Hellen O’Neal McCray
- Published: March 4, 2010
Hellen O’Neal McCray, Freedom Rider, Springfield City elementary school teacher, Wilberforce University professor and civil rights and community activist, died Feb. 24 at 10:45 a.m. after a year’s battle with cancer. She was 68.
Hellen was born March 4, 1941, in Clarksville to Lester C. and Willie Long O’Neal. She attended Immaculate Conception School, Myrtle Hall Colored School and Holy Rosary School in Lafayette, La. She received her bachelors from Jackson State University, M.Ed. from Wright State University and earned a certificate in fine arts during her stay in New York, where she met her husband, Willie L. McCray.
Hellen became involved in the civil rights movement after working for the Southern Christian Leadership Council in Jackson, Miss. She joined others in organizing a protest of the 1961 Southern Governor’s Conference at the Heidelberg Hotel during Gov. Ross Barnett’s tenure. After being arrested for disturbing the peace and later for sitting in the “white” section of the Greyhound bus, she joined the list of Freedom Riders. Hellen was also active with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee in Shreveport, La. and the Southern Regional Council and National Sharecroppers Fund in Atlanta, Ga. She regularly attended the Freedom Riders reunions.
Hellen had lived in Yellow Springs since 1966. She and her family were active with the African American Cross-Cultural Works and other civil rights and community organizations. Hellen graciously accepted invitations to speak about the Freedom Rides and the contributions of women to the success of the movement. As a Springfield City elementary school teacher for 29 years, Hellen taught second through fourth grades. It was her love of teaching that caused her to accept an offer to join the Wilberforce University humanities faculty, where she taught composition, literary criticism, African-American literature, non-Western major writers, and other courses.
Hellen also taught students the “value of helping others.” This is best demonstrated by her taking Wilberforce students to New Orleans in response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Those trips to New Orleans were life-changing for the students. She and the students remained in touch during her lengthy illness and Hellen eagerly looked forward to returning to Wilberforce. During her tenure at Wilberforce, Hellen earned the opportunity to attend professional seminars in Africa, Hawaii and the Caribbean Islands. She presented a session on “The Dirty Little Secrets About Lynching” while attending a conference in Spain, and she traveled to the Netherlands and France, where she visited holy sites and cathedrals. Hellen was a key presenter at Wilberforce University’s nationally recognized Slave Narrative Annual Conference.
She was preceded in death by her parents, Lester C. and Willie Long O’Neal; stepfather Fred Anderson; brother Rayford Anderson, sisters Dorothy O’Neal, Odessa Anderson Baron, Inez Anderson Rundles and Dianne O’Neal Broomes; and by her husband of 40 years, Willie McCray, Freedom Rider and SNCC member.
She will be greatly missed by her stepmother, Marie O’Neal; son Malcolm and daughter-in-law Rhonda McCray, son Lawrence and daughter-in-law Danielle McCray; grandchildren Carley and Lawrence; sister Kathryn O’Neal and brother-in-law Robert Flowers, sister Allee and brother-in-law Norman Howse, sister Rozetta McCray Rodriquez and brother-in-law Jesse James McCray; many cousins and nieces, cousin Bernice Gibbs and dear friends Jo Ethel Prather and Pamela and Curtis Thomas. Visitation will be held Friday, March 5, 7–9 p.m. at First Baptist Church in Yellow Springs. Funeral services will take place Saturday, March 6, at 11 a.m. at St. Paul Catholic Church. Porter-Qualls Funeral Home is handling arrangements.