Iona Wood Collins, one of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's first African-American librarians who later ran a nursery school for children when they didn't have many preschool options, died Wednesday of a stroke at her Ashburton home. She was 89.
Mrs. Collins worked in the late 1930s and 1940s at the Pratt's Branch 1 at Pitcher Street and Fremont Avenue. After her daughter was born in 1945, she became director of the Little School, a private preschool on Carrollton Avenue.
Family said Mrs. Collins reopened the Little School, which had been shut down, because she couldn't find a nursery school that would accept her daughter Jill.
Quickly, the brick rowhouse serving hot oatmeal and reading lessons became a popular haven for African-American families desiring a quality education for their young children -- so popular there was a long waiting list of applicants.
"She thought 3- and 4-year-olds were capable of reading at an early age," said former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who sent his daughter to the school. "Then she taught them to speak well. She didn't tolerate the use of street language."
Mrs. Collins ran the nursery school for 35 years and expanded it, running the Park Hill Nursery and Kindergarten near Druid Hill Park. Upon retirement, she sold the schools.
"Everybody's children became her children," recalled Wilhelmina A. Garner, a friend who sent her two daughters to the Little School. Without it, Mrs. Garner said, "I guess we would have done the teaching ourselves."
Well before the notion became a bedrock of education, Mrs. Collins, in a soft-spoken but firm way, sought to raise the expectations of black children despite the obstacles posed by segregation.
"We were taught by my parents not to break the law but to change the law. So we set about trying to change the law. And her contribution was to help these kids read and write," said a brother, James E. "Biddy" Wood of Baltimore.
A pioneering career in education came naturally to Mrs. Collins, the daughter of Francis Marion Wood, a president of Kentucky State College who was Baltimore's first "superintendent of colored schools" before desegregation.
The Francis M. Wood Alternative High School on North Calhoun Street in West Baltimore is named for her father.
Born Iona Wood in Paris, Ky., Mrs. Collins was also the daughter of Nellie Virgie Hughes Wood, an educator who led Kentucky State College's home economics department before moving with her husband to Baltimore in 1925.
Mrs. Collins was raised in the Sugar Hill neighborhood near Druid Hill Park. She graduated in 1931 from Frederick Douglass High School and earned a bachelor's degree in 1935 from Howard University. She studied library science at Hampton Institute before transferring to Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree in library science.
She was married to Howard G. Collins, a postal worker who died in 1989. Family and friends, who called her "Sis" or "Aunt Sis," said she was an avid card player who enjoyed cruises.
She was a member for 75 years of Union Baptist Church.
A memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 10 at March Funeral Home, 4300 Wabash Ave.
In addition to her brother, she is survived by a daughter, Jill Dennis of Baltimore; and a grandson.
Sun staff writer Jacques Kelly contributed to this article.