NCNW Women of the year: 1946
Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Council of Negro Women, presents awards to ten women chosen for their “devotion to the public good” March 15, 1946.
From left to right: Bethune; Virginia Durr, president of the National Council to Abolish the Poll Tax; Lois M. Jones, art teacher, Howard University; Lt. Col. Charity Adams, who led African American WACS in the European theater during World War II; U.S. Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, Democrat, of California; Maida Springer, American Federation of Labor; Agnes Meyer, wife of the publisher of the Washington Post; Pauli Murray, California attorney: Arenia Mallory, founder of an industrial training school in Lexington, KY; Florence Jaffray Harriman, former United States Ambassador to Norway and Eslanda Goode Robeson, anthropologist and wife of Paul Robeson, singer. Two other recipients, Judge Jane Bolin of the New York City Court of Domestic Relations, and Dr. Catherine Lealtad, associated in UNRRA work in German, were not present at the ceremonies held at 1318 Vermont Avenue NW.
A number of the women pictured would be ostracized within a few years through allegations of communist association, sexual identity or association with the civil rights struggle of the 1950s:
Virginia Durr: Durr and her husband Clifford Durr were early southern civil rights activists. In 1938 she was a founder of the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, an interracial rights group in the south. She ran for U.S. Senate in Virginia on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948. She returned to Montgomery, Alabama in 1951 where she became a mentor to Rosa Parks. She was redbaited by U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland’s committee in 1954, but continued her work on civil rights issues.
Helen Gahagan Douglas: Douglas ran for U.S. Senator for California on the Democratic ticket in 1950. Her opponent Richard M. Nixon red-baited her using the nickname “the pink lady” and said she was “pink right down to her underwear.” The Nixon campaign printed attack ads on pink paper. Gahagan lost the election and her political career was demolished. Her only solace was she pinned a nickname on Nixon that plagued him the rest of his life—“Tricky Dick.”
Pauli Murray: Murray was a socialist civil rights activist who was discriminated against as an African American, a woman and for her sexual identity. Denied admission to the University of North Carolina because she was African American and arrested outside of Petersburg, Va. for refusing to move out of a “whites only” section, the NAACP refused to pursue her case at least in part because of her appearance—she wore pants and associated with women. Enrolled in the Howard University law school she was told by one professor he did not know why women went to law school. Harvard later rejected her for her gender. She later took the California bar and largely pursued a career as an academic, but contributing papers like “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII." Toward the end of her career, she enrolled in an Episcopal seminary and became the first African American woman ordained as a priest.
Eslanda Goode Robeson: She acted as the business manager of Paul Robeson’s singing and acting career and was a civil rights, antiwar anti-colonial activist in her own right. With the advent of the Cold War both became targets during the McCarthy days. Robeson’s career came to a standstill, their income dropped dramatically, and the Connecticut estate had to be sold. On July 17, 1953 Eslanda, like her husband, was called to testify before the US Senate. Asked if she was a communist, she took the Fifth Amendment and challenged the legitimacy of the proceedings. Her passport was revoked, until the decision was overturned in 1958. Fighting for the decolonization of Africa and Asia she continued to work for the Council on African Affairs and to write as the UN correspondent for the New World Review, a pro-Soviet magazine. Once their passports had been returned to the Robesons, they flew to London and the Soviet Union. Eslanda made her third and final trip to Africa, attending the first postcolonial All-African Peoples' Conference in Ghana in 1958. In 1963 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She returned from Russia to the US and died in New York in 1965.
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Photographer: Star Staff Photo. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.