Nell Taylor: Smith Student, Career Woman, Trail Blazer
In 1947, it was much more difficult for an African-American woman to attend Smith College and succeed in the corporate world than it is today. During its existence, Smith College has consistently encouraged diversity and helped its students to succeed, and there are some amazing stories of success. Mrs. Nell Taylor ‘51, is in many ways a trail blazer in the Smith community in this regard. This is her story both as a student and alumna of Smith.
Mrs. Taylor was one of only five African-American students in her graduating class while she was at Smith, only two of whom graduated. Mrs. Taylor herself was an active member of the Smith College community. Her original major was music, but when she discovered it left her with very little time to participate in outside activities, she changed her plans. Indeed, she went on to become an active member of her class, serving as Class Secretary in her freshman year, and as President of the Student Government her senior year. The latter achievement received some attention by the press, which reported the first Negro woman elected President of her class in a major college in the United States. Having a black Student Government President was, she notes, considered “novel” for those days.
The 1950s were a time of passiveness on campus, and overall, she explains, there weren’t “any kind of political statements” being expressed. None the less, during 1947, Mrs. Taylor’s freshman year, some acquaintances at the University of Massachusetts enlisted her to join NAACP members in picketing at a “favorite college hangout”, the Quonset Hut, in Amherst, which would not serve black people. She did join them in this activity, and several weeks later, she recollects, she was called into the Dean’s (then called “the Warden”) office. The message was simple: “Smith girls don’t picket.” Mrs. Taylor remembers thinking, “Smith girls might not picket, but if there’s injustice, black people might!” She continued to attend demonstrations, and was never bothered by the Smith administration again.
After graduating Cum Laude from Smith College with a degree in English, Mrs. Taylor went to Yale University for graduate school. There, she participated in a one year Masters of Arts in Teaching Program. This course of study, although concentrating primarily on the field of English literature, also taught the principles and practices for high school teaching, skills that would serve her well later on. She graduated from this program in 1952 with a Master’s Degree.
Beginning in 1953, she worked at the National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students. The agency granted supplemental scholarships for students who had already received financial aid from colleges but required more in order to attend. She was an associate in the Research and Public Relations Department, a job which called for her to establish liaisons with major colleges and preparatory schools in the Northeast. In the meantime, Mrs. Taylor had also received her license to be a substitute teacher in New York State. During the year she worked with the National Scholarship Service, she also did substitute teaching in the New York City Public Schools. Her next position was at Hunter College High School, the collaboratory school of Hunter College of the State University of New York which she herself had attended as a high school student. There she taught English and worked as a guidance counselor from 1953 to 1959. It the first of many times she would work as a counselor and as Mrs. Taylor recalls, she was “teaching great students” and she especially enjoyed returning as a colleague of her former teachers.
She married in 1955 while her husband was still in Law School and was the main support of the family unitl he completed his studies and began to practice. In 1959, pregnant with her first child, she continued to teach until two months before her baby was born, making her the first teacher allowed to stay so long on staff while pregnant. That was the first of her five children. As Mrs. Taylor puts it, beginning with her oldest, she was “home for about eighteen years” in which she kept more than busy!
She continued to work part time in a paid position as an educational consultant for New York City schools as well as doing freelance writing and editing. She also became very involved with her community through what was essentially volunteer work. In 1976 she was, at first, appointed to be a Town Councilperson in New Castle, in Westchester County, New York, and subsequently ran for the position and won, and ended up serving from 1976 to 1979. The main platform of her campaign was affordable housing for those who couldn’t afford more expensive homes within the community. Mrs. Taylor had personal awareness that New Castle was a fairly well off town. She recollected how one week in February when her children were home from school, practically everyone on her block went out of town for a “Ski Week”, leaving her children without playmates. She recalls that her children “almost single-handedly integrated the schools,” where they excelled and, like their mother, were very involved in school activities, whether as class presidents or captain of sports teams. Although “some of the parents were ugly in their attitudes,” she felt the schools themselves were very open and unprejudiced.
As her children grew older, Mrs. Taylor went back to full time employment in many different capacities. Being a council woman, as she explained, had been very time consuming, involving “almost all of the town business conducted for no salary, merely a small stipend by the two women members.” The three male members were New York City lawyers and unavailable during the day. When her term expired, Mrs. Taylor again was asked to run for Councilwoman or for the County Board. However, she declined because, with her children college bound, she needed to go back to working a fulltime job.
That job was teaching English at the State University of New York, at the College at Purchase. After that, she worked in the college’s admissions office, in part because of her administrative experience and because there were no full time teaching positions open at the time. Consequently, she did not stay at SUNY, but instead moved on to the Westchester County Office of Employment Training, where she worked as an employment counselor. There, she set up training programs throughout Westchester County, essentially working unassisted. Although the work was difficult, Mrs. Taylor was given a great deal of freedom in the position. She describes it as the job she is most proud of, and considers her efforts very successful in creating extensive training programs throughout the County.
