Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2020

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Kit Carson out: Name change spotlights pioneering principal’s impact at Las Vegas school

Helen Anderson Toland

Steve Marcus

Helen Anderson Toland, 94, poses at her home in Las Vegas Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. Toland was the first Black female school principal in the Clark County School District.

Helen Anderson Toland

Helen Anderson Toland, 94, poses on her porch at her home in Las Vegas Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. Toland was the first black female school principal in the Clark County School District. Launch slideshow »

She coordinated for icons Muhammad Ali and Sammy Davis Jr. to visit the Kit Carson Elementary School in the 1960s. She also went out of her way to raise money so the West Las Vegas children could take field trips to Disneyland and the Grand Canyon.

For Helen Anderson Toland, it was all in a day’s work.

As the first Black woman principal in the Clark County School District, she took great pride in making sure that the students at the all-Black, still-segregated school had a memorable experience.

“We were worth something and we had been exposed to more things,” said Swayzine Fields, one of the many students who say Toland impacted her life. “It was something we never forgot.”

Fields is working to make sure Toland’s legacy will never be forgotten. 

A group of former students spent two years coordinating with officials to rename the school Helen Anderson Toland Elementary School. The Clark County School Board on Thursday approved the proposal to rescind the name in favor of Toland, agreeing that Carson’s role in the death of hundreds of Native Americans during the colonization of the West couldn’t be overlooked. 

Carson led the Long Walk of the Navajo in 1864, forcing Navajo people to march from their land in modern-day Arizona to New Mexico in the middle of winter. At least 200 Navajo people died of starvation and exposure during the forced marches.

“We started digging into Kit Carson’s history and the times being as they are, the controversies now with the history of racism in the country, having buildings named after people folks no longer respect, this was the perfect time to challenge the name,” Fields said.

And Toland, now 94 and still residing in the Historic Westside, was a fitting replacement. 

“We thought maybe it would be better if the kids had somebody that they could actually see that looked like them who achieved something in the community,” said Fields, who is also her neighbor.

Originally from Missouri, Toland came to Las Vegas in the 1960s to marry civil rights activist Jim Anderson. They met at an NAACP meeting in Los Angeles while she was a student at the University of Southern California, where she got her master’s degree in speech therapy. Anderson was working with the NAACP toward the consent decree of 1971 that required major Las Vegas resorts to hire more Black workers.

“I came for love,” Toland said.

She initially was the speech therapist at Kit Carson — at a time when there were only a handful of schools in the Las Vegas area. When the principal position opened, she was determined to be considered, and spent countless hours in preparation. 

“I read books on administration. I read books on law supervision. I read whatever I thought and what was given to me to read that it might be helpful,” she said. “So when the test came out ... I made the highest score that had ever been made in Las Vegas. So it was kind of difficult for them not to hire me.”

Toland lives two miles from the school that will bear her name. And she’s still going strong with a sharp wit and sense of humor. She’s known to give free speech therapy lessons to friends and doesn’t hide her pride in being part of the community.

On a tour of her sculpture garden, Toland pointed to a family carved in stone. She said it was titled “Together We Shall Keep Our Children.”

“That means together we shall raise them,” she said.

Toland left the school in the early 1970s after her husband died. To her displeasure, public schools in Las Vegas still weren’t fully integrated, she said. That’s part of the reason why she worked endlessly to provide for her students, whether it was a field trip to Mount Charleston or by providing an example of the value of being educated.

“If my kids were going to feel at home in the world, then they have to see as much of the world as possible, so that meant field trips,” she said.