On a train to Mississippi in 1922, Anna Arnold Hedgeman first faced overt racism as jarring as the rumbling of the rails. From St. Paul to Chicago, she rode in the dining car open to both Black and white passengers. But when the train reached Cairo, Ill., the conductor moved her to the "colored" car behind the locomotive.
"I was shocked by all the ugliness that is the South — the Jim Crowism and segregation," she told Twin Cities audiences in 1950. And after working as executive director of a YWCA in Springfield, Ohio, she found "the Midwest was not much better."
Born in Iowa in 1899, Anna Arnold moved to Anoka as a child, the oldest of six in the city's lone Black family. In 1922, after becoming Hamline University's first African American graduate, she launched a career as a civil rights and women's rights crusader — working in the Truman administration, busting racial barriers in the New York mayor's Cabinet, playing a key role in the 1963 March on Washington and helping to found the National Organization for Women in 1966.
While many of her pioneering accomplishments came after she left Minnesota, Hedgeman returned to the Twin Cities in 1950 with her outspoken nature in full bloom during a series of speeches in which she toyed with a presidential run — though she admitted she was too busy to run.
"I think it's time that we ask white people, 'Aren't you embarrassed at keeping the fruits of democracy to yourselves?' It's time we said, 'You're missing a bet. Let's use everybody, not just the chosen few. We, the Negroes, are your greatest asset in the war for men's minds.' "
Hedgeman's parents, William and Marie Arnold, were born in the South and moved to Marshalltown, Iowa, where he worked as a music teacher. William Arnold, who later became a newspaper editor, "created an environment that prioritized education and a strong work ethic," and Anna learned to read at home, according to blackpast.org, an African-American history website.
When her first of two books, "The Trumpet Sounds," was published in 1965, Minneapolis Tribune staff writer Lora Lee Watson — a former Anoka neighbor of the Arnold family — wrote the review. "We in Anoka always felt that what distinguished the Arnolds was not their color but the fact that they had more talent, intelligence and charm concentrated in their home than probably any other home in town," Watson wrote.
After Hedgeman's second book, "The Gift of Chaos," came out in 1977, Watson wrote that Hedgeman was "uniquely qualified to recount the story of racial unrest and rebellion" because she had "devoted a half-century to the crusade for equality for all."
An English major at Hamline, Hedgeman was inspired to become a teacher after hearing a speech at school by educator and civil rights giant W.E.B. Du Bois. Her quest to teach in St. Paul hit a roadblock when the district refused to hire Black teachers, so she took a job in 1922 at historically Black Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss.
After two years in Mississippi, Arnold ran YWCA branches in Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. She married Merritt Hedgeman, a folk and opera musician, in 1933.
In the 1940s, Hedgeman became a leading equal-employment champion in Washington, ranking "among the core personalities" who fought for fair employment for African Americans, historian Hettie V. Williams wrote. In the 1950s she was an assistant to New York Mayor Robert Wagner before quitting in protest over gender discrimination and housing policy, and she ran unsuccessfully for Congress and New York City Council president as a Democratic candidate in the 1960s.
In 1963, Hedgeman was the only woman on the planning committee for the March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King would deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech. Without her forethought, that moment might not have happened at all.
Two marches had been planned for the nation's capital — King's march for a civil rights bill in July and a massive jobs rally planned by activist A. Philip Randolph for October. "It occurred to me … that there would be a division of forces, dissipating the impact so necessary for proper effect," wrote Hedgeman, who persuaded organizers to combine the events.
Then she lashed out when she saw the program included no Black women speakers: "In light of the role of the Negro women in the struggle for freedom … it is incredible that no woman should appear."
Daisy Bates, an Arkansas civil rights leader, eventually made brief remarks on that historic day.
A year later, Hedgeman was back in Minnesota to speak at the then-College of St. Catherine, where she urged women to get more political: "We must consciously understand where the power lines are and arrange for capable women to be a part of the power structure."
Hedgeman died at age 90 in 1990 in New York City. In 2011, Hamline named its multicultural program the Hedgeman Center for Student Diversity Initiatives and Programs.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.