‘The last lioness’
Selena Warren Wheeler was an instrumental influence during her 102 years of life. Mrs. Wheeler was known for her work with the Stanford L. Warren Library and being a clear support system for not only her husband and family, but also the city of Durham.
Mrs. Wheeler passed away July 18 after a short illness.
“In many ways she was a very humble person, but very powerful,” Beverly Washington Jones said. “Powerful to the degree that she wanted to bring forth and maintain a library, where young people can dream. … and make sure those dreams can become reality.”
Mrs. Wheeler served as a librarian at the Durham Colored Library, before it was renamed after her father. In 1932 she became the director of the library. Since then the library has named a collection of books after her, to help preserve the history of African Americans, and to pass along that knowledge to younger generations. That collection helps serve as a history of African Americans and the history of the Hayti neighborhood in Durham.
“I think that the books that we read from the collection portray the history of the old Hayti,” said Jones, a former provost of N. C. Central University. “Each time I go into the collection, it reminds me of a very phenomenal, powerful woman.”
City Councilman Eddie Davis never got that chance to work side-by-side with Mrs. Wheeler, but when he came to the city in the 1980s and worked at Hillside High School she lived near the building and would help the children.
“She was always a very kind, and very gentle, and very supportive neighbor,” Davis said.
That love of children was something Jones reiterated.
“The thing that really amazed me about her was her love for children, and making sure that the community was supporting the efforts” of the library, Jones said.
It was that support that many people remember her for.
“Even though she could have had a stellar career as a librarian,” Davis said, “she decided to be behind the scenes and be supportive.”
Ralph Hunt, head of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, worked with her husband, John Wheeler, who was president of Mechanics and Farmers Bank, an attorney and civil rights advocate. John Wheeler was chairman of the Durham Committee from 1957 until his death in 1978
“She supported him in all of his effort,” Mr. Hunt said. “And helped him move (them) forward.”
Her influence and support around the city helped shape the city as we know it.
“I think the support she gave was just phenomenal. I think Durham would have been a very different city if it wasn’t for (her),” Davis said.
For Jones, having a woman as an influence in her hometown growing up made all of the difference to her.
“Being an individual growing up in Durham, it helped me understand the role that women can play, and in many ways, she became an individual I admired,” Jones said. “She became an individual that became a mentor to me.”
Mrs. Wheeler was one of the last members of an historic era.
“She was the link between the Hayti community in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’60s,” Mr. Davis said. “She is maybe the last lioness of that link to that era.”
A celebration of her life will be held at St. Joseph’s AME Church at 2521 Fayetteville St. Thursday at 1 pm, with visitation starting at 12 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Selena Warren Wheeler Collection at the Stanford Warren Library.