Hedgeman, Anna Arnold 1899–1990
Anna Arnold Hedgeman 1899–1990
Civil rights advocate, writer, educator
Anna Arnold Hedgeman began life in a small, white, Midwestern community unaware of the discrimination African Americans faced in the United States. However, her curious mind and hunger for information and experiences exposed her to the realities of her time, and she made it her life’s work to balance the scales. From her work with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in the 1920s and 1930s to her duties with the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches in the 1960s, Hedgeman’s goals were singular. As the first African American female member of a mayoral cabinet, her example surpassed the city limits in which she worked. It began in her childhood which was marked with the influences that would last her lifetime. “Four ideas dominated our family life,” she wrote of her youth in The Gift of Chaos. “Education, religion, character, and service to mankind.”
Born Anna Arnold in Marshalltown, Iowa she moved with her family to Anoka, Minnesota when she was very young. Her father created an insular world for Hedgeman and her sisters. “I grew up in Anoka, Minnesota, in a small, comfortable Midwestern town with the traditional main street,” she wrote in her book The Trumpet Sounds. “There was no poverty as I have come to know it in the slums of our urban centers. I had not realized that a man could need bread and not be able to get it.”
The only African American family in an area dominated by European immigrants, the Arnolds were very much a part of the community and the young Arnold children were never made to feel different. Hedgeman’s father created a nurturing environment that stressed education and a strong work ethic. In that environment, however, there was also a strictness and high level of expectation for Hedgeman and her two sisters. She learned to read at home, but wasn’t permitted to attend school until she was seven years old.
Following her graduation from high school, Hedgeman prepared to attend Hamline University, a small Methodist college. She would become the first African American student at Hamline. One of the highlights of her college years was a lecture given by author and NAACP president W.E.B. DuBois in St. Paul. Hedgeman recalled in The
At a Glance …
Born Anna Arnold July 5, 1899 in Marshalltown, lowa to William James Arnold and Marie Ellen Parker Arnold. Married Merrit Hedgeman in November 1933, widowed 1987. Education: Hamline University, B.A., 1922.
Career: Teacher at Rust College, Holly Springs, Mississippi, 1922–24; began working with YWCA in Springfield, Ohio, 1924; executive director, YWCA branch in Jersey City, New Jersey, 1926; membership secretary, West 137th Street branch in New York City’s Harlem, 1927–33; executive director of a YWCA branch in Philadelphia, 1933–34; supervisor and consultant, Emergency Relief Bureau, 1934–38; director of the YWCA branch in Brooklyn, New York, 1938–39; assistant in race relations, National Office of Civilian Defense, 1939–44; executive director, National Council for a Permanent Fair employment Practices Commission, 1944–48; assistant to the administrator, Federal Security Agency, 1949–53; assistant in the cabinet of New York Mayor Robert Wagner, 1954–58; public relations consultant, Fuller Products Company, 1958–59; associate editor and columnist, New York Age, ” 1959–60; Coordinator of Special Events for the Commission of Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches, 1963–67; cofounder, Hedgeman Consulting Services.
Selected awards: Consumer Protective Committee Award, 1955; Outstanding Citizen’s Award, Abyssinian Baptist Church, 1956; Manhattan Arts and Educational Guild Award Certificate, 1957; Rust College Shield Award, 1971; Frederick Douglass Award, 1974; Pioneer Woman Award, New York State Conference on Midlife and Older Women, 1983.
Gift of Chaos, “The audience gave rapt attention and I returned to the campus with the image of black men of poise, dignity, and intelligence, who were determined to be free.”
In 1922, armed with a degree and a deep conviction to serve, Hedgeman chose to teach at the small black Rust College in HollySprings, Mississippi. Having never been to the South nor having heard of some of the greater indignities African Americans suffered there, Hedgeman was in for a rude awakening. On the train from Chicago, the conductor informed Hedgeman that she would have to switch to the “colored” coach at Cairo, Illinois because African Americans couldn’t ride in the “white” coach beyond that point. She recalled in The Gift of Chaos, “When we reached Cairo a Negro porter escorted me from my comfortable seat to the “colored” coach. This coach was just behind the engine, and soot and dirt filled the air, soiling both the seat and my lovely new traveling costume. I was indignant; how could the railroad company permit such disgraceful service to any American?”
When she arrived in Holly Springs, Hedgeman saw poor African Americans and experienced the humiliation of segregation for the first time. She also realized that her students, mostly poor children of sharecroppers, were forced to work for a wage at the expense of their education. “It did not take long for the love of the soil, which had been my heritage, to turn into hate,” she wrote in The Gift of Chaos. “For it was the soil and its demand that its crop be harvested which brought my bright, eager students late to the classroom, and it was the same soil which claimed them for spring planting, just when they were beginning to progress.”
After two years at Rust College, Hedgeman decided she’d had enough. The circumstances in which she was forced to teach and the attitudes of Southern whites became too much to endure. Also, asa Northerner, she was resented by both blacks and whites in the South and could accomplish little without meeting stiff resistance. Her future, Hedgeman reasoned, lay in the North where opportunities to influence change were greater. “I decided that I must return North and organize the Midwest,” she recalled in Trumpet, “to help eliminate the cruelty of the Southern part of my country.
