Love of learning, inspired ‘Auntie Martha’ to help others
By JESSICA MARSICO
There was a time when Martha Bruce would sit in a restaurant and be ignored.
“You would just sit there and wait for someone to take your order, but they wouldn’t. They would just walk right past you until you finally got the hint.”
The hint: Only whites were served. But that wasn’t the only hurdle Bruce faced on her journey to become a teacher.
She desperately wanted an education, but getting one wasn’t easy for most people of color in 1946 – especially not for someone in her situation.
Her father was never part of her life and her mother died when she was 8. She and her older sister, Shirley, were raised by their grandmother.
Then, in the summer of 1944, Bruce acquired polio. Her sister had it first. When Bruce went to visit her in the hospital, she kissed her good- bye, but failed to wash with a sanitizing solution upon leaving.
One week later, she had the illness, too.
At 15, she was taken to a hospital in Pittsburgh and kept in isolation for two weeks. When she was released, she couldn’t walk. She needed longer-term care and therapy, but few facilities would take African- American children. To this day, Bruce is grateful to the Shriners Hospital in Erie, PA – the one hospital that would take her.
Physical therapists there worked hard to undo the damage from the muscle-weakening disease.
Bruce missed a year of school and feared she wouldn’t be able to go to college. However, guidance counselors at Farrell High School in Pennsylvania got her state aid and scholarships so she could enroll at Youngstown College.
“I would ride the bus every day from Farrell to Youngstown just to get to school. At the time, there were no dorms that African Americans were permitted to stay in,” she said.
Bruce was determined to let nothing get in her way. She knew students of color were treated differently than white students at the college in the late 1940s, but as long as she got an education, she didn’t care.
She completed her education degree in three years. She went on to get a master’s degree in educational administration and supervision and a doctorate.
She returned to her alma mater in later years, when the college became Youngstown State University.
“It was very different than when I attended,” she said. “There were several professors and even board members of color, as opposed to before when everyone who had taught was Caucasian.”
After earning her degree, in 1950, she began teaching at the former Thorn Hill School in Youngstown.
She was married for a time. Then after teaching for 17 years at Thorn Hill and earning her advanced degrees, Bruce decided she needed some adventure. So in 1976, she moved to Africa.
She was hired to teach future educators in Nigeria.
While there, she also started “Auntie Martha’s Story Time.” Saturday mornings, children would come to her home for what was supposed to be an hour-long story session. These wound up going for as long as three hours or, at times, an entire day.
The audience grew from eight students to 135.
“The children loved it and wanted to learn,” she said.
Bruce enjoyed giving the children new experiences, even venturing to take 67 of them on an airplane flight. These children have found ways to stay in touch with her.
“One of the children I used to read to created a Facebook page for me called, ‘Auntie Martha.’ Through this, the children have found me, and now that they’re grown, have contacted me telling me all about their professions. Some even reside in the United States now.”
Bruce moved to Sharon, PA, in 1982 and worked for three years reading to inmates at the State Regional Correctional Facility near Mercer.
Since 1985, she’s worked in Youngstown city schools. She is an Adopt- A-School liaison at Chaney High School. And at 84, she isn’t thinking about retirement.
For her, the love of education must be shared.
She remembers the words that were spoken when a small African village made her an honorary chief: “By helping one of us, you have also helped all of us.”