RENO, Nev. – Nevada's two major universities are mourning the loss of the first black woman to earn a college degree in the state at a time when most of the nation was still segregated.
A memorial service was scheduled for Friday evening in Las Vegas for Stella Mason Parson, who died July 29 due to complications from renal disease.
Parson graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno in June 1952 with a bachelor's degree in English. She later returned to school at UNLV, where she earned a masters' degree in marriage and family counseling in 1988.
"When we first came here, there were no black teachers, no black professional in anything," she said in the donated tapes collection for a project at UNLV's James R. Dickinson Library. "Most of the women worked as maids."
At UNR, Parson wasn't allowed to have a roommate. She worked at the school cafeteria and as a domestic on weekends to cover her living expenses.
"Reno, the city itself, was just as segregated as any other city," Parson said in the 1978 interview. "We couldn't eat in the cafeterias downtown. But as far as the campus was concerned, black people were more than welcome."
Parson taught school for 33 years in Clark County, where a Las Vegas elementary school is named after her and her late husband, the Rev. Claude H. Parson, Jr., whom she met while he was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base.
In 2002, UNR awarded her a President's Medal for her accomplishments and created a scholarship in her name.
"Mrs. Parson was a good friend of the university who returned to campus over the years to speak and interact with students," said John K. Carothers, the school's vice president for development and alumni relations and executive director of the University of Nevada, Reno Foundation
"Her many years of teaching and service to the Clark County area have influenced generations of Nevada students who have gone on to better themselves and their communities," he said Thursday.
Parson was able to enroll at UNR in 1948 thanks in part to a scholarship she received from the Las Vegas chapter of the American Association of University Women, Carothers said.
"In order to repay those who helped her and benefit others, the Stella Mason Parson Endowed Scholarship was established to encourage other female students of African American descent to pursue a college education," he said. "Stella will be very much missed on campus by those who knew and worked with her."
Parson was born Nov. 18, 1929, on a plantation in Lake, Mississippi — the daughter of sharecroppers, Fred and Matilda Parson.
Fred Parson ushered his wife and daughter to a new life.
"He stole them off the plantation and hid them on a plantation in Arizona before working to pay to move them to Las Vegas," said Tara Trass, an executive assistant to Stella Parson's daughter, Naida Parson, who is the senior pastor of New Antioch Christian Fellowship in Las Vegas.
The family moved to Las Vegas in 1942, and Stella Parson later graduated from Las Vegas High School.
In the interview conducted for an oral history project at UNLV in 1978, Parson said her family lived in west Las Vegas during World War II, where there were "no paved streets ... and almost no homes for blacks at all."
"They would build a floor and spread a tent over it, and we would cook on wood stoves outside. ... There were no bathrooms," she said in tapes for UNLV's project, "The Black Experience in Southern Nevada."
The memorial service was scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday at Vegas View Church of God in Christ, which she and her husband founded in 1965. An additional celebration of her life was planned Saturday at 11 a.m. at Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ.