Rebecca Lillian Dallis was born in Cornersville, Indiana on December 21, 1896 to African American parents who were born in Kentucky, just a few years before the beginning of the Civil War. She received her Bachelors of Arts and an Elementary Teaching certificate from Swift Memorial College in Rogersville, Tennessee in 1924. Rebecca and her husband, W.D. Dallis came to Phoenix in 1929. By 1932 she was a school teacher in the predominately African American community of Mobile, Arizona some 35 miles south of Phoenix, where two railroad cars served as the segregated schools—one for whites and one for Blacks. During the early and mid-20th century African Americans still faced segregation in all facets of life—from the jobs they could do, the neighborhoods they could live in the schools they could attend and the public places they could go.
As a result of the influx of African American cotton laborers and their families to Casa Grande in the 1930s, the city decided to build a separate segregated school for the children of these families. The Southside Elementary Grammar School was built in 1935 on the corner of the Southside Elementary School lot. In the fall of 1939 Rebecca took over as teacher of the Southside ‘colored school” marking the beginning of her uninterrupted service to the community of Casa Grande until her death in 1971.
She taught between forty and seventy K-8 students each year and received a salary one-third less than her white counterparts. The crowded, one room school house had no cooler and only a coal-oil heater for warmth in the winter. Her second-hand textbooks which were usually in poor condition with ripped or missing pages came from the Southside School. Chalk for the blackboards were primarily the nub ends that the teacher at the Southside School were done with. Her students were not allowed to ride school buses or play on the playground with the white students. Rebecca used her more advanced students to act as tutors to younger students outside under a tree to escape the heat and relieve the overcrowded classroom.
Rebecca’s commitment to education did not quit at the eighth grade level. She and her husband were active advocates for higher learning and supported their students dreams of graduation from high school by holding after-hours classes for upper level students’ in their home. She taught Home economics and in their kitchen and science classes on the screened in porch of their home. Former student Wilford Hankins recalled the great lengths that she went to provide her students with the foreign language requirement they needed for entry to college. Having no background in Spanish, she ordered a correspondence course from Phoenix Union High School and she took the course right along with her students.
The continued growth of the African American population meant the city built a larger segregated school in 1952, East School. Rebecca was named head teacher there and in 1960 was named principal. Mandatory retirement meant that she retired in 1962, but Rebecca never quite retired. At East School she had worked with developmentally disabled children and she realized that someone needed to learn how to help the parents of special needs children communicate better. She went back to ASU to take courses on this subject. When a local organization was created to help developmentally disabled children, Rebecca took her place in the classroom at the Trinity Southern Baptist Church and made a difference in the lives of children who needed her most. Rebecca Dallis worked tirelessly to ensure that the African American students in Casa Grande received the best education possible despite the limitations and challenges of living in a segregated community. She never let her struggles with inadequate funding, second hand supplies, or racial discrimination stifle her goal of giving her students the best foundation possible to achieve their dreams.