This story appears in “Old Lesbians and their brief moments of fame,” by Joy D. Griffith, Karen Gibson and J. Ross, Xlibris Corporation, 2012
My name is Margaret Mann. I am a 64 year old, Caucasian/Apache, lesbian, Buddhist who uses a wheelchair to get around. I was raised in multi-cultural Hawaii by an Apache who wished he was Japanese (oh, the stories I could tell…). After a wonderful career working on behalf of women and girls on the mainland, I retired home to Honolulu, Hawaii in 2003.
In 1984 I was working in the national office of the League of Women Voters in Washington DC. I was a community organizer where it was my job was to support the local chapters. I was sent to Raleigh, North Carolina to do a workshop. The first issue they raised was: How do we expand our chapter to include women of color? We invite Black women to attend our meetings but they never come.
I said, “Well, it’s not a problem, just invite your Black friends and neighbors to attend. Or, you could join the local chapter of National Council of Negro Women and attend their meetings.” There was dead silence. It took two clicks for the message to sink in. They had no Black friends or neighbors and the thought of joining NCNW was abhorrent to them.
We had a great discussion afterwards. We talked about how the problem was larger than the LWV, that if we were to address the issue we were going to have to think outside the box. They understood clearly their own reluctance to go to an all Black neighborhood to attend NCNW meeting but they had little understanding why a Black women did not want to go to an all White neighborhood to attend a LWV meeting. We talked about how Black women usually come into White neighborhoods as maids and how a Black woman who wasn’t on her way to work might be treated with suspicion. We talked about how uncomfortable it would be to be a minority of one in a group. And they were clear that they didn’t want to be the “one” minority at a NCNW meeting. They were very well meaning and sincere in their quest, but just a little ignorant of how race plays out in real life. The story, however, has a happy ending. At my suggestion, they contacted the local chapter of NCNW to ask if they would be interested in conducting a joint voter registration campaign.
Back in Washington DC, I had been meeting with my counterpart in the national office of NCNW so I was fairly certain that they would have a warm reception. The LWV national office had hired Melva Ware, (one of two Black women in the 75 person national office), to design a program to integrate the LWV. They did not give her much of a budget and little support. I became her lifelong friend when I suggested that she purchase black shoe polish with her tiny budget and distribute it to the chapters. That way they could paint their faces black and have Black LWV members just like them. It was Melva’s idea to contact the NCNW and get the two national offices talking to one another and we cooked up the idea of joint campaigns.
About this same time, the LWV national office hired a PR firm to produce a membership brochure which would reflect the integrated membership they hoped to attain. The traditional brochure was red, white and blue with pictures of White women. The new brochure was green and white and had pictures of Black and White women working together. The members hated the new brochure and refused to use it. We had our work cut out for us.
Back in Raleigh, at the first joint meeting several months later two women, one White, one Black had a tearful reunion. They had worked together in the sixties integrating the schools and had not seen each other in years. It was very touching and sad at the same time. They clearly liked each other and had worked hard together on a difficult task and yet the segregated society in Raleigh had kept them apart all those years.