Dolores Irene Silas (1926-2021)

Silas smiling in a green hat in front of a picture of Martin Luther King
Dr. Dolores Silas, n.d.
Courtesy Tacoma News Tribune

Dr. Dolores Irene Silas was a person of many Tacoma, Washington “firsts”–the first woman of color to become a school principal at DeLong Elementary School (1970), the first to become a member of the City Council (1991), the first to be Deputy Mayor (1995) and the first to have a High School renamed for her (Woodrow Wilson HS) on July 1, 2021.

Dolores Irene Silas was born on April 3, 1926, in Elkhart, Indiana to Harold and Janabae Burrell. Her mother instilled in her the importance of having an education and enrolled her in her teens at the Lincoln Institute boarding school in Simpsonville, Kentucky then led by Whitney Young Sr, the father of the man who would later become the National Urban League Director in the 1960s. From there, Silas attended Tuskegee University in Alabama graduating with a BA in education in 1949. She completed a Master of Education from the University of Arizona in 1962 and her doctorate at United States International University, San Diego in 1977.

In 1951, Burrell moved from Gary, Indiana to Tacoma to accept a teaching position at Lister Elementary School where she learned that she was the third Black teacher hired by the school district. She met and married Roosevelt Silas that year. They later divorced.

It was in 1970 that Silas was promoted as Tacoma’s first Black principal and administrator at DeLong Elementary School—describing it as “absolutely my toughest job.” “The all-white staff…just looked at me and I looked at them and I was wondering how we can communicate and educate kids together. I had to work to build their confidence in me because I’m a woman of color.” She retired from that position twelve years later in 1982.

In 1991, Dr. Silas was appointed to the Tacoma City Council’s vacant central area district seat finishing first among the nineteen applicants. She had previously been President of the Tacoma and Northwest Area of the NAACP, past member of the Human Rights Commission, Chair of the Board of Allenmore Hospital, member of the YWCA Board Directors, member of the Tacoma Urban League, and successful small business owner. She was formally elected to the position on November 5, 1991, defeating Craig Steve Rice by a citywide vote of 18,253 to 13,996.

Silas revealing the new school name under a red cloth banner
Dr. Dolores Silas attending the renaming ceremony, July 1, 2021 – Courtesy Tacoma Public Schools

Dr. Silas was an unconventional council member challenging her colleagues to walk the streets of the central area with her. She also met with gang members in her home and was amused when some of them referred to her as their “Little Mama.” Despite the opposition of the Police Union and two council colleagues, she won reelection in 1995 by defeating Jan Bejarano by a vote of 2,663 to 2,245. (By that point the Tacoma City Charter was changed to allow direct election by district.)

On February 11, 2021, the Tacoma School Board of Directors voted unanimously to rename the 61-year-old Woodrow Wilson High School in Dr. Silas’ honor. The renaming ceremony took place on July 1. Twenty-four days later on July 24, 2021, Dr. Silas died at the age of 95.