died Monday February 1, 2021 at 93 in the home of her daughter, Eileen Letts. Olivia Letts belonged to MSU’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha and got to see her sorority sister Kamala Harris, a Howard University alumna, inaugurated as vice president.
“She sat in front of the television the entire day enjoying that,” Eileen Letts said.
Dr. Letts graduated from Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State University) where she earned her Bachelor’s in Education. She received three advanced degrees from Loyola University and Michigan State University — M. A. in Education, Ed.S. in Educational Administration and a Ph.D. in Curriculum.
While Letts was living in Chicago and dating her future husband Richard “Dick” Letts, from Lansing Michigan, himself a renowned champion of black rights, she applied to the Lansing schools and received a letter saying, “they had never made a practice of hiring anyone of her race but they would keep her under consideration,” in 1950.
According to a 1990 interview with Richard he was motivated to help her get this job as he wanted to marry her and she wouldn’t come to Lansing without this. He encouraged her to keep trying while he enlisted support from the community. Suffice it to say, they married in 1951 the same year she was hired. She was promoted to a principal position in 1961.
Her contributions to education went beyond being a “First” as she served on multiple organization including the Capital Region Community Foundation, The Lansing Community College Foundation and she was active with Highfields and Delta Tau Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. She dedicated herself to increasing access for future teachers of color. She was a leader and example of strength, courage, and grace in the face of racial inequality.
From her obituary in the Lansing State Journal, “A consummate optimist, Olivia Letts preferred books with happy endings. She liked novels by Nicholas Sparks and Barack Obama’s memoirs.”
Personal note from Linda: My grandmother, Jessie Kirkby, lived on Howe St in Lansing Michigan and her next door neighbor was Mrs. Letts who through my librarian sleuthing I found was the mother-in-law of Dr Letts and I do believe that my sister and I played with her daughter, Eileen when we were all you in the late 50s.