THIS WEEK'S FEATURED STORIES
Liberty and justice, for all
By Jackie R. Broach
From the time she was a child growing up in the 1920s, there were clear signs that Minnie Kennedy would leave her mark on the world.
She was a born reformer, questioning injustices that others took for granted and fighting battles others told her to back down from.
Now, at 93 and with a mind as keen as a freshly-honed blade, she’s a living history tome having marched with Martin Luther King Jr., danced at President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball and cheered in Washington, D.C., as she watched Barack Obama sworn in as the nation’s first black president.
“It was the first time I ever said the Pledge of Allegiance all the way through,” Kennedy said of Obama’s inauguration.
She was taught the pledge as child in school.
“But I could not say those last six words, ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ ” Kennedy recalled last week from her home in Georgetown’s historic district. “I couldn’t say them, because even as a little girl, I knew there was no such thing.”
Kennedy said she used to hide in the back of the room behind all her classmates and, as they recited the end of the pledge, she would yell “with liberty and justice for white folks,” because she’d seen the injustice with which those of her own race were treated.
The principal would walk up carrying a big paddle and demand to know who the culprit was, but her classmates never turned her in.
Even during the many years she spent as a teacher, first in Georgetown and then in New York, Kennedy said she couldn’t bring herself to recite the pledge in its entirety.
At Obama’s inauguration, she stood on a chair, and shouted it. It was one of the most moving experiences she’d had since she stood at the Lincoln Memorial more than 45 years ago to hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“A lot of these things most of us can only read about, Minnie has lived it,” said Tanya Sisk, a friend and neighbor of Kennedy’s. “She was right there for it and has first-hand knowledge of it.” They met two years ago and Sisk said she knew immediately Kennedy was someone she wanted to know better; someone she could learn from.
Though Kennedy has seen nearly a century, she looks at least 20 years younger and is spry enough to keep up with the elementary school children she spent most of her life teaching. She’s also an arresting storyteller, using voices and gesturing enthusiastically with her delicate hands to draw in her listeners.
Kennedy was born at Hobcaw Barony on Christmas Day in 1916. Now a wildlife preserve, the property, comprised of 14 former rice plantations, was then the winter retreat of Bernard Baruch, a Wall Street millionaire and advisor to presidents.
Kennedy’s grandparents were slaves at Hobcaw. Her mother was Baruch’s cook and her father a “jack of all trades,” doing whatever Baruch needed done. Though her parents were free, Kennedy said in her mind they didn’t have it much better than their predecessors.
“On a plantation, it’s not like just having a boss,” Kennedy said, her voice passionate and eyes bright behind the rectangular frames of her glasses. “It’s more than that. It’s not just your job. Your life depends on someone else.”
She grew up feeling that she and her family were powerless, she said. They were viewed as less than the Baruchs, or even the white families who worked for the Baruchs. And from the start, Kennedy said that bothered her and she questioned why things were the way they were.
“I was born a person who always asked questions. I always wanted to know why, why why,” Kennedy said. “I didn’t get many answers, but that didn’t stop me from asking.”
Kennedy said she never understood why folks made such a big deal out of skin color and separated themselves into black and white.
As a child, when people referred to her as black, she would run home and stare at herself in a mirror. She’d learned her colors at school and couldn’t see how her skin, the color of rich chocolate, could be mistaken for black. Nor, she said, had she ever seen a person she considered “white.”
“If anybody ever saw a person with white skin, they’d probably be scared to death,” she said. “They’d think they’d seen a ghost.”
Kennedy also questioned the division between herself and the white children she grew up playing with. When white children turned 12, she said, blacks were required to start calling them “miss” or “mister.”
There was one girl in particular that Kennedy and her siblings played with. She was white and when she wanted to play, she’d tell the Kennedy children to come over to her house. Kennedy could never figure out why the girl couldn’t come to them. After all, there was only one of her and there were six Kennedy children. But when the girl called, Kennedy’s mother made them go.
Kennedy’s siblings didn’t see a problem.
“I was the only one who thought ‘something is wrong with this.’ They’d just go and enjoy themselves,” she said.
But it made Kennedy feel insignificant, and one day when her mother wasn’t home, she took a stand. The girl summoned them and Kennedy said no, knowing she’d get in trouble later.
It was the first of many stands Kennedy would take.
When Kennedy finished Howard High School, she was first in her class, but nearly lost the title of valedictorian because of the dark tone of her skin. It was an all-black school, but students with lighter skin were often afforded better treatment, she said.
Even though Kennedy’s grades were higher, the principal nearly named another student valedictorian — a boy with light skin and a white father.
