In 1951 when Bobbie Hicks joined the staff of St. Elizabeth School in Chicago, Harry Truman was president and color television was making its debut. She was making her own kind of debut as the first African-American layperson to teach in a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
It was because of that milestone that Catholic school students honored her at the 38th-annual African-American Heritage Prayer Service Feb. 26 at Holy Name Cathedral, and gave her two standing ovations.
The 92-year-old’s career in Catholic schools spanned 44 years and included St. Elizabeth, St. James (Wabash Avenue), St. Procopius, St. Frances Cabrini, Resurrection and St. Martin de Porres.
The desire to be a teacher came to her when she was just in second grade. Hicks was teaching in public schools when a religious sister from St. Elizabeth asked her to come and teach.
“Since my children went to St. Elizabeth I decided that it was a good move,” she said.
Hicks stayed there until the school found another sister to replace her. At the time, Catholic schools were mostly staffed by religious women. Next, she moved to St. James.
“That’s how I got to different schools. They always told me when a nun was coming,” Hicks said.
Her last move was to Resurrection School, where she worked for 26 years.
Over the years, she received cards and letters from parents and students thanking her for being a good teacher and for also teaching them black history. At each school she recalls teaching the students the “black national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”
Being the first African-American lay teacher in archdiocesan schools wasn’t something she thought much about.
“I had heard the rumor for a long time [that she was the first],” she said. While she has an award from the archdiocese for her many years of service to the schools, nothing said she was the first black teacher.
“This has been the first time that they let me know that,” she said.
In accepting the African-American Heritage Award, Hicks told the students to work hard and do their best.
“Teachers are very important in your life,” she told the young people. “Everybody — doctors, lawyers — has had a teacher. Whatever you plan to do in your life, listen to your teacher.”
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