by Walter Fox
Lucille Wheeler, 104, formerly of Germantown, a retired social worker and a longtime civil rights activist, died Jan. 28 at Ivy Hill Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, where she had been a resident since 2009.
Ms. Wheeler had worked with foster children for 20 years with the Bureau of Child Care in Philadelphia, but she was probably better known for her lifetime commitment to civil rights.
In an interview published in the Chestnut Hill Local in 2003, Ms Wheeler recalled that in 1946 – nine years before Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott by refusing to move to the back of the bus – she took a similar stand on a bus in Atlanta, Ga. The difference was that the white passenger who might have taken Ms. Wheeler’s seat never complained, and Ms. Wheeler was never arrested.
A year earlier, when she and a friend went to lunch at a well known café in Denver, they were told that they could not eat inside but could take out their lunch in brown paper bags.
“Brown paper bags?” Ms. Wheeler asked. “You will have a legal suit on your hands before I take my lunch out in a brown paper bag.”
Although she and her friend did not have lunch in the café, Ms. Wheeler sued, and the café settled out of court.
“And they did stop the discrimination,” she said. “That’s what really counts.”
Ms. Wheeler was born in Washington, D.C., the eldest of nine children in what she described as a “close-knit family.” Her father operated a small moving business using a horse and wagon.
As a teenager delivering baskets of homegrown food to the poor in that wagon, she said she “saw such poverty.”
“I wanted to do something in my life to help people,” she added.
She graduated from St. Augustine’s High School in Washington and received a bachelor’s degree in social work after working her way through Howard University. Among her teachers at Howard was Ralph Bunche, a former U.S. representative to the United Nations and Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
“You could see even then that he was going to be something special,” she recalled.
Graduating in 1930 during the Depression, Ms. Wheeler went to work for the Works Projects Administration (WPA), which was established by President Roosevelt to provide work for the unemployed. Her assignments included annotating the papers of Frederick Douglass and compiling a bibliography on Catholicism at the Library of Congress.
She saved enough money to enter graduate school at Atlanta University and, after busing dishes to pay for her food, received a master’s degree in medical social work.
She did her fieldwork at Freedman’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital), becoming the first student to do so. After graduation she accepted a position as a childcare worker with the Bureau for Colored Children in Philadelphia (later to become the Bureau of Child Care).
Ms. Wheeler was known for her close relationship with the children who were her clients, and the boy who was her first case gave her a surprise party and a $100 check on her 90th birthday, saying “I want you to know what a difference you made in my world – remember the times you went out of your way for me.”
She remained active in interracial affairs until the 1980s and sang in the choir at St. Madeleine Sophie Church in Mt. Airy, where she was a member.
She is survived by a sister, Cecilia Saunders, 92, of Washington, D.C.
A funeral Mass was celebrated Feb. 5 at St. Madeleine Sophie Church with interment in Washington, D.C.