Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Cynthia Pierce, 80, hard-driving educational activist

She founded a Montessori school and was active in civil-rights causes.

Cynthia Pierce
Cynthia PierceRead more

IT WOULD NOT have been advisable to get in Cynthia Pierce's way when she was heading somewhere.

Cynthia was a woman who got things done and she didn't let obstacles interfere with her missions. One of the major goals in her life was quality and affordable education for low-income families, and she provided it.

She was the founder of a Montessori school in West Philadelphia that sought to educate mostly minority students in a private-school environment that encouraged individual accomplishment.

Montessori Genesis II did so for 38 years, despite many discouraging problems, before it was forced to close last June because of diminished enrollment and lack of funds.

Cynthia Pierce, who spent her life in various civil-rights and educational causes, wielding her sometimes fierce determination and concern for the welfare of the disadvantaged to make things happen, who also found time to raise four children, died Wednesday of cancer. She was 80.

In 1976, Cynthia and several other concerned African-Americans founded Montessori Genesis II in Mantua. She enrolled her son, Dammun, in the school and he did so well that he won a scholarship to the exclusive Shipley School in Bryn Mawr.

Cynthia wasn't the kind of parent who drops her son off at the school door and drives away. Not the least awed by Shipley's reputation for academic excellence, she turned on the heat.

"She was absolutely rock-solid in her determination that her boy was going to get the very best out of Shipley if she had to wring it out of all of us," said Nancy Donaldson, who was head of the lower school when Dammun arrived in the fifth grade as the only black kid in the school.

"She was a pioneering and hard-driving lady," said Donaldson, mother of Daily News political cartoonist Signe Wilkinson. "She was one of those special people you never forget."

His mother's drive worked well for Dammun, who went on to become an osteopathic physician now associated with the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., as a practitioner in obstetrics and gynecology, and an associate professor.

Dammun, now 41, admitted to suffering a culture shock when he showed up as the only minority student in the all-white Shipley School. However, he must have won his fellow students over quickly because they elected him president of the class shortly after his arrival.

"She wanted to make sure I didn't forget who I was," Dammun said. "She never wanted me to try to be someone I wasn't. If I knew who I was, she believed, I could handle the rest of it.

"She was very active at Shipley. I think they should have given her an honorary degree."

Cynthia was born in Philadelphia to Celeste and Barnett Harrell. She graduated from Simon Gratz High School.

She married Robert T. Pierce, a computer engineer, on Nov. 23, 1955.

Cynthia was associated with day-care centers before she organized a group of concerned parents to start Montessori Genesis II. Tuition was deliberately low so that low-income families could afford it.

Cynthia was the chief cook and bottle-washer, fundraiser and tireless promoter. The school provided breakfast and lunch for the students and she cooked both meals.

Keeping the school going was a constant struggle. There was never enough money, and it was trashed by neighborhood ne'er-do-wells three times. But it struggled on until it couldn't go any longer.

"She was feisty and spicy," her daughter, Dorin Collins, said of her mother. "She had a very strong spirit and a big heart for other people."

Cynthia was involved in various community and civil-rights causes, including the Philadelphia Tutorial Project and the Self-Help Center, both of which provided services to low-income minority families.

She once said that her biggest influence was the late James O. Williams, an organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality and director of the tutorial project.

"He taught me that if people had the tools, they could go farther and do better in their lives," she told retired Daily News reporter Kitty Caparella, a longtime friend, in 1998.

In her final hours in Abington Memorial Hospital, Kitty asked Cynthia what Williams and other civil-rights leaders had taught her.

"She said through her oxygen mask, 'How to deal with people,' " Kitty said.

Cynthia's best friend, Kathie Rhone, accompanied Cynthia on a Caribbean cruise in November. In spite of her failing health, Cynthia was out on the dance floor having a grand time.

"When it was suggested that she go into hospice care, the family was told how quiet and serene a place it was," Kathie said. "The family said Cynthia didn't like quiet and serene. She loved the sound of children running down the halls, they said."

Her husband died in 2012. Besides her son and daughter, she is survived by another daughter, Deonne Bradsher; another, son, Devan Pierce; five sisters, Portia Brisco, Lorrane Harrell, Nila Harris, Delores Burwell and Vivastine Baylor; four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Services: 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 27, at Berean Presbyterian Church, 2101 N. Broad St. Friends may call at 9 a.m. Burial will be private.