Today Betty Shabazz is best known for being the widow of Malcolm X. But Shabazz overcame challenges before meeting her husband and after his death. Shabazz excelled in higher education despite being born to a teenage single mother and eventually pursued graduate studies that led her to become a college educator and administrator, all while raising six daughters on her own. In addition to her rise in academia, Shabazz remained active in the fight for civil rights, dedicating much of her time to helping the oppressed and underprivileged.
Early Life of Betty Shabazz: A Rough Start
Betty Shabazz was born Betty Dean Sanders to Ollie Mae Sanders and Shelman Sandlin. Her place of birth and birth date are under dispute, as her birth records were lost, but her birth date is believed to be May 28, 1934, and her birthplace either Detroit or Pinehurst, Ga. Like her future husband Malcolm X, Shabazz endured a difficult childhood. Her mother reportedly abused her and at age 11 she was removed from her care and placed in the home of a middle-class black couple named Lorenzo and Helen Malloy.
Although life with the Malloys gave Shabazz an opportunity to pursue higher education, she felt disconnected from the couple because they refused to discuss her brushes with racism as a student at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The Lorenzos, although involved in civil rights activism, evidently lacked the capacity to teach a young black child about how to cope with racism in U.S. society.
Raised all of her life in the North, the prejudice she encountered in the South proved too much for Shabazz. Accordingly, she dropped out of Tuskegee Institute, against the Malloys’ wishes, and headed for New York City in 1953 to study nursing at Brooklyn State College School of Nursing. The Big Apple may have been a bustling metropolis, but Shabazz soon discovered that the Northern city wasn’t immune to racism.
She felt that the nurses of color received harsher assignments than their white counterparts with little of the respect afforded to others.