Riley, Helen Caldwell Day 1926–
Helen Caldwell Day Riley 1926–
Religious worker, hospitality house founder, nurse, writer
Helen Caldwell Day Riley made her mark in the early 1950s at a young age with her social and religious work in the tradition of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker movement and with her two autobiographical books,Color Ebony (1951) and Not without Tears (1954). She was the primary face behind the establishment of Blessed Martin House in Memphis, Tennessee, a house of hospitality intended to provide care and shelter for the poor, particularly women and their children. At the time, she could hardly have chosen a more difficult city than Memphis in which to try to build a religious organization that would transcend racial bounds, and in so doing, to attempt to live in accordance with the teachings of her church.
Growing up in the South, Riley’s life was marked not only by the omnipresent racism that oppressed all blacks, but also by her religious quest. Eventually she converted to Roman Catholicism, a spiritual journey recounted in Color Ebony.About the time she married Jesse Riley in 1955, Blessed Martin House closed, and her life fell into a more outwardly conventional pattern, but her religious beliefs and her service to others remained constant.
Riley was born in Marshall, Texas, to George and Velma Caldwell on December 31, 1926. Her father was then teaching music at Bishop College, one of a series of short-term positions he held at various black colleges and universities until he finally secured a stable post at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Her mother was a kindergarten teacher at the time. Velma possessed a genuine faith, which in time led her to become a Catholic, but her husband was only marginally interested in religion. His real interests were music, psychology, and the natural sciences. The family’s church affiliation depended upon the denominational affiliation of the particular college where George was teaching. When she was a child, Riley’s family included her aunt, Big Helen; an older half-sister from her father’s first marriage, Clara; an older brother, George, Jr.; and a younger brother, William.
In addition to the various temporary appointments at black colleges George held during his daughter’s childhood, he also went to school for more training and occasionally worked as a pharmacist while she was growing up. The family was poor but never destitute. The Caldwells were living in Iowa City, Iowa, when Riley
Born in Marshall, Texas, on December 31, 1926; daughter of George (a college professor) and Vel-ma (a kindergarten teacher) Caldwell; married Jesse Riley, 1955; children: Butch (fathered by George Day), Richard, Paul, Margaret, and Monica Diane.Education: Attended Rust College, c 1943-45; Harlem Hospital nurse training program, c 1945; Cumberland Hospital, Brooklyn, NY, nursing program.Religion: Roman Catholic.
Nurse. Varied employment, including volunteerwork at many youth-oriented organizations such as the Girl Scouts, Barstow County Library Bookmobile, head, 20 years, guest speaker throughout the South, newspaper columnist. Cofounded Blessed Martin House (a shelter for the poor, particularly women and children), Memphis, TN, 1952 (closed in 1955). Author,Color Ebony (autobiography), 1951;Not without Tears (autobiography), 1954. San Bernaradino County Library, librarian, 1965-c 1970s; St. Joseph’s Church, Barstow, CA, catechism teacher, until 1975; Adelanto Branch Library, head librarian, c 1990s.
Addresses: Office— Adelanto Branch Library, 11744 Bartlett, Drawer J, Adelanto, CA 92301.
began school. She recalls experiencing little racial prejudice there, and so when the family first moved to Mississippi, the full southern system of segregation came as a traumatic shock. Despite the family’s efforts, they lived in poverty, even after her father obtained a continuing post at Rust College in about 1938.
One low point occurred about 1935, when Riley was nine. The family was living in Memphis and trying to make a go of running a restaurant. Her mother managed the restaurant while her father crossed the river to Arkansas to work on a farm. Money was short, and the middle-class values and religious beliefs of the family were difficult to maintain in a poverty-stricken slum. The children attended both public and private schools. They
experienced being the poorest children in a school attended by the children of a black elite that may not have been much better off but that was able to maintain appearances. Many other difficult moments occurred. At one school where her father was teaching, her mother had to borrow butter, milk, sugar, and eggs to make Riley’s birthday cake.
Another problem was apparently adding to Riley’s unhappiness: her parents’ marriage was under increasing strain. When George went to Rust College with his children to take up a continuing appointment, Velma remained in Memphis. The children spent the winter months with their father and the summer months with their mother; holidays were particularly difficult. After nearly a year, when Riley was 11 years old, she ran away from home. She went to Jonesboro, Arkansas, which was as far as her money would take her. There she was cared for by a family that found her. Riley stayed with them for two months, ran away again, and returned home.
Back in Holly Springs, Riley felt the strain of being the subject of small-town gossip. Not only did the townspeople broadcast the story of her running away, but they also speculated on the oddity of a household without a wife. Her father further weakened the family’s reputation in the town by not choosing his intimate friends from among the black elite and by not seeming to be interested in remarrying. Riley lived with her family in Holly Springs for seven years. It was not until she left home to go to nursing school that she was finally able to escape from the gossip.
To compensate, a decided advantage was to be had from being the only woman in a male household: Riley participated almost as an equal in the conversations of her brothers and their friends, and her father encouraged intellectual discussion. He instilled in her a love of knowledge and a sense of racial pride, in part by elaborating upon the African American history she studied in school. Among the writers she studied at home, her favorite was Countee Cullen.
