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Child of Georgetown fights discrimination with education

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by Dave Baity
The Sun News

Minnie Kennedy, 91, grew up surrounded by opulent wealth at Hobcaw Barony.

But her life was a sharp contrast to the privileged existence of Wall Street multi-millionaire Bernard Baruch and his family who entertained presidents, prime ministers and powerful generals in the big house up the way.

Minnie’s parents, William and Daisy Kennedy, were servants. Treasured servants, to be sure, but servants nonetheless. And black servants, at that, which Minnie observed at an early age marked them for less than equal treatment in the segregated South.

Even in the one-room schoolhouse on the Barony that she attended to the fourth grade, she simply couldn’t say the last six words of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. The words “with liberty and justice for all” simply didn’t ring true for anybody but folks who were white, she said.

But poring over the tattered, hand-me-down books that black youngsters used at the little school, she came to a revelation: Education was the key to achieving the respect and dignity that all people deserved. And so she read and studied, determined to rid herself and others of the discrimination she chafed under.

William Kennedy was a valued member of Baruch’s staff of servants. He was the Barony handyman and served as a duck-hunting guide for Baruch’s powerful buddies who gathered there during the hunting season.

His wife, Daisy, was the cook who planned and prepared the sumptuous meals the Baruchs served their guests. The couple and their 13 children lived in a two-story tenant house outside the fence that surrounded the posh Baruch mansion. Other servants lived nearby in a village of smaller homes.

Daisy Kennedy was a strong-willed woman who sometimes smarted from being treated as a second-class citizen. And she often muttered retorts just out of earshot to demands made by her white bosses. Once, she adamantly refused a request to enlist her daughter to join her and dance for a gathering of white guests at the Baruch home.

When Minnie and her father visited town in her youth and she asked him to take her into a restaurant to get a sandwich, she was dismayed by his answer.

‘”We can’t go in there,’ he said, ‘that’s for white folks,'” she recalled. And when she questioned her parents about why books – and the U.S. Constitution – declared that all people were created equal but they had to tolerate substandard treatment, her father always told her to calm down.

‘”That’s just the way it is,’ he would say, and then I’d say, ‘But it doesn’t have to be that way,'” Minnie Kennedy recalled.

Even though his acceptance of the way things disappointed Minnie, William Kennedy quietly supported her quest to get an education. He scraped together enough money to buy a house on Queen Street in Georgetown and move his family there so that she and her sisters could attend Howard High School, the town’s all-black high school that went through the 10th grade.

The black school on the Barony ended at fourth-grade, Minnie Kennedy said, and the only way to get to Howard High was to take the ferry to Georgetown – which was a privilege denied to blacks.

And when she graduated with honors and wanted to attend college, William Kennedy put together the $30-per-semester tuition and $12-a-month room and board she needed to get a degree from S.C. State College in Orangeburg that would allow her to become a teacher. Bernard Baruch had told her father he would pay for Minnie’s education, but failed to keep the promise until she sent him a letter after graduating that totaled up her expenses.

“He then sent my father a check for a little over $600,” she said. “He congratulated my father on my graduation, but also said in the letter that I was a rude girl. I always was a rebel.”

With her degree in hand, Minnie Kennedy returned to Georgetown and joined the faculty at Howard High. But after World War II broke out, she ventured North to seek better pay and new opportunities. She quickly learned that discrimination wasn’t limited to the South. When she wanted to use the money she made at the Brooklyn Naval Yard to buy a new dress at a well-known department store, she learned that women of color could buy the clothes there, but weren’t allowed to try them on. Black women had to enlist white women who wore the same size to model the clothes for them, she said.

And, when she applied for a teaching job with the New York educational system, she was turned down because she hadn’t shed her Southern accent.

When the war ended, she used savings from her defense job to return to college and eventually earn a master’s degree in early childhood education. That led to a series of teaching positions in experimental schools where she had the opportunity to work with whites and blacks of all economic backgrounds. One was in Westchester County, N.Y., where she shepherded a kindergarten class that became a model for others in the school district. Based on her success there, she launched workshops for other teachers that demonstrated their need to have a democratic outlook about their charges, an open, unforced acceptance of other races and a willingness to set loving rules for hard-to-teach kids.

