Kidd, Mae Street 1904–1999
Mae Street Kidd 1904–1999
When Kentucky trailblazer Mae Street Kidd passed away at age 95, she had led an intriguing life that spanned every hardship and opportunity for a black woman of the twentieth century. A top insurance executive for a number of years, Kidd began serving in Kentucky’s General Assembly in the late 1960s, where she became instrumental in securing passage of the state’s first fair housing law. “Kentucky has lost a pioneer and champion of equal rights for minorities and women,” the state’s governor, Paul Patton, said at the time of her death in a Courier-Journal article by Chris Poynter. “She leaves a legacy of work as a business leader, lawmaker and civic activist dedicated to improving the quality of life for those she served.”
Kidd was born in 1904 to a black mother and a white father, and her mixed race and light skin caused problems throughout her entire life. She never formally met her biological father, but she knew who he was. Her mother was Anna Belle Leer, born in 1873 and also of mixed heritage; as a young woman Leer worked for a well-to-do white family with a large farm in Kentucky’s bluegrass country. One of the sons in this household was Kidd’s father, and she was the second child of their romance. The gap between the public and private spheres between the races was still a dramatic one, however: Kidd was born the same year that Kentucky enacted its “Day Law,” which barred schools, either public or private, from allowing blacks and whites to be in the same classroom.
Kidd spent her early years in Millersburg, a town in Bourbon County. When she was two, her mother married a tobacco farmer who later became a chicken breeder; Kidd’s mother, meanwhile, had a thriving catering business. Kidd knew that her real father had married and began a family of his own, “and they and their mother used to come visit my mother, who was very friendly with his white family,” she recalled in her memoir, Passing for Black: The Life and Careers of Mae Street Kidd. “But I never wanted anything to do with them. I was hurt that he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—acknowledge me openly as his daughter. It was a painful part of my childhood, but I got over it.”
Millersburg’s blacks lived in a section of the town called Shippsville, and Kidd went to school there until the eighth grade. As a youngster, she realized that her light skin made it possible for her to skirt the Jim Crow laws that were a feature of life in the American South at the time: under these acts, blacks were restricted to certain schools, seating areas of public transportation, and even drinking fountains and rest rooms. She recalled in her memoir that she liked to go into the Millersburg millinery shops and try on hats as a little girl, and pointed out that all in the town knew that she was part black. Kidd’s mother eventually moved the family to Millersburg proper after asking her cousin, who was white, to purchase the house and have the deed transferred to her.
Both Kidd’s mother and stepfather worked hard to provide a solid home for the children, which included two more of their own. As a teenager, Kidd wanted to contribute to the household herself, but her mother refused to let her work for white families, telling her,
At a Glance…
Born on February 8, 1904, in Millersburg, KY; died in 1999; daughter of Anna Belle Leer (a caterer and midwife) Taylor; married Horace Street, 1930 (died, 1942); married James Kidd (died, 1972). Education: Attended Springfield Institute, 1948-50, University of Louisville, and American University, 1966-67. Religion: Methodist. Politics: Democrat.
Career: Mammoth Life and Accident Insurance Company, Louisville, KY, independent sales agent, 1921-25, file clerk, 1921, supervisor of policy issues, 1935-43, public relations counselor, 1946-56, sales representative, early 1960s. American Red Cross, Southampton, England, 1940s. Fuller Projects Company, Chicago, IL, and Detroit, Ml, sales-agent trainer and salesperson, 1947-50; Kentucky General Assembly, 41st legislative district, representative, 1968-84.
Awards: Unsung Heroine Award, National NAACP Women’s Conference; Top Ten Outstanding Kentuckians Award; Humanitarian Service Award, United Cerebral Palsy Association.
“Mae, I have to serve other people because I don’t have a choice. I want you to have a choice when you grow up.” Since her school only went up to the eighth grade, it was decided that she would be sent away to the Lincoln Institute in Simpsonville, created to provide a better educational opportunity for blacks in the Day Law era. She was 15 years old when she left home in 1919, and spent two years there before her family’s financial circumstances forced her to return home.
Kidd found a part-time job selling insurance for the Mammoth Life and Accident Insurance Company, a thriving, black-owned company based in Louisville. At the time, black-owned insurance companies were an important part of the African-American economy and some of the largest black-owned businesses of their era. Like black-owned banks, they served a community that was often discriminated against by mainstream American institutions. Kidd sold policies for Mammoth and collected premiums; to do so she walked all over the black neighborhoods in both Millersburg and a nearby city. “I never had any bad experiences anywhere because everybody knew my parents in Millersburg, and in Carlisle I soon became known and the older people began watching over me,” she recalled in her memoir, noting that she sometimes collected a hundred dollars in a day.
After four years as a salesperson, Kidd was offered a job at the Mammoth headquarters in Louisville as a file clerk through a young woman she knew whose father was a board member of the insurance company. The friend also worked for the company, and the two shared an apartment in the Mammoth building itself. Kidd was thrilled to be supporting herself and living in a relatively large city, which was still a relative rarity for a single woman of any color in 1925. Louisville was still part of the South, however, and it did have unspoken boundaries. “I couldn’t use the main public library,” Kidd recalled in Passing for Black. “I couldn’t go to the first-run movie shows on Fourth Street.”
