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Anna Arnold Hedgeman: The Woman Behind the March on Washington

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the March was to advocate for the rights of African-Americans. The group of male leaders who organized it is often referred to as the “Big Six.” However, a very important and influential person was left out of that group: Anna Arnold Hedgeman.

Hedgeman was born on July 5, 1899, in Marshalltown, Iowa, but moved to Anoka, Minnesota early in her life. As the only African-Americans in town, Hedgeman and her family were subject to a great deal of discrimination. She was educated at home until she was seven, but proved to be very dedicated in her studies, and went on to graduate high school in 1918.

She continued her education at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she was the school’s first African-American student. She earned her B.A in English, and became the first African-American student to graduate from the university in 1922.

Upon graduating, Hedgeman tried to begin a teaching career in Minnesota, which led her to pursue other interests after facing further discrimination. She became the executive director at segregated black YWCAs in the north, and then went on to work for what is now known as the Department of Welfare, serving as a consultant on racial issues during the Great Depression.

In 1946, she became the executive director of Harry S. Truman’s presidential re-election campaign and was responsible for re-enlisting black Americans in the effort. Due to this success, she was appointed as an executive in what is now known as the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Then, in 1954, she became the first African-American woman to hold a mayoral cabinet position in New York City, working under Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr.

During this time, Hedgeman’s interests in feminist and international concerns began to blossom. Her awareness of the hazards of racism and sexism were highly modern for her era, and she began giving lectures on women’s rights long before the feminist movement. In 1966, she co-founded the National Organization for Women.

In 1963, Hedgeman joined the committee for the March on Washington after being asked to participate by its organizer, A. Philip Randolph. She is responsible for recruiting over 30,000 of the white attendees at the March and for ensuring that every attendee was provided with enough food and water. Hedgeman pushed for the presence a female speaker at the March but her voice was silenced due to the fact that she was the only female member on the entire committee. As a compromise, Daisy Bates was permitted to speak at the close of the March, but the time allotted for her was significantly shorter than that of the male speakers present.

Hedgeman retired in 1967 but continued to be a consultant on race issues through the Hedgeman Consultant Service, which she founded with her husband. Her team provided service for colleges, schools, churches, and other municipalities. She received many awards for her services to the community up until her death on January 17, 1990.

As we remember the March on Washington that took place 54 years ago, we should also remember and celebrate the life of Anna Arnold Hedgeman, a pioneer of African-American and women’s rights.

Featured Image by Archives Foundation on Flickr

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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