Three women stand around a painting of a smiling Black women

Belmont Community School dedicates portrait of educator and alumna Sarah Ella Wilson

June 13, 2023
By: Deborah Alvarez O'Neil

Members of Worcester’s education community gathered at Belmont Community School in June for a song-filled, joyful dedication of a newly discovered portrait of longtime educator Sarah Ella Wilson, an 1894 graduate of Worcester Normal School, now Worcester State University.

Wilson was among the first Black school teachers in Worcester and taught at Belmont for 49 years until her retirement in 1943. “This is a story that deserves to be shared and celebrated,” said Belmont Principal Jennifer Keating at the dedication ceremony. “It reminds of the power of aspiration, the joy of discovering hidden treasures and the importance of preserving our heritage.”

The June 1 portrait unveiling and dedication ceremony featured Belmont elementary students singing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and “Lift Every Voice,” the Black national anthem. It was attended by fellow Belmont teachers, school committee members and Worcester State University staff, members of the Wilson family, and Saul Feingold, one of Miss Wilson’s former students. Feingold has established a scholarship in her name at Worcester State University.

The portrait was found by Assistant Principal Tiana Phillips in a storage closet at the school in 2019, and restored by Birgit Straehle, then a conservator at Worcester Art Museum. “Today we gather here to honor a remarkable individual who has left an indelible mark on the lives of countless students,” said Phillips. “Born in a time of great adversity, Sarah Ella Wilson’s journey began under the weight of the legacy of slavery… However, Sarah refused to be defined by her circumstances. Instead she emerged as a shining example of resilience, determination and the power of education to transform lives. Against all odds Sarah pursued her education with unwavering dedication. She understood that education was not just a means for personal advancement but a powerful tool for lifting entire communities.”

Wilson, who never married, was also a prominent civic leader and active member of her church. “Her wisdom, compassion and unwavering support made her a beloved figure in the community,” Phillips said. “Countless lives were touched by her guiding hand and she helped pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable society. Let us honor her memory by rededicating ourselves to the cause of education and the pursuit of equality.”

Straehle, the art conservator, said over the course of the year that she worked on the portrait, she started referring to it as “Sarah.” She said she was taken by Sarah’s eyes in the portrait. “Sarah said, ‘Pay attention.’ I grew up in a teacher’s household. Both of my parents were teachers. I got that teacher’s look. I knew that really well. There was no way I could reject the beautiful opportunity to help Sarah.” 

In remarks at the dedication, Dr. Kareem Tatum, the executive director of Worcester Public Schools in the north quadrant, described Sarah Ella Wilson as a trailblazer who inspired many others, including himself, to pursue careers in Worcester Public Schools. “That legacy is extremely important,” he said, turning to a group of Belmont sixth graders. “Hopefully our grade six students will become educators too.”  

Photo: Art conservator Birgit Straehle, Assistant Principal Tiana Phillips and school psychologist Kathy Kenyon pose with the portrait of Sarah Ella Wilson at the June 1 dedication ceremony, which will be hung permanently on the wall of the main stairwell where everyone enters the school. Photo by Nancy Sheehan.

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