Roy Wilkins was born August 30, 1901, in St. Louis. Had his father, William Wilkins, done what was expected of him, the birth probably would have taken place in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
But he didn’t do what was expected of him.
William, or Willie, as his son called him in Roy’s autobiography, Standing Fast, was the first member of his family to go to school. He attended Rust College in Holly Springs. Wilkins described Rust as more like a high school than a modern college, but an “improvement over the unpainted, one-room shacks that Mississippi considered good enough schools for its black children.”
At Rust Willie courted a pretty, slender, rather frail young school teacher named Mayfield Edmundson, who “had a look of perpetually surprised innocence.” The two got engaged in early June of 1900, and they were married on June 7.
Not prone to play the Jim Crow games with the expected behavior, Willie started gaining a reputation as a troublemaker, what his son called “the family’s first hell-raiser.” Shortly after his marriage, Willie was walking along a dirt road when he heard a flabby voice call out, “Nigger, get out of my way.” He paused, probably thinking of the many similar orders he had heard all his life, then turned and saw a white farmer sitting in a wagon, leering a lazy grin. Willie took a few accelerating steps, pivoted up on his hand, leaped lightly onto the wagon, and began punching the farmer, erasing the deeply embedded smirk from the man’s face, continuing until “the white man lay in the wagon bed, bloody and groaning.”
With the help of Willie’s father, he and Mayfield escaped into the night and caught the first northbound train the next morning. They got off in St. Louis, where they not only found integrated washrooms at the train station, but the aid of an elderly white man who politely helped them locate the home of a friend who had moved north earlier.
The next morning, though, when Willie went out to find a job, he discovered that, despite the pleasant encounters of the previous day, St. Louis did have “a color line.” He searched over two increasing disheartening weeks before he found a low paying job in a brick kiln across the river in East St. Louis, Illinois.
A year later, Roy Ottoway Wilkins was born. Wilkins got his middle name from Dr. Ottoway Fields, the physician who delivered him in the two-family house on Laclede Avenue in one of St. Louis’s black neighborhoods.
Wilkins attended kindergarten at a segregated grammar school named after the early African-American scientist, surveyor, and writer Benjamin Banneker. Not far from where Wilkins had been born there were integrated neighborhoods, and he said that since Missouri was a border state, it was “less virulent in its racism than Mississippi,” so he “was able to start life a long leg up” on his father and grandfather.
In the next few years Wilkins gained a sister and a brother, with both of whom he had close relations. Their father, though, as the years passed, was spiritually soured by his work at the kiln, becoming “sterner and more remote,” eventually turning “to religion for answers to all his quandaries and comfort in his woe.” Wilkins described himself as never having “had much talent as a Christian.”
Not too long after Wilkins’ parents had reached St. Louis his mother developed a nagging cough that got worse bit by bit as the years passed. When Wilkins was five, Mayfield was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Shortly after the diagnosis she died.
Mrs. Wilkins had written a letter to her sister, Elizabeth, who lived in Minnesota, asking her to take her children after Mayfield died, as her husband could not take care of them by himself, and she didn’t want them sent to live with their grandmother, as she didn’t want them raised in Mississippi.
That was how Wilkins and his brother and sister came to be raised by their Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Sam in St. Paul, Minnesota.
When he started first grade, his aunt and uncle both talked to him separately. Elizabeth told him, “Nothing is more important than a good education.” Sam said that no one can steal an education from a man. His aunt registered him with the principal of the school, and the principal took him by the hand and led him to his class room, “opened the door, and nudged” him gently into the room.
The rest of the class was white.
After a period of the typical adjusting of a new kid in school, Wilkins fit right in.
One person who had an extraordinary impact on him was his seventh grade teacher, Miss Lulu Converse, whom Wilkins would later describe as “strict but very fair, a fine, no-nonsense sort of teacher.” She taught him how to write—both the physical part of penmanship, which she drilled into her class, as well as the way the English language works.
When Wilkins turned nine, his father, who had not kept in touch with his children, came to St. Paul. Uncle Sam got his brother-in-law a job as a fireman. It wasn’t too much later that he told Elizabeth that “he was ready to reclaim his children.” Something vague about sending them to live with his parents in Mississippi. Aunt Elizabeth remembered her sister’s letter, and began looking for a lawyer. They found a good one in W.T. Francis, one of several black lawyers in St. Paul, who would later serve as President Hoover’s minister to Liberia. Francis moved quickly, and in February 1911, Aunt Elizabeth was named the children’s guardian.
The family became involved in the start of the NAACP, through Elizabeth’s and Sam’s friendship with another lawyer, Frederick L. McGhee, who was a friend of W.E.B. Du Bois, who brought black people with him to the NAACP when he joined his own Niagara Movement to that organization. Uncle Sam was a charter member of the NAACP’s St. Paul branch.
