January 16, 2014

Civil rights activist Minnie Kennedy kept working to improve race relations

Minnie Agatha Kennedy never stopped asking why things were they way they were, or trying to get people to learn to treat each other with respect.

Minnie Agatha Kennedy never stopped asking why things were they way they were, or trying to get people to learn to treat each other with respect.

Kennedy, born the granddaughter of slaves on a vacation plantation owned by wealthy and powerful whites, lived to see the Civil Rights movement bring an end to segregation in the South, and to see a black man inaugurated as president.

Less than a year ago, she attended a regular meeting of the Palmetto Project, a program that works to improve race relations.

Kennedy died Tuesday at 97 at a Georgetown nursing home. A memorial will be held at 11 a.m. Jan. 25, at Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church, followed by a private inurnment.

Kennedy was born at Hobcaw Plantation, owned by presidential adviser and financier Bernard Baruch. Her mother, Daisy Jenkins Kennedy, was a cook for the Baruchs and her father, William Kennedy, was a handyman and waterfowl hunting guide on the plantation.

Kennedy was born on Christmas Day, 1916, and often told the story that she grabbed the skirt of the midwife and wouldn’t let go. She said that meant she was born a rebel.

``I was born a person who asked questions, why, why, why,’’ she said in a video interview for the Georgetown County Library.

She recalled being aware very early in life that blacks were treated differently, that they usually lived in much poorer housing and were not always offered the same access to education that white people had.

In later years, she remarked that Baruch could have provided better housing for his employees, perhaps even the electricity he had run to his vacation home, according to Lee Brockington, a Hobcaw interpreter.

``I grew up with strong negative feelings about segregation because I couldn’t understand it,’’ she said in the video.

Her parents encouraged her desires for an education, and she graduated from Howard High School and what was then S.C. State College.

Baruch had promised to pay for college for the children of any of his employees, but Kennedy’s father would not ask him for the money. When she graduated, Kennedy wrote Baruch herself at his New York office, telling him what her expenses were. Baruch gave her father a check for college expenses, but remarked that his daughter was rude.

Kennedy laughs about that in the video interview.

``I didn’t care what they called me, I had my education,’’ she said.

She went back to Howard after college and taught for three years, but decided she wanted more than the $50 a month she was paid. She went to New York City just in time for World War II, and became a Rosie the Riveter. ``A Rosie the Black Riveter,’’ she sometimes said.

After the war she got an advanced degree and went back to teaching, which she kept at for about 40 years before returning to her home town in mid-80s to care for her ailing mother.

When she retired in 1984, she had taught early childhood classes as well as teachers. She retired as professor of education at Bank Street College of Education in New York City.

During her New York years she became drawn to the Civil Rights Movement and efforts to assist Southern blacks to register to vote. While in Louisiana on one of those missions, she and some companions were thrown into jail for three days for refusing to stay in the black section of a ferry boat.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington was not long after, she recalled, and she went. She said in the video that when King spoke his ``Free at last’’ lines, ``it was then that I felt free,’’ for the first time in her life.

``There was a sense that things can get better,’’ she said.

Later, she was on the famed freedom march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., where participants were set on by dogs, sprayed with firehoses and beaten.

After returning to Georgetown to live, she often spoke publicly of those days, not wanting people to forget. Not everyone wanted to be reminded.

``Minnie made a presence,’’ Brockington said. ``Even if you disagreed with her, she made you listen to the other side.’’

Kennedy emphasized that everyone is a human being, Brockington said, and she often talked of human relations rather than race relations.

In 2001, she was part of a committee that brought the replica slave ship Amistad to Georgetown, and in 2007 she traveled with a group to London to participate in a ceremony of apology for slavery.

She received a special invitation from former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. Although she said in an interview at the time that it meant a great deal, the work of achieving equality for all was still not done.

Kennedy never married or had children of her own, she told people she did not have time for that. She would rather spend her time providing an education to children, she sometimes said. Survivors include nephews and nieces.

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