Wilson, Margaret Bush (1919—)

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Wilson, Margaret Bush (1919—)

African-American lawyer and civil-rights leader . Born Margaret Berenice Bush on January 30, 1919, in St. Louis, Missouri; daughter of James Thomas Bush (a real-estate broker) and Margaret Berenice (Casey) Bush; educated in public schools in St. Louis; Talladega College, B.A. cum laude; Lincoln University School of Law, Jefferson City, Missouri, LL.B., 1943; married Robert Edmund Wilson, Jr., in 1944 (divorced 1968); children: Robert Wilson III.

Began practicing civil-rights and real-estate law (1943), and worked in private practice (1947–65, 1972—); served as assistant attorney general for Missouri (1961–62); worked for various state and federal agencies including the Missouri Department of Community Affairs, the St. Louis Model City Agency, and the St. Louis Lawyers for Housing; served as chair of the board of directors of the NAACP (1975–84).

Margaret Bush Wilson was born in 1919 in St. Louis, Missouri, one of three children of Margaret Casey Bush and James Thomas Bush. Although the family lived in a St. Louis ghetto, the children grew up in a beautiful home and a prominent, middle-class black family, for James Bush was the first successful African-American real-estate broker in St. Louis. Margaret's parents emphasized the importance of education and encouraged their children to look beyond their surroundings of the ghetto and the ubiquitous restrictions placed by American society on blacks in the decades before World War II.

Wilson attended local public schools, graduating from Sumner High School with honors in 1935. At Talledega College in Alabama, she studied economics and mathematics, won a Juliette Derricotte Fellowship for her senior year, and received a B.A. degree cum laude in 1940. She then received a scholarship from Lincoln University School of Law in Jefferson City, Missouri, where she earned a law degree in 1943. That same year, Wilson was admitted to the Missouri bar and began working in St. Louis for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an attorney in the Rural Electrification Administration. In 1944, she married Robert Edmund Wilson, Jr., whom she had met in law school. (Their only child would also become a lawyer.) Wilson helped her father and other members of the Real Estate Brokers Association, the first such organization for black brokers in St. Louis, in obtaining a charter. As the association's legal counsel, she led its legal battle against racially restrictive covenants in housing contracts, which culminated in 1948 with the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Shelley v. Kraemer that branded such covenants unconstitutional.

The previous year she had established a private practice, Wilson & Wilson, with her husband. Although the partnership would last nearly two decades, she often interrupted her practice to pursue other interests in the legal arena. In 1948, she followed her attraction to politics and ran for Congress on the Progressive ticket championed by Henry Wallace. Wilson was the first black woman from Missouri to run for Congress; after being defeated by the Democratic candidate, she joined the Democratic Party, in which she has remained active over the decades. From 1961 to 1962, she worked as assistant attorney general for the state of Missouri. She left Wilson & Wilson in 1965 (she and her husband would divorce in 1968), and for the next two years worked with the Missouri Office of Urban Affairs, attempting to improve housing conditions for poor blacks throughout the state. From 1967 to 1968, she served as an administrator for the Missouri Department of Community Affairs, responsible for continuing education programs and community services. She also helped to found and served as deputy director and then as acting director of the St. Louis Model City Agency, a corporation established to assist the poor in obtaining federal funds for better housing. Her focus on housing problems continued in her next position, from 1969 through 1972, as director of St. Louis Lawyers for Housing. She then returned to private practice as a partner in the St. Louis firm of Wilson and Associates.

The respect Wilson earned in her many years of community service kept her in demand with boards and institutes, and she served on numerous local, state, and federal organizations. She was a member of the Council on Criminal Justice (1972–77), vice-chair (1973) and then chair (1975–77) of the Land Reutilization Authority of St. Louis, an instructor in civil procedure on the law school faculty of the St. Louis University Council on Legal Opportunities Institute, a member of the general advisory committee for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (1978–81), and a member of the President's Commission on White House Fellowships (1978–81). She also sat on the boards of directors of the American Red Cross (1975–81) and the United Way (1978–84) and was a trustee for several colleges.

A member since 1956 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to which both her parents had belonged and to which she was elected a member of the board of directors, Wilson participated in

a number of councils within the organization. She also served as president of the St. Louis branch, president of the Missouri conference of state NAACP branches, and treasurer of the NAACP National Housing Corporation. She participated in the 1963 March on Washington, in task forces related to President Lyndon Johnson's antipoverty programs and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and in the hearings that led to the desegregation of the school system in Atlanta, Georgia. Her crowning achievement came in 1975, when she was named chair of the board of directors of the 450,000-member NAACP. She was the first African-American woman elected chair of the venerable organization. (A founding white member, Mary White Ovington , had served as chair from 1919 to 1932.) During her tenure, which lasted until 1984, Wilson emphasized not only housing, education, and job opportunities but also involving African-Americans in policy-making, government positions, and a wider range of fields that would extend their influence.

A sharp negotiator and tough administrator despite her small physical stature and soft voice, Wilson was once described as "Mary Poppins—with a razor blade." Among the many honors she has received are honorary degrees from Talladega College, Smith College, Alabama State University, Boston University, Kenyon College, Washington University, and St. Paul's College; the Bishop's Award of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri (1963); the National Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress' Louise Waterman Wise Laureate Award (1975); and the St. Louis Council of the American Jewish Congress' Democracy in Action Award (1978).


Current Biography Yearbook 1975. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1975.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California

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