Thelma Jean Mothershed Wair made history as a member of the Little Rock Nine, the African-American students involved in the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The world watched as they braved constant intimidation and threats from those who opposed desegregation of the formerly all-white high school. Mothershed was a junior when she entered Central. Despite the fact that she had a cardiac condition since birth, she had a near perfect record for attendance.
Thelma Mothershed was born on November 29, 1940, in Bloomberg, Texas, to Arlevis Leander Mothershed and Hosanna Claire Moore Mothershed. Her father was a psychiatric aide at the Veterans Hospital, and her mother was a homemaker. She has three sisters and two brothers.
Mothershed attended Dunbar Junior High School and Horace Mann High School before transferring to Central High. Despite daily tormenting from some white students at Central High, she completed her junior year at the formerly all-white high school during the tumultuous 1957–58 year. Because the city’s high schools were closed the following year, Mothershed earned the necessary credits for graduation through correspondence courses and by attending summer school in St. Louis, Missouri. She received her diploma from Central High by mail.
Mothershed graduated from Southern Illinois University at Cabondale in 1964 with a BA in home economics and earned her MS in Guidance and Counseling Education in 1970; in 1985, she received an administrative certificate in education from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. She taught home economics in the East St. Louis school system for twenty-eight years before retiring in 1994.
Mothershed married Fred Wair on December 26, 1965. The couple has one son.
Thelma Wair has also worked at the Juvenile Detention Center of the St. Clair County Jail in St. Clair County, Illinois, and as an instructor of survival skills for women at the American Red Cross Shelter for the homeless. During the 1989–90 school year, the East St. Louis chapter of the Top Ladies of Distinction and the early childhood/pre-kindergarten staff of District 189 honored her as an Outstanding Role Model.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded her and the other Little Rock Nine, along with Daisy Bates, the prestigious Spingarn Medal in 1958. In 1999, President Bill Clinton presented the nation’s highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal, to the members of the Little Rock Nine. Wair currently lives in Little Rock (Pulaski County).
For additional information:
Bates, Daisy. The Long Shadow of Little Rock. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986.
Beals, Melba Pattillo. Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School. New York: Washington Square Books, 1994.
Jacoway, Elizabeth, and C. Fred Williams, eds. Understanding the Little Rock Crisis: An Exercise in Remembrance and Reconciliation. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site Visitor Center. Little Rock, Arkansas. http://www.nps.gov/chsc/ (accessed October 3, 2018).
Roy, Beth. Bitters in the Honey: Tales of Hope and Disappointment across Divides of Race and Time. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.
National Park Service
Central High School National Historic Site