The notoriety of her philosophy landed her a job as an adjunct professor at New York University administering an early childhood program for college students interested in joining the field that was funded by a Head Start and a New York state grant.

She refused to allow youngsters taught in the experimental program to be identified by income, and insisted that parents of the young students be available to come to the school to discuss their children’s progress and serve as volunteers when possible.

As a result, she wound up as a Head Start regional training officer that required her to give workshops in many of the New England states.

During summer months, she became a world traveler by attending education workshops in Europe and Asia and earning extra money by serving as a counselor at private camps that often had only well-to-do white students. At one, she had the opportunity to arrange for her campers to set up their tents on former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s Hyde Park lawn.

Minnie Kennedy had campaigned for John F. Kennedy and was invited to his presidential inauguration, where she had met Eleanor Roosevelt. So, when she called to ask if she might bring her 13 youngsters there to meet her, the former first lady agreed.

“She was most gracious,” Kennedy said. “She came out, greeted the children, talked with them and answered their questions. It was a very nice experience.”

And when the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s got under way, Kennedy joined the fray. She joined a group of activists who headed to Louisiana to help register black voters. Kennedy’s job was to teach illiterate blacks in Plaquemine, La., enough about the U.S. Constitution to pass the oral test required to get them on the voter rolls. She also accompanied them to the county courthouse to take the test, which many activists complained had been designed to prevent them from voting.

She and the racially mixed members of her group landed in jail when they decided to take a ferry from Plaquemine to New Orleans for an outing. When they drove their cars onto the ferry and got out to stand by the ferryboat’s railing to enjoy the scenery, the captain ordered them to the other side. They were standing at the railing reserved for whites, he said, and had to head to the black side.

Most were New York and New Jersey residents who’d never experienced such treatment. Kennedy jokingly made a comment that she didn’t understand the captain’s complaint because he obviously couldn’t distinguish colors. She quipped that he wasn’t white, he was pink, never expecting anybody to take that to mean he was a communist.

In any event, the captain turned the boat around, headed back to Plaquemine and radioed for police to be at the dock to haul the group to jail for violating the boat’s segregation rules. It took days for them to finally be released.

Shula Chernoff, 85, and professor emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University, said Kennedy was reluctant to discuss the incident or her work with the late Dr. Martin Luther King with students when Chernoff enlisted her first to fill in for a professor at the university. She finally talked about it, however, while conducting a program when students asked her if she’d ever been to jail.

She figured parents would react badly when students told them she’d said yes, but was delighted when they returned to class to proclaim that their parents had “declared that Minnie is a heroine.”

“Then she began sharing her life story with the children,” Chernoff said.

“She had worked with Martin Luther King and took a lot of risks. Young people and children at the time knew little about that era. She brought them a very powerful message.”

Ojetta Parker Smith, 90, of Georgetown, was Kennedy’s classmate at Howard High. She graduated from Morris College in Sumter with a degree in elementary education and taught 43 years in the Georgetown County schools, several of those at Howard High with Kennedy.

The jailing story doesn’t surprise her.

“Minnie always was a fireball,” she said with a chuckle.” She’s a fighter for what she thinks is right. She’s one of those people who truly believes what she believes in.

“She’s still politically active,” Smith said. “She invites political candidates and her friends to her home so they can come in, meet the candidates and question them about the issues they feel are important. Everybody in Georgetown knows Minnie Kennedy as well as lots of people in New York.”

Norma Johnson, an 83-year-old former teacher turned human resources administrator in New York City, spent years teaching alongside Kennedy at several schools and as an adjunct professor at NYU.

“Minnie influenced me so much,” she said. “I’ve never met anyone so selfless and so humane. She knew how to help children be who they needed to be. Parents really loved her and knew that she wanted what was good for their children. She provoked children to really think. That’s what education is all about.”

Kennedy said her view on “civil rights” has been tempered by age and maturity. She has come to realize the full import of Martin Luther King’s message, she said.

The thrust of what King was talking about wasn’t simply civil rights, she said. It’s about humanity and human relations.

“Civil rights is a manmade thing, a thing for the government,” she said, that speaks to a manmade problem. “Human relations is of God. We are all God’s children. It’s only when we see each other for what we are and give each other respect that we will finally get past seeing only color and how it divides us.”

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Written by Symphony

May 12, 2008 at 7:30 am

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