NAACP Mourns First Female President

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Enolia P. McMillan served as the first female president of the NAACP, driving the organization forward at a critical time. She died this past week at her home in Maryland at the age of 102.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Services will be held in Baltimore tomorrow for Enolia McMillan, the woman known as the matriarch of the NAACP. The first female national president of the nation's oldest civil rights organization died last week at the age of 102. NPR's Allison Keyes has this remembrance.

ALLISON KEYES: McMillan was born October 20, 1904, the daughter of a slave and a domestic worker in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. Her family moved to Baltimore, and before she graduated from high school in 1922, McMillan was already working to help the community through her church, Calvary Baptist. He former pastor, Dr. Heywood Robinson...

Dr. HEYWOOD ROBINSON (Pastor, Calvary Baptist): She came across a very determined individual from the very beginning.

KEYES: McMillan started teaching in 1927 after graduating from Howard University, became one of the first black principals in 1928, and earned her Masters in 1933. That feat still awes former NAACP president and McMillan family friend, Kweisi Mfume.

Mr. KWASI IMFUME (Former President, NAACP): It's just still amazing to me that she would go to Columbia University and receive, in 1933, an advanced degree almost 30 years before there was really any effort to integrate schools in this country, and 25 years before the beginning of the civil rights movement.

KEYES: The NAACP's Reverend Nelson Rivers says education was actually McMillan's second career choice.

Reverend NELSON RIVERS (NAACP): She loved children. She thought she would be a pediatrician. She looked at the opportunities in front of her at the time. She realized that it was going to be tough for an African-American woman to be a pediatrician. And so she chose education as a way to help mold the lives of young people.

KEYES: By 1935, McMillan was busy reactivating the civil rights group's Baltimore headquarters. She became president of that chapter in 1969 and then national president in 1984. Two years later, McMillan helped persuade the NAACP to move from New York to Baltimore and buy headquarters there. Reverend Nelson remembers her baking pies and raising $150,000 towards that move by selling $1 lapel pins that said: I gave.

Rev. RIVERS: She had a sales pitch, a very effective sales pitch. She wouldn't come to you and ask you to buy the button. She would ask you, do you have a dollar for the NAACP? And then younger people like me, who were active in the NAACP, she would ask us to sell the button. She didn't want the buttons back, she wanted the money for the button.

KEYES: McMillan remained active in civil rights, leading an historic protest against apartheid at the South African embassy in Washington in 1985 and staying active with the NAACP well into her 90s. McMillan died of natural causes on October 24th, one year to the day after civil rights icon Rosa Parks' death. Reverend Nelson says McMillan was often mistaken for Parks. Both women were small in stature, but giants in strength. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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