Imah’s Legacy to a Science Educator

Tara Nkrumah

Tara Nkrumah

Most people call their grandmothers “granny,” “nannie” or simply “grandma”. Somehow, I knew the given Hebrew name for mother–“Imah” – which was what my grandmother told me to call her, revealed she was a phenomenal lady. As I analyzed closely the details of Imah’s life, it became apparent just how much she shaped my character as an educator and person. As a science educator, I am making a difference in the lives of my students today because of her legacy.

I collected information from multiple interviews with family elders in Chicago, obituaries, family history reports published on past family reunion programs, books on the history of Chicago Public Schools and the Civil Rights movement, old photos from my grandmother with descriptive notes reporting the date, location and event taking place, and personal memories of shared family stories about significant moments in the life of my grandmother.

Imah’s Life and Education

From birth, my grandmother purposed to live the extraordinary life. Born June 15, 1925 in Muskogee, Oklahoma as Ada Ruth Rollerson, her life goals embodied education for herself and for others. She lived a life without borders personally and professionally that allowed her to always see opportunities and never obstacles.

My great grandfather, Harvey Rollerson, during the early 1900s worked as a mechanic. In 1934, while watching a baseball game, a white man asked to sit on the hood of my great grandfathers car and the response was “no”. The white man in anger took a brick and hit my great grandfather on the side of his face that led to a brutal confrontation. A black man fighting a white man created a dangerous situation for a black family. My great grandparents two days later left their home in Oklahoma in a fully loaded truck with as many of their belongs as would fit and quickly relocated to safety in Chicago with my grandmother and her three other siblings.

Imah’s parents never attended college. Her mother, Cora Rollerson, dreamed of becoming a nurse but financial constraints only allowed her to finish high school and become a housewife. Imah’s father attended school until the third grade.

Imah was in 5th grade at the time they left Oklahoma to live in Chicago. The schools she attended in Oklahoma were better staffed than what they found in Chicago, so after she took a placement test, Imah was skipped up a grade. This was true for all her siblings with her youngest sibling being given a triple promotion. Imah first attended Forest Field School, currently named after an African American, before transferring to Douglas Elementary.

School systems then followed the zoning policy similar to today where students attended their neighborhood school with proof of residency. Because we had relatives that lived at 650 East 65th my great grandparents used their address to enroll Imah at Englewood High in a predominately white neighborhood during the 40’s. There, Imah survived the racial tensions through her close friendships with eight other African American students who also attended the school.

Imah-Chicago 1970's

Imah, in Chicago, 1970s

At age 16, despite her parent’s disapproval, Imah married John Smith. She continued her education after high school and attended Wilson Junior College while working, schooling and later raising two boys after her divorce. Her commitment to live by a higher standard fueled her to overcome the social norms and be the different example of how to achieve in life. She later remarried the love of her life and had a third son while progressing professionally as a professor at Fisk and Tennessee State University.

In Chicago, between the 1940’s and 60’s, African Americans, despite their earning potential, were not allowed to move out past their community. What that meant was in your community you could be living in a heterogeneous socioeconomic environment with neighbors having widely distributed incomes. Opportunities to expand into other non-black communities did not exist. The real estate parameters were extremely restrictive prior to enforcement of integration. Once integration began, African American neighborhoods were able to stretch out into the broader communities.

Imah-Summer 1972 Chicago Polish Community

Imah, Summer 1972, Chicago Polish Community

The Civil Rights Movement trained African Americans to resist injustice and lead change for future generations. Significantly, Imah taught in Chicago during this period at Kennedy King College, while encouraging her students, in action and in words, of their ability to rise above society’s fixed standard of mobility for minorities. Imah’s richly invested time in all her students regardless of their cultural background beyond the state required role of teaching Literature and helped many students achieve their born potential. Imah believed that every child was born to do great things. It was evident in her pedagogy, her student interactions and the countless lives she touched beyond mine.

In 1985, at age 60 Imah earned her PhD from Loyola University. Her dissertation was on “The Impact of Desegregation on the Curricula of the Secondary Schools of Nashville, Tennessee”.

My Education

My kindergarten through grade five school years were split between Illinois and Texas. At one point when my parents relocated my third grade year to Texas in 1981, I was one of two African American students in the entire class placed in the special education program despite being a strong student. Imah spent every summer creating an academic boot camp for me. When I reached middle school, Imah instructed my father to enroll me in St. Peter Lutheran School in Chicago where he also attended and graduated. There I succeeded and continued on the path towards academic excellence as designed by Imah, who tracked my performance. Imah, keenly aware of the top schools in Nashville, was instrumental in my receiving the best education from the city’s top magnet school. By high school, I knew the path to success involved goal setting so I identified with my science passion and pursued science education.

The Epiphany

Imah-Ghana 2014

Imah in Ghana, 2014

This Critical Family History project literally transformed the surface knowledge I attributed to my professional beliefs and habits as a science educator. I never needed to be convinced of Imah’s commitment to ensure her granddaughter received the best opportunities in life to develop into the created purpose I had been called for at birth. The revelation for me was the extent to which I live my life daily by her example of the lessons I learned over the years as her granddaughter/apprentice. She has taught me many significant life lessons however; five remain active in my daily practice as a science educator.

  1. Be a life learner. Imah at the age of 70 simultaneously ended her career as a professor in the United States and started a second career as an educator in Ghana, West Africa. Imah did the unthinkable of moving overseas at considered retirement age to build a home and teach the children in Africa. Her passion to serve silenced the voices of others who questioned her decision to move because Imah always believed one should seek to grow and evolve no matter what age in life.
  1. Treat every student as your own. Imah infected me with the perception that the students on my roster were not just people I taught science, but individuals I cared for as if they were my son or daughter. The mindset of seeing every student that way changes your sense of urgency and compassion for their needs. This has been a critical lesson that enhances my ability to touch so many lives the same way Imah encouraged many others.
  1. Learn to teach students from diverse backgrounds. In today’s global society, experience in teaching students from diverse cultures is no longer an option with the burgeoning rate of classroom diversity. Imah understood this early on in her career through her example of teaching in a Polish community during the early 70s in Chicago. She always embraced the unique qualities of all people and raised me to explore and learn about all cultures. This became evident in my desire to expand my knowledge of other cultures through direct experience that lead me for eight years to teach overseas.
  1. This is foundational to all educators: Remember to always welcome your class with a warm greeting. Imah’s favorite greeting was “Good morning Lovely Students”. In the number of years growing up that I watched her teach, I was always moved by the positive responses from her students each time she walked into the classroom and greeted them. I have gained access to many hearts of students just like my grandmother because of my repeat practice of greeting my students as she taught me by her example.
  1. This one is personal to me because not only did she teach me to believe these words, she also taught me the purpose of every educator to convey this message to their students. Imah’s philosophy of education that every child is born to achieve, were the words she spoke to me personally as a little girl. Then I knew, from the confident way she spoke those words to me that I had an assigned purpose unknown to me at that moment to help students achieve. I know Imah just happens to be my legal grandmother on paper but for many she represented their extended family. Because of her legacy, I too continue the practice as a science educator of reminding students that just like me, they too were born to achieve.

Tara M. Nkrumah, a doctoral student in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of South Florida, Tampa, is an Instructional Leadership Science coach in Hillsborough County. Her research interests include culturally relevant pedagogy, leadership, curriculum, teacher training and social justice. Tara has more than 16 years of secondary school teaching experience in the United States and West Africa. She can be contacted at

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