Gladys Noel was born on 26 March 1920 in McComb. Her father, railway postal clerk Andrew Jackson Noel, was a civil rights activist and the son of former slaves once owned by Edmond F. Noel, who went on to serve as Mississippi’s governor. Her mother, Susie Hallie Davis Noel, was also the daughter of freed slaves.
Noel and her four siblings were raised on Pearl Street in Jackson, where she attended Jim Hill School, Lanier High School, and Alcorn Preparatory School and was involved in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She attended Alcorn A & M, where she met and married John Milton Bates, a football coach. Marriage cost Bates his position at Alcorn, forcing the couple to relocate to secure a teaching position for him and to enable her to enroll at Tougaloo College, where she served as class president and secretary for three years on her way to receiving a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1942. Gladys Bates later earned a master’s degree from West Virginia University and studied at the University of Colorado and the University of Denver. Bates taught home economics at Buffalo Creek School in Kosciusko, Mississippi, learning more from her students than she taught them: her parents had refused to teach their daughters skills that would lead them to be domestic servants. She also worked as a matron at Mary Porter Academy in North Carolina and then became a science teacher at Smith Robertson Junior High School in Jackson.
In 1948 Bates became a plaintiff in one of Mississippi’s first education-related
civil rights cases. With the aid of Constance Baker Motley and Robert L. Carter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund, Meridian attorney James A. Burns sued the Jackson Separate School District seeking equal salaries for black and white teachers. The suit led to violence against the Bates family: opponents fired shots into their home on Deerpark Street, burned the house, and left crosses burning nearby. Both Bates and her husband lost their positions with the Jackson schools as a result of the filing: because she no longer had standing to sue, Richard Jess Brown, an automotive science and technology teacher at Lanier High School, became a party to the suit.
Over the ensuing decade, Bates raised her two children, Kathryn and John M. Bates Jr., and worked for the Mississippi Association of Teachers in Colored Schools, while her husband took various jobs. In 1960 they relocated to Denver and continued their activism and careers as educators, receiving numerous awards for their work. The Colorado Education Association’s human relations award is named in their honor, and in 2009, Jackson opened the Gladys Noel Bates Elementary School. She died on 15 October 2010.
- Townsend Davis, Weary Feet, Rested Souls: A Guided History of the Civil Rights Movement (1998)
- Catherine M. Jannik, “Gladys Noel Bates: Educator and Activist” (master’s thesis, University of Southern Mississippi, 1999)
- “Oral History with Gladys Noel Bates” (1998), Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, University of Southern Mississippi, http://www.lib.usm.edu/legacy/spcol/coh/cohbatesg.html