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Helen Saunders was a longtime champion of civil rights

TAMPA — The snapshots rest in a file folder now, in a box inside a special collections room at the University of South Florida.

Robert Saunders and his wife, Helen, donated hundreds of boxes and folders to the library chronicling more than 50 years of civil rights struggles. The ragged-edged photos reveal a predominantly African-American neighborhood in the mid 1950s along Jefferson and Kirby streets, and a portrait of poverty: sagging, discolored houses and shotgun shacks; piles of debris and a dozen clustered garbage cans; a young black man said to be the victim of police brutality.

Robert Saunders, who snapped the photos, spent decades in high-profile positions fighting discrimination, including leading the statewide NAACP and the regional Office of Economic Opportunity.

He could not have completed those duties without his wife, who shouldered parenting duties when her husband was away and served as president of the Tampa (now Hillsborough) branch of the NAACP.

Helen Saunders, who led long-running efforts to integrate schools, end bias in hiring and strengthen the NAACP, died Dec. 1 after a period of declining health, including respiratory and heart trouble.

She was 90.

"Helen was a civil rights warrior long before she met Bob," Leon Russell, director of the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights, told mourners at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church on Thursday. "But they were the perfect civil rights union."

Mrs. Saunders worked for 43 years for Central Life Insurance Co., a company co-founded by civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune.

Helen Strickland was born in Mims, in Brevard County. As a girl, she loved African-American poetry and could recite dozens of poems from memory. She graduated as the valedictorian of Titusville Negro High School in 1940, then attended what was then known as Bethune-Cookman College.

In 1944 she took a temporary job at Central Life Insurance in Tampa as a claims clerk. On Dec. 25, 1951, she faced a personal tragedy when Harry T. Moore, a former neighbor in Mims and leader of the statewide NAACP, died in the bombing of his home.

Robert Saunders was appointed field secretary, replacing Moore. The murder of Moore and his wife, Harriet, seemed to galvanize both Saunders and his future wife. But romance did not bloom until 1953.

They married Jan. 21, 1954. "It may have been the luckiest day of my life," Saunders wrote in his book, Bridging the Gap.

The couple worked alongside civil rights luminaries such as Roy Wilkins, Jackie Robinson, Medgar Evers, Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King. Their activism brought fierce opposition.

A few carloads of people followed an NAACP Youth Council group to the Saunders home in Lincoln Gardens and threw garbage and racial epithets toward the house. "(Danger) was something you just had to accept in those days," said Robert Saunders Jr., who was just 6 when the crowd confronted his youth group.

In 1962, the family won the approval of Hillsborough County school officials to enroll Robert Saunders Jr. in the all-white MacFarlane Park Elementary School.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mrs. Saunders served as president of the Tampa branch of the NAACP. She frequently spoke out about uneven hiring in local government and called for a federal investigation into the promotion practices of the Tampa Police Department. "The eradication of discrimination in housing, in employment, in education or whatever the case may be has always been and still is the philosophy of the NAACP organization," she said in 1977.

Mrs. Saunders became personnel director at Central Life Insurance in 1985, and retired in 1987 as secretary to the board of directors.

Robert Saunders Sr. died in 2003 as a result of a car crash. Mrs. Saunders was remembered at her funeral service in resolutions by the state and county NAACP organizations and a letter by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor.

"When you live the kind of life Helen lived," said the Rev. W. James Favorite, who delivered her eulogy, "you don't have to say much — because her life speaks for her."


Helen Strickland Saunders

Born: April 7, 1921

Died: Dec. 1, 2011

Survivors: son, Robert Saunders Jr.; sisters Dorothy Wise and Elouise Boatwright; and brother, Leonard Strickland.

Helen Saunders was a longtime champion of civil rights 12/09/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 9, 2011 10:43pm]
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