However, Hedgeman faced difficulty when she returned to Minnesota in 1924. Unable to find a teaching job because she was African American, she went to work for the YWCA where she experienced a great deal of racial prejudice. After accepting a position in Springfield, Ohio she found that her branch, which was located in an African American neighborhood, had no gymnasium, swimming pool, cafeteria, or an adequate staff. Although the central branch had all of these amenities, African Americans were not allowed to use them. Hedgeman was also not allowed to eat in the central branch’s cafeteria, even though she was a YWCA employee.
Despite the prejudice Hedgeman experienced, the YWCA was one of the first organizations to have African American executives and Hedgeman continued her ties with the association, becoming executive director of an African American branch in Jersey City, New Jersey. In 1927, she became membership secretary of the West 137th Street branch in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. Hedgeman welcomed the Harlem assignment because it had adequate facilities and was an environment free of racism. “I would have equipment with which to work and the challenge of the largest Negro community in the nation,” she wrote in The Gift of Chaos. “The walls of segregation had done its work. I was completely free of and through with white people.”
As the Great Depression hit Harlem residents especially hard, Hedgeman and other YWCA staffers were called upon to redouble their efforts and provide essential social services. Seven-day work weeks were not uncommon and, after five years, Hedgeman decided that it was time for a change. In the late summer of 1933, she resigned her position in Harlem to become executive director of an African American branch in Philadelphia. Working in a more racially-mixed environment than Harlem, Hedgeman was forced to break her isolation from white people. “I knew this [position] would involve, in addition to the branch program, continuous contact with white Association and other community ĺeaders,” she reminisced in Trumpet. “I could no longer merely talk at white people. I had to work with them.”
In November of 1933 Hedgeman married her husband, Merrit, who was an interpreter of African American folk music. The following year, she returned to New York to be with her husband and took a job asa supervisor and consultant to the Emergency Relief Bureau, now called the Department of Welfare. She would remain in that position until 1938 when she went back to the YWCA as director of the African American branch in Brooklyn. Disillusioned with the blatant segregation policies of the national Association, Hedgeman resigned and went to work as an assistant in race relations for the National Office of Civilian Defense.
In 1944, Hedgeman served as the executive director of the newly-formed National Council for a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission. This organization initiated national legislative programs to ensure that minority groups would have access to education and jobs. The main goal of the organization was to secure passage of the FEPC bill, which would have guaranteed the right to work without regard to race, creed, or color. Passage of the bill was defeated in 1945.
In 1949, after working on Harry Truman’s presidential campaign, Hedgeman went to work as an assistant to the administrator of the Federal Security Agency, which was later known as the Office of Health, Education and Welfare. This position enabled her to spend three months in India as an exchange leader for the Department of State. Upon returning to New York, Hedgeman became involved in city politics and, following the election of Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. in 1954, became the first African American woman to hold a mayoral cabinet position in the city’s history. In this position, Hedgeman was responsible for corresponding with eightcity departments and served as a liaison for international guests visiting New York.
Disenchanted with the back room bureaucracy of city hall, Hedgeman resigned in 1958 to take a job as a public relations consultant for the Fuller Products Company, a cosmetics firm. At Fuller Products, she made contacts with church and civic groups and gave daily lectures to salesmen. When company president S.B. Fuller bought the New York Age, the nation’s oldest African American newspaper, Hedgeman was asked to serve as associate editor and columnist. Due to dwindling circulation, the paper ceased production in 1960. That same year, Hedgeman was the keynote speaker at the first Conference of the Woman of Africa and of African Descent held in Ghana.
In 1963, Hedgeman was asked to serve as Coordinator of Special Events for the Commission of Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches. Her first task was to locate 30,000 white Protestants from across the country who were willing to participate in a March on Washington scheduled for August 28, 1963. Hedgeman played a major role in what is considered one of the greatest civil rights moments in history. When she noticed that there were no women scheduled to speak at the Lincoln Memorial, Hedgeman moved swiftly to correct the oversight. She also worked with the National Council of Churches to ensure passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, a descendant of the FEPC bill proposed twenty years earlier.
In 1965, Hedgeman ran an unsuccessful candidacy for City Council President in New York. Two year later, she retired from the National Council of Churches. Along with her husband, she founded Hedgeman Consultant Services. With the consulting firm serving as a home base, Hedgeman spent the 1970s lecturing, teaching, and consulting on race relations and black studies to educational centers, colleges and universities, and public school teachers. Following the death of her husband in 1987, Hedgeman moved to the Greater Harlem Nursing home where she lived until her death on January 17, 1990.
Hedgeman, Anna Arnold, The Gift of Chaos: Decades of American Discontent, Oxford University Press, 1977.
Hedgeman, Anna Arnold, The Trumpet Sounds: A Memoir of Negro Leadership, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.
Jet, February 12, 1990, p. 17.
New York Times, January 26, 1990, p. D-18.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Rare Books and Manuscripts division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
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