Decades before she was a member of the Oak Grove School district school board, before she was an elementary school principal, before she was a teacher, before she helped coordinate Civil Rights-era protests at San Jose State, Mary Noel (nee East) was a young girl growing up in then-segregated Pensacola, Florida. She still remembers what it felt like to march in parades (“Black kids were always put at the end of the parade,” she says) and recalls the daily injustices endured by her parents. From a young age, Noel intuited that her future lay in education.
“Growing up in the South, I watched my parents be hosed down and have dogs sicced on them,” says Noel, ’99 MA Education, Educational Administration Credential. “I had some fear but I had seen so much happen. I knew once I came to California that I would do more than a trade. After I got involved with the students at San Jose State, I knew I would be a teacher. All my life, I have wanted to open doors for black students to get an education. That is still my mission today.”
Oakland was her first stop, where she enrolled in pre-nursing junior college courses, later transferring to San Francisco State University to obtain her teaching credential. Along the way she reunited with her high school flame, a talented runner named Ken Noel, ’66 BA, ’68 MA, Sociology, who teamed up with fellow sociology student Harry Edwards, ’64 Sociology, ’16 Honorary Doctorate, to form the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) at San Jose State in 1967. If you ask Noel, though, the OPHR was just one representation of the push for equality and inclusion at San Jose State.
“We had to prove to the university administration the many ways that victimization was happening,” she recalls. “We had to prove to them that it was happening—and that was through education. Protesting was necessary to communicate the existence of problems and to give the victims a sense of organization, to give the institution our demands, to define our concerns and what we wanted to see changed. There were fewer than 100 African-American students on campus and we wanted to increase outreach to grow that number.”
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty,” an initiative that introduced federal civil rights legislation that helped crack open the door for Noel’s outreach efforts. Funded by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the Higher Education Act of 1965, Upward Bound programs helped create pathways for students who may not otherwise have had access to higher education. Noel became an active Upward Bound recruiter, visiting San Jose high schools to mentor students, review transcripts, recommend courses and help them plan for college. Her outreach efforts were later organized with the College Commitment Program, a San Jose State effort to recruit and retain students, especially students of color.
“I was out in the community, encouraging kids to consider going to school,” she says. “There were several other ladies involved in that with me. That’s what the sealed the deal for me. I knew that I wanted to be a teacher.”
Noel’s goal was creating opportunity, both for Upward Bound and College Commitment students and for enrolled black students, many of whom faced housing discrimination. When newly recruited Upward Bound students arrived in San Jose for the first time, she and Ken would pick them up at the airport, help them find housing, introduce them to administrators on campus, and check in on them often. Much of her extra time was spent volunteering with the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
Her career as a teacher, which she started while working for the OPHR, flourished as she taught generations of children in south San Jose. In the late ’90s she returned to San Jose State to earn a master’s degree and an administrative credential, eventually becoming an elementary school principal. In 2007, the National Alliance of Black School Educators named Noel the National Elementary School Principal of the Year focusing on equity. Though she retired in 2008, she started a tutoring and mentorship program at Del Roble Elementary School that same year and has been an active school board member since 2002.
Through all of the changes she has witnessed over the past 50 years, from education to social justice to housing, Noel’s core belief in the power of education remains intact. Of her many accomplishments, she says that her proudest moment was watching her cousin Lillie East, ’71 Health Science, thrive at San Jose State. In comparing their experiences, it is what she doesn’t say—the challenges Noel herself endured as a young woman navigating the changing world—that demonstrate the real impact she has made on her family, her community and society as a whole.
“Lillie was really green,” Noel says. “To be able to bring her out here from Florida through Upward Bound to an environment where she was in shock because she never expected to have so much black support on campus, that made me really proud. She didn’t struggle. Everything was pretty rosy by the time she got here. She breezed through, graduated and had a very successful experience here and has done quite well. That’s what you hope for all students.”