Create an Account - Increase your productivity, customize your experience, and engage in information you care about.
Bob GoldsboroughChicago Tribune
Carolyn Boddie Gibson taught elementary school in Wheaton for 27 years and was a village trustee in Olympia Fields for 16 years, but all of that came after many years living and working in the South during the civil rights era.
Gibson helped provide support to the families of the Little Rock Nine — the nine African-American students who enrolled at a previously segregated high school — in her hometown of Little Rock, Ark., and with her husband owned a motel in Birmingham, Ala., that was headquarters for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during efforts to desegregate public facilities in that city. Gibson and her husband survived a bombing of the motel in May 1963 that was an attempt to kill the civil rights leader.
Those experiences helped to inform Gibson’s later life as a classroom teacher, educating pupils about King’s legacy.
“The first thing they want to know is did he really speak that well,” Gibson told the Tribune in 1990. “And I say, in my opinion, yes. I like my (students) to remember he was a man of peace, he was a man of goodwill, a man who practiced what he said.”
Gibson, 88, died on April 12 in Rush University Medical Center after suffering three strokes that were the result of an intestinal blockage, said her husband of 69 years, Ernest. She had lived in Olympia Fields since 1996 and prior to that had been a longtime Glen Ellyn resident.
Born Carolyn Boddie in Little Rock, Ark., she graduated from Dunbar High School in Little Rock and earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from what now is the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
After college, Gibson stayed in Pine Bluff and began working in the freshman studies department at her university, eventually becoming the director of counseling and testing. She also offered support to the families of a nine African-American students who were barred from entering a racially segregated Little Rock high school but eventually attended after intervention by President Dwight Eisenhower.
Gibson and her husband moved to Birmingham in 1962 to own and operate the A.G. Gaston Motel and Restaurant. During segregated times, the motel was listed in the annual “Green Book” — newly made famous by the 2018 drama film of the same name — that provided African-American road travelers information about restaurants and hostelries that would serve them.
While King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference worked to integrate Birmingham, his group stayed at the Gibsons’ motel. The Gibsons first faced harassment and then terror when a May 11, 1963, bombing heavily damaged the motel. King had left the motel only hours before.
“After the motel was bombed, my wife said, ‘Time out. Everybody out of the pool. Let’s get out of here,’” Ernest Gibson said.
The couple moved first to the Birmingham suburbs and then to Joliet, where Ernest Gibson took a job working for the Joliet Township High Schools and Joliet Junior College. In 1965, she began teaching at Union Elementary School in Joliet.
In 1967, Gibson took a job teaching third grade at Lowell Elementary School in Wheaton. The school’s principal at the time, Gordon Crabtree, was one of several Wheaton grade school principals vying to hire Gibson.
“Crabtree won out because of the fact that his school had more African-American kids and she fit in well not only with the school but actually with the community,” Gibson’s husband said.
Gibson taught third and fourth grades at Lowell, which at one point in the late 1970s had a student body that was majority minority, including African-American students as well as pupils who were refugees from Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.
“Carolyn was a strong advocate for equal and fair rights and was bright, opinionated and lots of fun. She was equally good with all students, and the parents respected and loved her,” said Ben Heaton, who was Lowell’s principal from 1976 until 1990. “I had the feeling that the problems she met in Wheaton were very small compared to what she had experienced earlier in her life.”
During her career, Gibson was active both in her local teachers union and in the Illinois Education Association, on whose board of directors she served. Gibson also served on a National Education Association committee.
“She was a mentor to me and an extremely dedicated educator who loved her children and was so generous with her time,” said retired Wheaton middle school teacher Kathy Wessel. “Even though we taught at different schools, she would come over and talk to my students about her experiences with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. And she also was extremely dedicated to helping teachers have better working conditions.”
Retired Lowell teacher Laura Wilson characterized her as “an advocate for human rights, civil rights and teachers’ rights.”
“She was a warm, gracious woman who made everyone welcome in her life,” Wilson said. “This warmth was present in her teaching, too. Each child was important. Carolyn created an atmosphere in her class that celebrated every success.”
After retiring from Lowell in 1994, Gibson substitute-taught in Wheaton. In 1996, she and her husband moved to Olympia Fields, where she was appointed to serve as the village’s clerk in 2001.
In 2003, Gibson was elected an Olympia Fields village trustee, serving for the next 16 years. She did not seek re-election in April and died shortly before her final term ended.
“She was really respected by a lot of people and was involved in a lot of things around the village for a long time,” said Village President Sterling Burke. “Carolyn was very much loved by everybody in the village. She was the kind of person who exemplifies someone who is dedicated to the community that she lives in.”
Gibson served for six years as president of the DuPage County branch of the NAACP. She also was one of the founders of the DuPage AME Church, and later received a gubernatorial appointment to serve on a state committee aimed at making King’s birthday a federal day of observance.
Gibson also is survived by two daughters, Stephanie Gibson Branton and Dorothy Capers; a brother, Richard Boddie; and four grandchildren.
Services were held.