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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

‘A friend we never met’: First African American female graduate of Arsenal Tech finally honored

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For nearly four decades, Bessie Alethia Anderson Speights lay in anonymity near the southwestern-most corner of Floral Park Cemetery on the city’s west side.

Now, anyone who visits her gravesite will find a proper headstone for Speights, the first African American female graduate of Arsenal Technical High School and an elementary teacher for more than 30 years.

Speights’ headstone came courtesy of the Arsenal Tech class of 1970, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020. Class members organized a ceremony at the gravesite May 15 to unveil the marker and remember Speights.

“Folks, how can you not be impressed?” said Randall Wilson, a ’70 Arsenal Tech graduate who spent years researching Speights’ life.

Wilson’s research started in 2008 as part of a Black History Month project. He has every Arsenal Tech yearbook from 1915 to 1980 and noticed Speights was the only African American in the class of 1916.

But when Wilson went to the cemetery to take a picture of her grave, there was nothing but a blank headstone in the ground. That spawned more than a decade of work, culminating in the school’s class of 1970 adopting the revival of Speights’ memory as its 50th anniversary project.

Speights was born in 1898 in Garrard County, Kentucky, Wilson found. Her father was a sharecropper until he died in the first decade of the 1900s, and the family moved to Indianapolis.

Wilson is confident Speights attended Teachers College of Indianapolis after graduating. She would have been qualified as an elementary teacher after two years at the college, and Wilson found she was a teacher at Indianapolis Public Schools 37 by 1918 (the school was later named Hazel Hart Hendrick School). She taught sixth grade from then until the early 1950s.

The Recorder wrote about Speights in 1953 when she retired after 35 years in teaching. She was an “admired and respected teacher,” according to the article, which also noted she earned a bachelor’s degree from Butler University in 1938.

Speights was quoted in the article with advice for teachers: “Go in with the feeling of a child — your mind open and susceptible to education.”

Speights took her last name in 1935, when she married Lafayette Speights, a postal worker. They spent most of their marriage on West 25th Street and moved to a suburban area in Pike Township. Lafayette died in 1967, and the obituary didn’t list any children as survivors.

Speights died in 1982 at the age of 84. Her obituary said she was a member of New Era Northside Missionary Baptist Church and didn’t list any surviving relatives, though Wilson learned through cemetery records than a niece was involved in getting her burial site.

Wilson said records from the funeral home where Speights’ funeral was were lost in a fire.

For many years, it’s possible the only visits to Speights’ grave were the shadows cast by overhead airplanes when the sun was in the right position, as it was during the ceremony.

Cindy Lewis Hartshorn, co-chair of the reunion committee, called Speights “a friend we never met” and said it’s likely her story would have remained in the dark without the research and effort to make her legacy known.

“No one would know,” she said. “That grave would remain unmarked forever.”

Mayor Joe Hogsett, who helped Wilson pull back a banner to unveil the new headstone, talked about the significance of Speights’ accomplishments in the early 1900s and through much of the rest of the century. She did so much and was nearly lost to history.

“I wonder how many of these stories exist,” Hogsett said, “and have gone like Bessie’s: unheralded.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

DID YOU KNOW BESSIE?

If you think you knew or were related to Bessie Alethia Anderson Speights, a longtime elementary teacher who died in 1982, contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853 or tylerf@indyrecorder.com.

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