Concurrently, Mrs. Taylor had also been on the Board of Counselors at Smith College from 1969 to 1979. In this position she had many responsibilities. One of the most significant was being asked by Smith’s President Mendenhall to chair a new committee, the Afro-American Studies Committee in the 1970s. Its purpose was to set up a department of Afro-American Studies. As Mrs. Taylor recalls, President Mendenhall thought there was a need for this department to be created, and he wanted it to be the best African-American Studies department in the country. The committee met frequently to set up guidelines for the department and to find a program director. The project turned out to be a success, and Mrs. Taylor credits the efforts to work with minority students with helping prevent campus unrest.
Other things came of her time on the Board of Counselors as well. As Mrs. Taylor recalls, in 1971 the Counselors were having dinner with the Board of Trustees. Mrs. Taylor happened to sit next to the C.E.O. of a major ‘Fortune 50’ Company. Unexpectedly, while they conversed, she was asked by him, “I wonder if you’d do me a favor.” As it turned out, that favor was to be interviewed for the position of Assistant to the Vice President of Human Resources for his company, and this she did. This new position brought many new challenges, as H.R. Vice-President had to travel frequently on business and she, a new-comer to the organization, was left on her own to resolve many issues so that his “desk was clean” upon his return. She notes that it quickly taught her about corporate life. She enjoyed working in this new environment and eventually moved into a position as Manager of Communications and College Relations. She states that it was “probably my favorite job.” Unfortunately, she left after five years when the company was taken over in 1976 by another company and dissolved. Prior to the takeover, however, Mrs. Taylor was given the task of managing Continental Can Company’s corporate foundation, largely because of her strong background in community and college relations. This again gave her the opportunity to direct scholarship money to minority and low income college and graduate students, a prospect that appealed to her. As Mrs. Taylor puts it, “I loved giving away money!” She also set up several highly acclaimed cooperative programs between the corporation and the city of Stanford, Connecticut, and when she finally left the position, it was with a good deal of regret.
She next took on the task of working for a brokerage house, which she did not particularly enjoy but from which learned a great deal. There she worked as the Director of Research Communications editing analysts’ reports and producing a daily newsletter. Here her English skills, of course, proved very helpful.
Her final private sector job was with the American Women’s Economic Development Corporation. This organization trained women to be entrepreneurs, and as the Director for Development, she wrote many grants to help fund the program. Mrs. Taylor worked in the non-profit sector for the remainder of her career. Initially, she worked as the Director of Administration Services for the Sheltering Arms Children’s Service. And finally, she worked from 1990 to 1997 as the Executive Director and C.E.O. of the White Plains Child’s Daycare Association, lately known as the center for Early Childhood Education, one of the larger early childhood education programs, helping eight hundred kids served by eighty-five to ninety employees in seven separate locations. As Mrs. Taylor comments, it was a particularly stressful, demanding, but rewarding, job. After retiring she worked chiefly as an educational consultant. Throughout her many years of work, Mrs. Taylor participated in numerous activities and received many awards for her efforts, some of which are listed below. Through out her career as a student, worker and leader, Nell Taylor has accomplished things few can claim to have achieved. Her accomplishments as a student, a career woman, a mother of five accomplished sons, and as an active community member would be the envy of many who have not had to face the difficulties she overcame.
Activities: 2000-2008: Women’s Advisory Board of Westchester County. Advised county executives and the legislature about issues relating to women and children. 1999-2002: Board of Directors of Scarbourgh Manor. Present: Elder of Mr. Kisco Prespyterian Church. 1997-1999: Northern Westchester Hospital Center Board of Trustees 1992-1998: Vice President for one year, on Board of Directors for six years of Child Care Council of Westchester. Rotary Club of White Plains member for nine years, on the Board of Directors for three years. Yale Alumni Association of Westchester, Board of Directors for several years, Vice President for one year. 1989-1993: Board of Directors of Planned Parenthood of Westchester 1951-1956: President of Alumni Class 1979-1989: Smith College Board of Trustees 1969-1979: Smith College Board of Counselors Member of New York City Smith Club Vice President of Smith Club of Brooklyn P.T.A. Member and officer in Children’s Schools, Chappogua, NY.
Awards: 2005: Yale-Westchester Alumni Association Award for Distinguished Service to Yale-Westchester and to the County of Westchester 2000 and following: Who’s Who in American Women and Who’s Who in America 1998: Jan Silverman Award from the W.P.C.D.C.A. 1995-1996: Selected by Leadership Westchester to join them 1994: Paul Harris Fellow of the White Plains Rotary Club (its highest award) 1994: Smith College John M. Greene Award for Distinguished Service to the College Stanford, Connecticut YMCA Award for Development of Women 1983: Otelia Cromwell Award for Outstanding Contribution to Black Community at Smith College, the very first award of its kind. 1982: Harlem YMCA Black Achiever in Industry Award