American Red Cross Stint
After a time, Kidd was promoted to assistant bookkeeper, and then moved to the policy-issue office. In 1935 she became supervisor of policy issues, a job she held for eight years which entailed reviewing all applications for insurance that arrived at headquarters. By then Kidd had married Horace Street, a top Mammoth executive thirteen years her senior, but Street died of heart disease in 1942. Distraught and looking for a new opportunity, she joined the American Red Cross and was sent to England during World War II. There she served as assistant director of a service club for black American soldiers in Southampton. Though much had changed in the years since her girlhood in Kentucky, Kidd still trod a fine line because of the color of her skin, even in the 1940s. Her husband refused to let her travel with him when Mammoth business took him to cities farther South, fearing an incident on the train or the refusal to be rented a hotel room, since Kidd was often mistaken for white. Such an incident occurred when Kidd and her brother, who was wearing a U.S. Army uniform, were traveling to visit their parents during World War II. The conductor came by, stopped, and instructed her to move to the white car, but Kidd refused.
After the end of the war and her Red Cross duties in England, Kidd took a job in Portland, Maine, running its United Seaman’s Service Club, a social gathering spot for merchant seamen. Though she was eager to return to Mammoth, she was uninterested in her former job in the policy office, and instead had gained valuable experience in both Maine and England in the relatively new field of public relations. Kidd studied on her own and designed a program for Mammoth. She made her proposal before the board, who voted to accept it, and was given her own office and a secretary. Kidd supervised all company communications and began a number of programs to create goodwill between policyholders and with the communities the company served. Her plan was so successful that she was hired by the National Negro Insurance Association to create a public-relations plan for all of its member companies.
Kidd was interested in new horizons. She married American army officer, James Kidd—whom she met while overseas—and moved to Detroit, where he lived. For a time, she worked for a door-to-door cosmetics company, Fuller Projects, in both Detroit and Chicago. Kidd trained agents and sold the line herself, and quit after a time to run a campaign for a candidate running for a seat on the Detroit City Council. It was her first exposure to politics, and she drew heavily on her public-relations experience to help make the campaign a successful one.
When Kidd did return to Louisville, she was not given her former job as Mammoth’s public-relations person. Instead she was forced to return to the ranks of company sales agents. Her boss, she recalled in her memoir, “wanted to embarrass me by sending me back to selling ordinary insurance, but I embarrassed him by selling more insurance than anyone in the history of the company.” She finally retired from the company in 1966, at the age of 62. Much had changed since she began with Mammoth in the early 1920s, when it was one of several dozen such insurance companies that served the African-American community. “Unfortunately, with integration in the 1950s and 1960s, the white companies began opening up their policies to blacks, and blacks deserted their own companies in droves. It’s sad but true that this desertion by blacks of black insurance companies is just a part of a larger problem in the black community: we just don’t have enough confidence in our own people to patronize each other.”
Two years later, at the dawn of a new civil-rights era in America after the passage of sweeping federal laws barring racial discrimination in all forms, Kidd was invited to run for a seat in the state house by a number of Louisville Democrats. She declined several times, but her husband thought it would be a good opportunity for her talents. So Kidd agreed, and won her first election after campaigning with a carload of neighborhood children, who helped her pass out flyers nightly in different sections of her Louisville district. “Their youth and energy boosted me when I was exhausted,” she recalled in Passing for Black. “They liked riding in my car and meeting people and being part of an important project.”
Elected that fall, Kidd went to Frankfort and took her seat in Kentucky’s General Assembly. She was one of just three blacks in the legislature at the time. The first bill she sponsored prohibited racial discrimination in housing; during this era, certain ploys helped maintain racially segregated urban neighborhoods until federal open-housing laws put an end the practice. Kidd’s bill made Kentucky the first Southern state to enact such laws on its own. In the early 1970s, she sponsored a low-income housing bill that created a state agency to provide low-interest mortgages to first-time home buyers. Kidd struggled for some time to get this bill passed, and only with the election of a new governor in 1972 did she finally succeed in seeing it signed into law.
Re-elected until 1984, when she lost after her district was gerrymandered several times, Kidd made civil rights her focus. In the mid-1970s she learned about a little-known historical quirk—Kentucky had never ratified the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These abolished slavery, and gave U.S. citizenship and the vote to African Americans. It was a symbolic oversight, and Kidd was determined to correct it. She launched a campaign in 1976 to have the amendments officially ratified, and it passed unanimously. “It was especially important to me because I am a proud Kentuckian, and I didn’t want that blot to remain on our history,” she wrote in her memoir. Kidd also introduced a bill to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday an official state holiday.
For a number of years Kidd was a frequent presence in civil-rights marches and events in her state. She was also known for speaking her mind. Mervin Aubespin, associate editor of Louisville’s Courier-Journal, told a reporter for the paper that early in her political career Kidd never hesitated to call the paper over its political coverage, especially when a reporter’s article included quotes only from white males. “She would call up and say ‘I was there and nobody asked me.’ She raised holy sin. She figured that people who voted for her needed to know what her position was on a number of issues that came though the legislature.”
Kidd was active in a number of charitable organizations throughout her life, including the Lincoln Foundation, which helped disadvantaged children at the facility that had once schooled her. She died in 1999. Her memoir appeared two years before her death, and its title, Passing for Black, reflected her mixed heritage and the conflicts she often experienced because of it. “Most of us, whether white or black, are mixtures of many races and nationalities,” she pointed out. “We all have tangled roots.” She noted that though times had changed considerably, her childhood was particularly difficult. She likened it to “living in a no-man’s-land where I belonged to neither race. Because I was neither completely white nor completely black, I’ve been stigmatized and penalized by both races.”
Hall, Wade, Passing for Black: The Life and Careers of Mae Street Kidd, University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1992.
Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), October 23, 1999, p. la.
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