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'A champion for social justice': Austin civil rights icon Bertha Sadler Means dies at age 100

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
The late Bertha Sadler Means, an Austin civil rights leader, served as an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of the Means family business, Austin Cab Company, and the town of her birth, Valley Mills.

Austin civil rights pioneer, school namesake, church co-founder, business leader and lifelong educator Bertha Sadler Means died at noon Tuesday at age 100.

"She was approaching her 101st birthday and had lived life to the fullest," said her granddaughter Inonge Khabele, speaking for the family. "We will dearly miss her sense of humor, tenacity, generosity, compliments and celebratory way of living every moment. In the coming days, we will share more about her life and her upcoming service." 

She did not give a cause of death.

The Austin school district named Bertha Sadler Means Academy for Young Women Leaders after Means, who picketed and protested alongside her friends and family to end Jim Crow segregation in Austin. She was among the first Black educators to teach in Austin's white-majority schools.

"As civil rights advocate, community leader, educator, businesswoman, and mother, she lived an extraordinary life with major contributions to Austin, which continue through her children," said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. "Even at the joyful community celebration that was her 90th birthday, I was pleased to be identified as 'one of her boys,' from my student days working out of her kitchen on NAACP voter registration drives. At Barton Springs, at skating rinks, at school, at voter registration drives, she was a champion for social justice and an inspiration."

Born May 1920 in Valley Mills, Means belonged to well-established Black communities in McLennan and Bosque counties. Her formerly enslaved grandfather, the Rev. James Sadler, founded the post-Emancipation freedom colony of Valley Mills.

Smart and athletic, she graduated from A.J. Moore High School in Waco before attending what is now Huston-Tillotson University in East Austin. As soon as she stepped off the train downtown, she was confronted by racism; a taxi driver would not take her across East Avenue.

“I had grown up in the Jim Crow era,” Means told the American-Statesman in 2015. “I was quite accustomed to not being able to eat at restaurants and having to sit at the back of the bus ... the back of everything.”

James Means, Bertha Sadler Means and her daughter, Joan Means Khabele pose for a family portrait during the 1940s.

Years later, she became a leading activist among East Austin's professional class. In 1962, angry that her children were not allowed to skate at the Ice Palace rink — on the same day she was turned away from a driving range on Burnet Road — she organized protests.

“Enough’s enough!” Means said. “I’ve had it. I’ve been discriminated against all my life. It’s time to stop that. I’m not going to let my kids go through what I’ve gone through.”

Her late husband, James H. Means Sr., served as a professor of mathematics at the same college that she attended, but she was not his student. He also thrived as a real estate investor and business leader. They got married in 1941, the same year they helped found St. James Episcopal Church in East Austin.

Together, they raised five children while they ran a profitable family business Harlem Cab, which became Austin Cab Company.

Their son, track star James H. Means Jr., broke color barriers at the University of Texas, becoming, in the early 1960s, the first African American to letter in UT athletics. Their daughter, Patricia was the first African American to graduate from St. Stephen’s Episcopal School.

Another daughter, Joan Means Khabele, fought segregation at Barton Springs and Zilker Park in 1960 before her mother’s Ice Palace protests. After earning a degree at the University of Chicago, she lived for three decades in Africa.

One of Means’ grandsons, Khotso Khabele, a prominent educator and entrepreneur who co-founded Austin's Khabele School, now called Headwaters School, died from drowning in 2020.

Bertha Sadler Means, second from left, stands with her family holding a sign that reads Bertha Sadler Means Avenue when Congress Avenue was renamed temporarily in her honor.

Bertha Means was a member of the Austin Human Relations Commission, Austin Parks Commission, the NAACP, the Urban League, Austin chapter of Links, Alpha Kappa Alpha, the Town Lake Beautification Committee, the city's Bicentennial Commission, and the Austin chapter of Jack & Jill of America, which she helped found. She also worked to bring the Ebony Fashion Fair, an important cultural event, to Austin for the first time.

Means ran unsuccessfully for the Austin City Council in 1981.

“I was not bitter,” she says. “I knew what politics were. I’m glad I lost. It was quite an experience.”

A high point in Means’ political life came in 2008 when she attended the Democratic National Convention in Denver as a self-professed “great-grandmama for Obama.”

"I knew her for over 50 years," said Harrison Eppright, who leads history tours of Austin and is a member of St. James. "I met her in 1967 while I was a student at the old Allan Jr. High School. She was the last surviving founding member of St. James’ Episcopal Church, founded Dec. 7, 1941. She was a trailblazer, businesswoman, civil rights activist, friend to all and a real nice, kind person."

She is survived by five children, and multiple grandchildren and greatgrandchildren. 

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.