An educator and a leader of numerous civic and women’s organizations, Ruby Elizabeth Stutts Lyells spent four decades advocating for improvements in African American education and helping to create an infrastructure for Mississippi’s civil rights movement. Impressive writing skills and a powerful speaking voice made Lyells a force in both scholarly journals and public venues, and she participated not only in educational and policy debates but also in direct action protests.
Born in 1908 in Yazoo County, Lyells attended Alcorn Agricultural and Mining College (now Alcorn State University), where she compiled an impressive academic record and became valedictorian in 1929. Lyells subsequently stepped into a leadership role at Alcorn, working as a librarian and student counselor and helping to form and develop the Library Division of the Mississippi Teachers Association.
In 1942 Lyells completed her master’s thesis at the University of Chicago and became the first black Mississippian to earn a degree in library science. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Lyells contributed regularly to publications such as the Journal of Negro Education and continued the research she had begun for her thesis. Lyells often wrote about reforms in African American library systems, but her articles and speeches always emphasized broader educational issues. Above all, Lyells consistently advocated creating a curriculum for black colleges that went beyond satisfying accreditation requirements or providing vocational training to foster a legitimate environment for scholarship and inquiry.
Lyells left Alcorn in 1945 and became the head librarian at Jackson State College (now Jackson State University). After a successful two-year stint during which she helped modernize and expand the school’s library system, Lyells moved to the Jackson Public Library and headed the College Park and Carver branches. Lyells not only improved the library system but also used her leadership skills to agitate in favor of school desegregation and build networks of black women committed to social change. The boldness of her speeches and the doggedness of her campaigns made Lyells an inspiring and attractive leader. As a Republican and the president of the Negro State Federation of Women’s Clubs, Lyells helped bring African American women into public life at a time when white men and Democrats ruled Mississippi politics.
Lyells did much of her work during the 1940s and early 1950s, before the civil rights movement erupted full-blown in Mississippi. As national organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People expanded their presence in the state, men took on most of the leadership positions. Though the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other organizations included women in their leadership, these more radical and innovative groups tended to attract young people and college students. Thus, while Lyells participated in many of the direct action protests of the 1950s and 1960s, she did not align herself directly with those groups but instead remained an independent voice for change as the movement gained momentum. Her independence, her gender, and her age precluded Lyells from starring in the most publicized dramas of the civil rights era, but her tireless efforts to improve African American education and her commitment to bringing black women into public life helped pave the way for the movement’s watershed accomplishments.
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Ruby E. Stutts Lyells, Journal of Negro Education (Spring 1945)
- Josephine McCann Posey, Against Great Odds: The History of Alcorn State University (1994)
- Leila Gaston Rhodes, Jackson State University: The First Hundred Years, 1877–1977 (1979)