Kennedy wasn’t going to accept it meekly and ended up getting her due, though she said she didn’t fight that battle alone. Her parents weren’t in a position to help, she said, so she enlisted another adult from her community.
Kennedy recalls that a lot of black students had white fathers, as it was common for white men to rape black women, because they could. It often happened with the woman’s husband in the house, powerless to stop it.
Though her family told her not to, Kennedy took another stand right after her college graduation, this time against Baruch. He’d long ago promised her father he would foot the bill for the Kennedy children to college. That and building a school at Hobcaw are among the few things he did that Kennedy said she respected him for. Before that, there was no education provided for black children at Hobcaw.
Kennedy was the first to take Baruch up on his offer of higher education, but when she enrolled at South Carolina State in Orangeburg, he made no mention of writing a check for her tuition.
For the four years she was there, Kennedy’s father paid the tuition. His salary was $40 a month, she recalled.
She urged him to remind Baruch of the promise, but he told her to let it go.
“He said if the man forgot, he forgot,” Kennedy said, mimicking her father’s deep voice. “I said that’s not right.”
So she sent a letter to Baruch’s home in New York, including a receipt for four years of tuition, plus the cost of her college ring. The total was about $600.
Soon after, Baruch sent Kennedy’s father a check with a note.
“It said, ‘That Minnie sure is rude,’ ” Kennedy recalled with a wide grin. She wasn’t offended. She’d accomplished what she set out to do.
Kennedy worked briefly as a teacher in Georgetown. The pay was just $50 a month so she went to New York to seek a better salary.
“I figured I could make more than $50 just picking up change on the street,” she said.
She didn’t move back to Georgetown until the late 1980s, when her mother’s health started to deteriorate. But her life in New York didn’t start as she’d planned.
Kennedy couldn’t find work as a teacher and ended up working as a welder at a shipyard during World War II. She said the pay was great, because the men in charge were Irish and, having never met Kennedy, assumed she was, too, because of her last name. However, once they figured out the truth and men started coming back home from the war, she was among the first to be let go.
But by then she’d put some money away and used it to go back to school for a graduate degree.
She was eventually hired as a teacher at a private school and quickly earned a reputation for her progressive methods, moving on to larger, more exclusive schools.
Kennedy said she taught all her students to treat everyone the same, regardless of race, sex or economic status. She was teaching at a public school in Westchester County, N.Y., in 1963, when she volunteered to go to Louisiana with a civil rights group to educate blacks about the Constitution, so they would be eligible to register to vote — a process whites didn’t have to go through.
On a rare day off, she and some members of her group decided to take a ferry ride from Baton Rouge, La., to New Orleans. It was an integrated group and they were together, looking out at the water, when the boat captain ordered them apart. The blacks had to stay on one side of the boat and the whites on the other.
Kennedy said it was her view on color that got her in trouble. She informed the man he was pink, not white.
“I should have known better, because I grew up in the South, but I thought it was a big joke,” Kennedy said.
Outraged, the captain turned the boat around and the police met the group at the dock. Kennedy and her group were taken to jail. They were transferred to another jail late that night without being told about what was happening.
“They loaded us up in the middle of the night and took us miles away,” Kennedy said. “We thought we would be killed.” She had recently read about a New York youth who gone to visit his grandparents in the South and was arrested and lynched for whistling at a white girl. He was 12 years old.
Kennedy and her group were in jail for three days and might have been there longer if one of them hadn’t spotted a familiar face through the window. They recognized a man from the small town where they were staying and called down to him to tell the rest of their group where they were. A lawyer was sent to represent them and, soon after, they were released.
“I was trembling, because I’d never had such an experience in my life,” Kennedy said.
Just days later, she read that King was going to be speaking in Washington, D.C., the following day.
“I knew I had to go,” she said. But all the railroad and bus seats were full, so she found a church in Brooklyn, N.Y., going to the event that had one seat left.
She remembers the huge crowd that gathered to hear King. The only time she ever saw a bigger crowd was at Obama’s inauguration.
Kennedy said she could feel the tension going out of her body as she listened, and by the time the speech was over, “I was myself again. [King] was my salvation.”
Kennedy marched with King several times. She was part of the 1965 march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery, and well remembers how it felt to have fire hoses turned on her.
“It plasters you to the wall, like a chain or something, and you can’t move,” she said. “It’s powerful.”
Kennedy said what she loved about King was that his fight was more about “human relations” than civil rights. It’s the same thing that appeals to her about Obama.
Kennedy said she still believes society has some work to do on “human relations.”
“It’s just neighbor to neighbor,” she said. “We need to look out for each other,” she said, and continue to strive to accept folks as God made them and look beyond their outward appearance.