Riley’s intellectual independence and her ability to question were being fostered; her religious thirst, however, was not being satisfied. As an adolescent she felt caught between a half-believing father and an unbelieving stepfather. Her mother had remarried, and her new husband was an embittered man who reviled Christianity as a hoax. Her mother retained her faith and stood up to the arguments of her new husband, whom Riley believed was caught in a self-defeating trap. In Color Ebony she wrote:“He really believes that, generally speaking, the Negro is inferior, and he hates himself for
believing it and being one himself.” He urged the children to succeed and make something of themselves yet discouraged them whenever they spoke of their dreams.
In 1943, at the age of 16, Riley entered Rust College. Her older brother, George, had been drafted, and she was attracted by the idea of becoming a nurse through the Cadet Nurses program. Her decision to leave home to study nursing was reinforced by her father’s sudden remarriage. In February of 1945, just after her 18th birthday, she entered the Harlem Hospital nurse training program. She endured loneliness and had to learn to obey authority. She stated in Color Ebony: “I have never found it easy to give up my will.”
Nonetheless, Riley discovered a vocation in nursing, with its concern for birth, life, and death, and she and her schoolmates often discussed religion. After nine months she had to have her tonsils removed and spent three or four days mostly alone in a hospital room. This time gave her an opportunity to think through her religious convictions, and a chance encounter in her sickroom with a Catholic priest led her to begin instruction in the faith. She was capped as a nurse at the end of the first year, but continued her nursing education at various hospitals. Her religious instruction continued along with her nursing training, and after six months’ study of the Catholic faith, Riley was baptized and entered the Catholic Church.
In the meantime Riley had met a young man named George Day, who was serving in the navy. Near the end of her second year in nursing school, Riley became pregnant. She took a job as a baby nurse in a small Catholic hospital, Misercordia, and awaited the birth of her son, MacDonald Francis (Butch). Contact with the nuns at the hospital deepened her faith, and conversations with both the nuns and the student nurses gave her a chance to interact with whites for the first time since her childhood. After a visit to Memphis, she left her son with her mother and returned to Misercordia while waiting to reenter nursing school.
During Riley’s pregnancy she had become familiar with the Catholic Worker movement led by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. She now became a volunteer at the Mott Street house of hospitality, which was sponsored by the movement. It took some time before she could understand and share the religious and social ideas of the workers there. She had to learn to forgive again and again the alcoholics who sold the clothing given them to
buy liquor instead. She wrote in Color Ebony: “People ought to be allowed to profit from their mistakes, not be encouraged in them. But bad people, careless, thoughtless, uncaring people also get hungry and cold. They also belong to God. It takes great faith and charity to see that, and to go on forgiving and helping.”
Other beliefs of the Catholic Worker movement, such as pacifism and nonviolent resistance, were particularly difficult for Riley, but her commitment grew. In Color Ebony she noted,“When I made this decision, I think I began to clutch at the truth which will enable me to stand, that I might walk; the truth that admits God is not only our peace and salvation, but even our sanity. I was not crazy, nor were those others who spent their lives in praising God or in trying to make the world a Christian world for His glory.”
When she was a senior finishing her nursing program at Cumberland Hospital in Brooklyn, Riley received two pieces of shattering information. First, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and placed in a sanitarium, where she remained for 19 months. During this time she got the second piece of bad news: her son was diagnosed with polio.
The last 15 months of Riley’s hospitalization were spent at Stony Wold, where her ward of black and white women openly and candidly discussed race, religion, and politics. Riley wrote most of her autobiography,Color Ebony, at Stony Wold, a village in New York State, and also edited the hospital newsletter,Sez, in which she implicitly criticized the apparent reintroduction of a policy of segregated rooms and wards. She attributed the hospital administration’s unease with her editorial stance for her transfer to another institution, from which she was discharged as an arrested case in a week. She was ordered to rest and to continue pneumothorax treatments, a procedure to collapse the lung. It would be a year before her doctors allowed her to work again.
Riley returned south to a son who had almost completely recovered from his paralysis. In Memphis she continued to write, producing a column called “Looking Things Over” for the Memphis World.She wrote a letter to friends in New York about the time she was turned away from mass in Holly Springs at the now all-white church. She gave permission for the letter to be published in the Catholic Worker, and, as a result, she came into contact with other Catholics, both black and white, who were interested in establishing an interracial study group
in Memphis. This group grew to a core membership of 15 and eventually accepted the idea of opening a house of hospitality, which was Riley’s mission from the beginning.
After one year Riley also was able to begin work as a nurse at the Memphis city hospital—all the doctors were white, as was the administrative nursing staff, but the rest of the nursing staff was integrated. Riley who had come so close to completing her training to become a registered nurse, keenly felt her lower status as a registered practical nurse. Establishing the house of hospitality meant that Riley would have to give up the security of a job. As she pressed for her own vision of the establishment, she met considerable opposition from both her own family and certain members of the study group.