In 1915 Wilkins started attending the George Weitbreit Mechanical Arts High School, and quickly realized that he “hadn’t been born to become an engineer.” But it was at Weitbreit that Wilkins met another of those teachers—Mary E. Copley, who, after reading his first composition for her English class, had him wait till everyone else had left. After a moment of silence, Copley told him that he had ability, that he “must develop” his writing skills. He later wrote that his “plans to become an engineer melted in a new lust for books and writing.” He plunged into the advantage of the school’s fine library, and also began exploring the writings of Du Bois, not truly understanding that Du Bois was dealing with a world from which Wilkins had been sheltered.
Copley encouraged him to find his own style, and in his junior year the faculty chose him to be the editor of The Cogwheel, the school’s literary magazine. He was greatly surprised later that month when The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine arrived and he found that Du Bois had included a short paragraph about his accomplishment.
When he graduated the next year, Wilkins was salutatorian. The next year he started attending the University of Minnesota. During the summers he took on a series of jobs to help him cover the cost of his college education—the only Negro caddy at a country club, redcap at a train station, a position at the Minneapolis Steel and Machinery Company making artillery shells for the army, clean-up man for a slaughter house, and waiter in a train’s dining car.
Wilkins says it was in the summer of 1920 that “I lost my innocence on race once and for all.”
In mid-June a circus called the John Robinson Show arrived in Duluth, with “elephants and tigers, lion tamers, trapeze artist, strong men, clowns, and about two dozen black roustabouts. On the night of the last show a white boy said he and his girlfriend were attacked by “a group of six Negroes,” and that the attackers had assaulted his girlfriend in a ravine. The Duluth police lined up all of the roustabouts and the couple implicated twelve of them, twice as many as were originally indicated. The police “sweated their suspects” and got three of them to “confess,” and arrested six in all, who gave “a welter of confessions and conflicting testimony.” The chief and the head of detectives went to the circus’s next stop and arrested ten more blacks, for a total of sixteen. By the next evening a lynch mob of thousands had hanged three of the sixteen from a light pole.
It wasn’t in Mississippi. It was Minnesota. As Wilkins later put it, “What bothered me most was the way those 5,000 white Northerners had gotten together on the lynching.”
Wilkins said he absorbed moderation during his years at the university.
He became a reporter for the school’s newspaper, The Minnesota Daily, and was thrilled that he was the paper’s first black person in that position—though he was less than thrilled that it took the Daily nearly a month to change the “Ray Wilkins” that appeared on the masthead to “Roy Wilkins.”
During Wilkins’ university years John Quincy Adams, the editor of the St. Paul Appeal, a once prominent black owned newspaper, died, and Adams’ wife hired Wilkins to take over as editor. He slowly built the newspaper back towards the importance it had once held.
Through these same years Wilkins became more and more active in the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP, becoming its secretary by 1922. In 1923 he came to Kansas City to attend the organization’s Midwestern Race Relations Conference, which ran August 29 – September 5, 89 years ago as I write. He looked forward to seeing people like scientist George Washington Carver, poet James Weldon Johnson, lynching investigator Walter White, and W.E.B. Du Bois.
When a representative of Gov. Arthur M. Hyde used the word “darky” the meeting erupted for six minutes before the 500 delegates and the 10,000 local people were persuaded to quiet. But when the emissary delivered a message from the governor urging the delegates to devote themselves to industry, thrift, and individual achievement, rather than “so-called equality,” there was “an ominous silence.” Finally James Weldon Johnson stood. Besides being a poet (God’s Trombones), Johnson was also a diplomat, playwright, and, as Wilkins put it, “a gentleman.” He was also the first African American to head the NAACP. Johnson held the entire auditorium in silence as he spoke with great eloquence, ending with “Thrift and industry? Look around you, sir, at these thousands who by thrift and industry, by study and by devotion to church, have made themselves worthy to enjoy the right of American citizens. But, sir, do they enjoy them? We are here to serve notice that we are in a fight to the death for the right guaranteed us as American citizens by the Constitution.”
Wilkins wrote, “I knew that I had seen a great leader—and found my own cause.”
He also found something else. A job.
Upon returning to Missouri, his father had attended a small seminary and become a preacher. He had his Sunday bulletins printed at one of Kansas City’s small print shops, the one owned by Chester Arthur Franklin. One Saturday, when Willie Wilkins came into the shop to pick up his programs, Franklin happened to mention that he was looking for a trained news editor. Willie told him about his son.
Besides owning the print shop, Franklin was also the owner, publisher, and managing editor of the Kansas City Call, which he had started in 1919. Franklin contacted Roy shortly before the conference, and the two met after Wilkins got to town. Franklin decided to use the conference as Wilkins’ audition for the news editor position, and Wilkins, to use his words, “spent the next week reporting harder than I had ever done in my life.” He was particularly pleased with his piece on James Weldon Johnson’s speech. When Franklin read it, he looked up and said simply, “You’ll do.”
He put Wilkins’ byline on the story and offered the young reporter a salary of $100 per month.
Aunt Elizabeth needed some convincing to allow her nephew to move to a “sinful place like Kansas City,” but by October 1, 1923, Wilkins was on the Call’s payroll and settled in a room (he called “a monastic little cell”) in the Paseo YMCA, Kansas City’s Y for African Americans.
Then he started to get to know Kansas City.