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Austin Civil Rights Leader Bertha Sadler Means Dies At 100

 Bertha Sadler Means held many roles in her life – a community leader, political activist, businesswoman and educator.
Bertha Sadler Means held many roles in her life – a community leader, political activist, businesswoman and educator.

Austin civil rights icon Bertha Sadler Means died Tuesday, just two months shy of her 101st birthday. Means held many roles in her life — a community leader, political activist, businesswoman and educator.

She enjoyed a long career in education. Before retiring, Means worked at the Austin Independent School District where she taught elementary and secondary education. She was a professor at Prairie View A&M College and UT Austin, and hosted workshops on professional development at Huston-Tillotson University.

Austin ISD honored her legacy by naming the Bertha Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy after her. The Bertha Sadler Means African American Resource Center at Huston-Tillotson University was also named in honor of her philanthropic support over the years.

Congressman Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, remembered his friend in a tweet, calling Means an inspiration and champion for social justice.

"She lived an extraordinary life with major contributions to Austin, which continue through her children,” he said.

Her cause of death was not immediately available.

In a 2016 interview, Means said she used to help Doggett knock on doors in East Austin back when he was a student at UT Austin.

“Even at the joyful community celebration that was her 90th birthday," Doggett said, "I was pleased to be identified as 'one of her boys,' from my student days working out of her kitchen on NAACP voter registration drives."

Means was born a few miles from Valley Mills, Texas, she said in the interview. After her family moved to Waco, Means graduated high school then left to continue her education at Tillotson College, now Huston-Tillotson University. She later received her master’s degree in education from UT Austin.

Means said she met her late husband James, a math teacher, while working as a secretary at Huston-Tillotson. In 1941, the couple was part of the small group of faculty and students from the university who helped found St. James' Episcopal Church in East Austin. Those 16 members organized and created a church where African-Americans would be welcome during segregation, according to the church's website.

“In her living and in her dying, Bertha Sadler Means has been a model of Christian joy, generosity of spirit, and fortitude and resistance in the face of powers that would seek to divide us,” the Rev. Eileen O’Brien told KUT.

O’Brien said it was the community’s honor to be a part of her legacy.

“She taught her peers and her many spiritual children to walk together and never get weary in the work of facing injustice in the world and in the creation of spaces of radical hospitality inhabited by the spirit of joy,” she said.

Huston-Tillotson President Colette Pierce Burnette called Means one of the university's most distinguished graduates and a force of character.

"Dr. Means lived her life intentionally and on purpose — she courageously chose a life of vibrancy and to live a life out loud in full color," Burnette said. "And as Dr. Means allowed her own light to shine, she unconsciously gave myself and other members of our Austin community permission to do the same."

Means had five children, and multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

KUT's Claire McInerny contributed to this report.

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