As Riley reported in Not without Tears, after the group had decided to set up the house, she was shaken by a series of anonymous letters from someone previously associated with the group accusing her of acting in “a selfish, individualist, arrogant, dishonorable, and impetuous manner.” The person added, “Do not pose yourself as a member of a community when you place yourself above community.” The letters caused her great pain and despair, which was alleviated when she consulted the group’s advisor, Father Coyne, a Jo-sephite priest. He became angry and decisively rallied the group behind the project. Riley also followed his advice in asking for approval for the house from the bishop.
Bishop William Adrian gave his approval in 1950; he even made contributions from time to time. Blessed Martin House was opened on January 6, 1952, in an extremely dilapidated store in a slum area near Beale Street. In terms of volunteer workers it was an interracial venture. Riley and her son moved into a small back room. Care for children became Riley’s first and major emphasis, and by spring Blessed Martin House was caring for 15 to 16 children on a regular basis and older children were also dropping in after school. Riley insisted that working mothers should volunteer to help out in return. This caused some problems; mothers were tired after a long day’s work, and some were very adept at making excuses.
The house also became a shelter for women and children who were experiencing great difficulty. At times there was considerable strain on emotions, as well as on finances. In Not without Tears Riley told of one period when a woman and her children were occupying the one room normally used as a bedroom, Riley and her son were sharing a youth bed in the main room, and
another woman and child also shared a small bed in the main room, along with another child in a crib. There was a nine-by-12-foot storeroom where the women kept their clothes, along with all the bedding for the house, leaving just enough room to reach the telephone, which was also in the storeroom. During the day there would be approximately 25 day-care children in the main room.
Around 1954, the group decided to purchase a house because the original store building was becoming increasingly dilapidated. They found a duplex located on an alley. The building was sound, if in need of repair, and situated in the midst of the people they were trying to reach. With the help of volunteers, they repaired one side of the house when the tenant moved out and established themselves there. The purchase of the house was made possible in part by Dorothy Day, who spoke in Memphis on behalf of the members of the group, raising their spirits immensely. The leader of the Catholic Worker movement saw that a check for $400 for a down payment arrived a few days later and printed an appeal in the Catholic Worker paper. Local volunteers and contributors also did their part.
Riley was in contact with other persons who worked at similar establishments. She communicated with staff at the 25-year-old white Mary St. Onge of Nashville and the white organizers of the Caritas movement in New Orleans. Both St. Onge and Caritas, which recognized that their work would be more effective with an interracial staff, would have liked Riley to join them. Riley’s name was starting to become known, and she was invited to speak and participate in panels at places as far away as Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, and Burnley, Virginia. In addition she was able to finish her second book,Not without Tears, in the nine months after moving into the new house. The book’s primary focus is Blessed Martin House and its work. As she wrote in Not without Tears: “The work keeps growing and so does my own understanding of the problems of the people who are a part of it. Before I opened the house, and even after that, before we moved into the alley, I thought I knew something about poverty. I thought I had been poor. I have never been poor as these people are poor. I never knew about this kind of poverty.”
Blessed Martin House did not stay open long after she wrote these lines. She married Jesse Riley in 1955, and they moved to California in 1957. The Rileys raised a family of five children, Butch, Richard, Paul, Margaret, and Monica Diane. While raising her family, Riley spent a considerable amount of time doing volunteer work for such youth activities as the Girl Scouts. Until 1975 she taught catechism to white, black, American Indian, and Mexican children and adults for St. Joseph’s Church in Barstow; she also had a class for mentally handicapped children and adults. In 1965 she began working part-time for the San Bernardino County Library, where she became a permanent half-time worker about 1970. For about 20 years, she worked full-time as head of the Barstow Bookmobile of the county library. She is currently head of the Adelanto Branch Library, a position she has held for over two years. She still works with children, principally through storytelling. Her Black ‘History Month programs are particularly popular.
As Riley’s book Not without Tears confirms, she was a pioneer in trying to bring the teachings of her church into practice in the South. Her life, particularly her involvement in Blessed Martin House, has been a testimony to her faith.
Color Ebony, Sheed and Ward, 1951.
Not without Tears, Sheed and Ward, 1954
Davis, Cyprian,The History of Black Catholics in the United States, Crossroad, 1991.
Day, Helen Caldwell,Color Ebony, Sheed and Ward, 1951.
Day, Helen Caldwell,Not without Tears, Sheed and Ward, 1954.
The Colored Harvest, April 1952, p. 4.
Free Press (Victorville, CA), July 1, 1991.
Tennessee Register (Nashville), October 26, 1952.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Memphis/Shelby County Public Library, including “House of Hospitality Opens Doors: Rests upon Foundation of Faith” from an unidentified newspaper clipping, 1952; an unidentified newspaper clipping dated April 10, 1955; and a Blessed Martin House Outer Circle Studies Schedule, 1951-52. Other information was obtained through Helen Riley’s Letters to Robert L. Johns dated June 24,1994, and October 14, 1994.
—Robert L. Johns
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