Segregated Victoria shaped civil rights leader's life

Jan. 20, 2013 at 10:05 p.m.
Updated Jan. 20, 2013 at 7:21 p.m.

As a young girl, Sandra "Casey" Hayden didn't realize Victoria and the rest of the country was segregated.

But that life in small-town Victoria shaped Hayden and led her to become a leader in the civil rights movement.

It was not until she read about segregation while attending Patti Welder High School that she became aware of and upset by the injustice.

"I was insulted about laws saying who I could associate with," recalled Hayden, now 75. "I thought it was local tradition."

Soon after that, Hayden's life became a battle for seeking equal rights during the civil rights movement.

Hayden's life will be part of a discussion celebrating famous Victoria civil rights activists Thursday at the University of Houston-Victoria. Speaking at the lecture will be author Wesley Hogan, a professor at Virginia State University.

Hayden will not attend Thursday's program because of health issues.

A daughter of a single mother who worked at the now- closed Frels' Theater, Hayden attended Patti Welder High during the 1950s. Hayden was also a member of the First Presbyterian Church in Victoria.

Hayden said her time at Patti Welder learning about U.S. history and her mother, Eula Weisiger Beams, helped shape her career.

"My mother was a college-educated liberal and a quiet feminist," Hayden said. "I understood her life as a working single mother from a feminist perspective."

After graduating high school in 1955, Hayden attended Victoria College and two years later transferred to the University of Texas at Austin. She rarely traveled back to Victoria except for brief visits to see her mother. She last came back in 1994 after her mother died.

Born Sandra Cason, Hayden has lineage that goes back to the founding of Victoria through the Weisiger family. Her grandfather was a county sheriff in Victoria for nearly two decades, and her great-grandfather was in the Texas Senate.

Hayden said many women in Victoria set positive examples for her, including Mary Frances McCall, a leader in integrating Victoria's public schools, and Norma Jean Barber, her journalism teacher at Patti Welder. Barber first introduced the concept of legal segregation to Hayden and gave Hayden her first experience with publishing by working on the Stingaree student newspaper.

At UT, Hayden became involved in organizations such as the Young Women's Christian Association. That paved the way for her to move into a larger national community, she said.

When Hayden became a national student officer for the YWCA, she attended a conference in Wisconsin. There, she met a black woman who was involved in sit-ins at the University of Texas.

Amazed by what the woman went through, Hayden brought her to school, where she and others participated in sit-ins at school.

At a conference in Minnesota, she met Tom Hayden, who later became a founder at Students for a Democratic Society. They were later married but divorced after two years.

Hayden said she never considered herself an outsider among her black friends because they were all fighting for the same rights. She recalled only two other white people who were working for Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee but said others helped behind the scene.

Hal Smith, a history and humanities professor at the University of Houston-Victoria, said he found it interesting Hayden is mentioned in the books he used to teach.

"She was an extremely significant person in American history," said Smith, who is writing about Hayden's life. "If you stop and think about how difficult it was to stand up and support change in race relations, that was a courageous thing for a person to do, especially for a white female."

After graduating from the University of Texas with a degree in English, Hayden took a job working in New York. She later worked at the YWCA chapter in Atlanta, where she saw activists such as Martin Luther King Jr.

She was also the northern coordinator for the SNCC and later involved in the National Women's Liberation group, a group that supported women's rights.

"My whole experience was so extreme because it was a huge, nonviolent struggle," she said. "Really, at that point, we were fighting for rights. It was sort of like being in a war."

Hayden, along with other women, wrote a book titled "Deep In Our Hearts: Nine Women in the Freedom Movement," which talks about that interracial movement during the 1960s.

While Hayden lives a private life now in Tucson, Ariz., she looks back on her days in Victoria.

"I changed from who I was in Victoria," she said. "It's not about race for me at this point. We have to look at the broader issues Dr. King has shaped for us."



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