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United Way of Lancaster County


New play portrays trailblazing Black educator Hazel I. Jackson

Actors rehearse a scene from the upcoming play “Midst of Faith,” in which an elderly Hazel I. Jackson, second from right, recalls her encounters with a secretary at the School District of Lancaster Superintendent’s office, foreground. From left are Susan Bessler (secretary), Donna Gray (Hazel Jackson), Starleisha Gingrich (elderly Hazel) and Nathaniel Gadsden III (Oscar). (Source: Provided)

Nathan Gadsden (Source: Provided)

Nathan Lee Gadsden said he approached the task of writing “Midst of Faith” with a profound sense of responsibility.

The drama depicts the life of Lancaster educator and civil rights pioneer Hazel I. Jackson. She was “a mother to the community,” and it was important to give her legacy the setting it deserves.

“This is the most important play I’ve ever written,” Gadsden said. “… It is about a woman who broke through barriers with sheer determination to fulfill her dreams, and in doing so, left us a legacy of class, dignity, and a blueprint for guiding the children of our community.”

Midst of Faith” premiers this weekend at the Ware Center, Millersville University’s downtown Lancaster venue. It’s a homecoming of sorts, given Jackson’s ties to Millersville, and the Ware Center is deeply honored to host the debut, said Barry Kornhauser, assistant director of campus & community engagement.

If you go

  • What: “Midst of Faith,” a stage play tribute to Hazel I. Jackson
  • Where: The Ware Center, 42 N. Prince St., Lancaster.
  • When: Friday, May 31; and Saturday, June 1. Show starts at 8 p.m. both nights.
  • Tickets:
    • Friday (free student performance): Click here.
    • Saturday (community performance; $25 general admission): Click here.

Jackson’s influence at Millersville “far exceeded her contributions to the classroom,” he said, affecting policies and practices “that enhanced the lives of students, particularly those from BIPOC communities, in many meaningful ways.”

Jackson (1926-2014) was the first Black woman to teach in the School District of Lancaster and the first Black female professor at Millersville University, the Ware Center’s parent entity. In 2021, SDL renamed Hand Middle School, where she taught for nine years, in her honor. At Millersville University, the Hazel I. Jackson Scholarship Fund and Hazel I. Jackson Lecture Series carry on her work.

Cheryl Holland-Jones is one of Jackson’s two daughters; she and her daughter, Amber Holland, are co-founders of the Hazel I. Jackson Foundation, created to honor Jackson’s memory and continue her legacy of education and achievement.
Among other things, the foundation organizes the Jackson Day of Action , a yearly campus beautification event at Jackson Middle School; supports the school’s Teacher Appreciation Day and as-needed grants to support students’ education and the quality of their school experience — more than $37,000 to date. It has provided scholarships, too, and that is something it is hoping to expand, Holland-Jones said.

Cheryl Holland-Jones, left, and Amber Holland

The two reached out to Gadsden about a year ago with the idea of commissioning a play. He is the former poet laureate of Harrisburg, and his resume is broad-ranging: novelist, journalist, educator, minister, filmmaker. He also was one of Jackson’s students.

As background, Holland-Jones and Holland provided him autobiographical stories that Jackson had written and a CD of her reminiscences, as well as sharing their own recollections.

The resulting drama hews closely to the historical record, Gadsden said. Two of the characters were invented in order to tell the story effectively; the others are all real people. Jackson is portrayed by four actors, who depict her life as it stretches from childhood to retirement. Nine other actors take on the other roles.

“As a theatre practitioner herself, we suspect that Hazel would have particularly appreciated having her life so dramatized,” especially by a former student, Kornhauser said.

Born to sharecroppers in South Carolina, Jackson graduated from South Carolina State University and taught at a local high school for four years. She moved to Lancaster in 1952 and applied for teaching jobs but was repeatedly denied due to racial discrimination.

She refused to give up, returning again and again to the district’s office. Finally, in 1961 he was hired to teach English at what was then Hand Middle School. In 1970, she moved to Millersville University, then Millersville State Teachers College, becoming a professor of English and African-American literature.

Jackson’s story is no different in essence from that of nationally known civil rights figures, Gadsden said. Black history is not an abstract national construct, he said: It’s about specific individual people like Jackson who faced discrimination in their local communities and fought for their rights.

Performances of “Midst of Faith” will take place this Friday, May 31, and Saturday, June 1, both at 8 p.m., with doors opening at 7:15 p.m. Sponsors of the premiere include Lancaster County Community Foundation, Millersville University’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion, Highmark Wholecare and the School District of Lancaster.

Friday’s performance is for school students and is free. To register, click here. Students must be accompanied by a parent or other responsible adult; admission is free for adults, but they are invited to make a donation.

Tickets for Saturday’s performance are $25. To buy tickets, click here.

Proceeds from the performances will support the Hazel I. Jackson Foundation and its activities. It is the first of what Holland-Jones and Holland say they hope will be a series of annual fundraisers centered around the arts.

Her grandmother’s story remains relevant and inspiring today, Holland said. As new generations of students pass through the halls of Jackson Middle School, it’s important that they know the strength of the individual for whom it’s named, and that they understand the value of education and of perseverance.

And that they be able to see themselves in her, Holland-Jones added, and picture themselves as educators and community leaders.

“Representation does matter,” she said.