The Wilderson family moved into the white stucco house on a Kenwood hill in the early 1960s.
They were the first black homeowners in the wealthy Minneapolis enclave, where historic homes roost on green lawns — and a petition was being circulated to keep them out.
When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Ida-Lorraine Wilderson sat down and wrote her neighbors an open letter. Her words appeared in mailboxes and in the Minneapolis Tribune, a clear-eyed rebuke as well as a plea to work toward “less racial strife, better racial progress, and true, not token, recognition of the dignity of all men.”
Decade by decade, the home of Ida-Lorraine and Frank Wilderson Jr. became a meeting ground for minds interested in civic and social change: corporate executives, activists, teachers, academics. The couple built careers as educators and clinical psychologists, traveling the world to share their expertise but always returning to Kenwood.
It was in that home that Ida-Lorraine Wilderson, a longtime Minneapolis principal and teacher, child development expert and civic leader, died suddenly in bed on Jan. 25. She was 86.
Before retiring in the early 2000s, she worked as a principal at various schools and as a coordinator in the Minneapolis schools’ Special Education Department. She also filled her calendar with myriad social and civic roles, from the Minneapolis Urban League and the League of Women Voters to the local chapter of the Links Inc., a nonprofit for professional women of color.
“Whatever they were doing, she was right in the mix of it,” said her husband, Frank, 88, an educational psychologist and retired professor at the University of Minnesota, where he served as the school’s first black vice president.
Born in New Orleans, Ida-Lorraine Jules made her society entree at an Original Illinois Club debutante ball in 1950. Her husband first spotted her as a teenager, lugging around a violin case for lessons. They later both landed at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans and married in 1955.
Wilderson received her master’s in child development from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the U. As part of her dissertation research, she embarked on a yearlong sojourn across the country with her husband and four children in 1969.
Wilderson wanted to study what that historical moment of activism and racial strife meant to black students’ sense of themselves and their schoolwork. She interviewed teachers and students in inner-city Detroit, where the Wildersons lived for months in a public-housing project. She did the same on Chicago’s South Side and in Berkeley, Calif., where the family encountered the Vietnam protest movement in full force.
Her research process, moving from idea to manuscript, caught the eye of her oldest child, who went on to become an author and academic.
“Mom, in ways she knew and didn’t know, molded all of us and helped us become who we were,” said Frank B. Wilderson III, professor of African-American Studies at the University of California, Irvine.
Wilderson pushed her children to notice the history unfolding beyond their front door. “She used to say, ‘You need to see that the whole world isn’t Kenwood,’ ” recalled her daughter, Fawn Wilderson, an adjunct professor at the U’s law school.
In addition to her husband, son Frank and daughter Fawn, Wilderson is survived by daughter Amy Cousin of Stacy, son Wayne of Los Angeles, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. on Feb. 23 at the Basilica of St. Mary, 1600 Hennepin Av., Minneapolis, with visitation from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at Estes Funeral Chapel, 2201 Plymouth Av. N., Minneapolis.