When Phebe Givens was growing up in north Minneapolis, her mother worked as a washroom attendant at the Minneapolis Athletic Club to support the family.
So it was a proud moment when, years later, Givens invited her mother to join her there for Mother's Day brunch.
By now, Phebe Givens was one of Minnesota's wealthiest women and a member of the exclusive club — and her mother was her guest. "So she got to sit and be served," recalled Roxanne Givens, Phebe's daughter. "It was just remarkable." And, she added, "really pretty symbolic."
Phebe Givens, a philanthropist and co-founder of the Givens Foundation for African-American Literature, died April 23 at age 93.
"She shattered a lot of barriers," said her daughter, Roxanne. "Everybody thought of her as this beautiful woman and this gracious woman — and she was. But she was a dedicated community leader."
Givens was the widow of Archie Givens Sr., a real estate developer who was considered the first black millionaire in Minneapolis. Together, they built a dynasty that included the first integrated nursing homes in Minnesota in the 1950s and 1960s.
While her husband was viewed as the entrepreneur, "my mother was always right by his side, encouraging him and often working together," said their son, Archie Givens, who now heads the family foundation.
Born in 1922, Phebe Givens grew up in the same North Side neighborhood as her husband. She went to a small black college in Missouri while he remained in Minneapolis, trying to scrape together a living.
According to family lore, her husband lured her back to Minnesota in 1942 "and married her against everybody's wishes," said daughter Roxanne.
Her husband admitted as much in a 1973 article in the Minneapolis Star. "They said it would never last because she was a nice girl and I was considered a street boy," he said.
But they proved to be a good match. As they opened nursing homes in and around the Twin Cities, Phebe Givens was the first African-American to be licensed as a nursing home administrator in Minnesota, according to the family.
In 1972, as their business thrived, the couple started the Archie and Phebe Mae Givens Foundation, initially to provide scholarships for black students in the Twin Cities.
But after her husband died in 1974, the foundation's mission changed.
In the 1980s, the foundation gave $75,000 to the University of Minnesota to help purchase a major collection of black literature. Now known as the Archie Givens Sr. Collection of African-American Literature, it has grown from some 3,000 items to more than 10,000, and is considered one of the most important collections of its kind, said John S. Wright, professor of African-American, English and African studies at the University of Minnesota.
"Phebe was tireless in promoting the collection and the foundation's work," he said. She was particularly pleased, he said, that the collection is used to educate students around the country, through touring exhibits.
She also loved music and traveling, and served on numerous boards, including at the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center.
"Somebody said she was like the Rose Kennedy of the black community," said her daughter-in-law, Carol Meshbesher.
In addition to her son, daughter and daughter-in-law, Givens is survived by three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday, May 5, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.