With Martin Luther King Jr. Day just around the corner, Americans nationwide are stopping to reflect on their own experiences with racism and prejudice.
Among them is 81-year-old Ocean Shores resident Kathleen Wolgemuth, who was lucky enough to work with civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois as a Ph. D student at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.
“At Bryn Mawr, I based my thesis off of a sentence I heard once: Woodrow Wilson was a racist,” Wolgemuth said. “But I thought to myself, ‘That could not be.’ He had wanted the League of Nations, hadn’t succeeded and died.”
But the statement was correct. Over the course of her research, Wolgemuth learned that Wilson had set civil rights back by several years when he removed African-American officials from several government positions upon taking office
She still has a copy of her thesis, entitled “Woodrow Wilson and the Negro.” The 130-page document was written on a typewriter and bound in a black cover, now slightly torn from years of reading.
“Of course, Negro was the word everyone used back then,” Wolgemuth said. “But if I had written this thesis today, I wouldn’t have used it.”
Sitting with a great leader
While writing her thesis, someone put Wolgemuth in touch with Du Bois, who is perhaps best known for co-founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. He also authored several books, including The Souls of Black Folks in 1903.
Wolgemuth wrote Du Bois and asked him to meet with her. He readily agreed, and she took the train to New York.
“He was just a lovely man,” Wolgemuth said. “ He was such a great man, that when he opened the door I thought he would be a big, tall man. Nope. He was a short, little man with a beautiful face.”
She recalls sitting in his apartment with a typewriter on her knees, taking notes as he talked. She said he treated her with great respect — perhaps in spite of her silly, red pillbox hat.
One of Wolgemuth’s prized possessions is a letter from the civil rights leader, sent Sept. 19, 1957.
“Dear Mrs. Wolgemuth: I remember your visits quite well … I shall always be glad to know of your work and progress,” the letter reads.
Wolgemuth and Du Bois corresponded over the course of several years. He helped her edit her work, and she would tell him what she learned about Woodrow Wilson.
She once came to him upset that a group of African-American activists refused to talk to her for her thesis. Wolgemuth said Du Bois chastised her for being upset.
“I said to Du Bois, ‘Don’t they know I’m one of the good whites?’ ” Wolgemuth said. “And he replied, ‘They don’t know that. They don’t know you. They’re used to dealing with people who treat them with disrespect.’ ”
The conversation led to one of the most important lessons Du Bois taught her: Prejudice can cut both ways. Combating her own assumptions of people’s behavior was an important step in her personal growth.
From academics to activism
Wolgemuth also worked with the NAACP in Philadelphia while attending Bryn Mawr, at the suggestion of one of her advisers. She became part of a sting-like operation to determine which bowling alleys would refuse service to African American and mixed-race couples.
“We wanted to get court cases set up that showed that the bowling alleys were segregated, that they were prejudiced,” Wolgemuth said. “There would a white couple and then a black couple, and the black couple would be turned away. Then there would be a mixed couple, with myself and a black person. And we were always turned away.”
And although Wolgemuth spent much of her life working in civil rights, there were only a couple of times when she was truly afraid — and one of them was the result of a bowling alley sting.
After being turned away from the alley, Wolgemuth and her African-American friend Walt Pillow the police started chasing them on horses. She and Pillow were able to hide in the entrance to a basement apartment while the horses galloped by.
“That’s one of the few times in my life when I remember being terrified, absolutely terrified,” Wolgemuth said.
Trouble in Riverside
Wolgemuth and her family eventually moved to Riverside, Calif., where she served as president of the local League of Women Voters and her husband served as director of the local United Way.
She began looking at housing discrimination in her neighbourhood, learning that African Americans often paid much higher rents — if they could find homes at all.
Wolgemuth wrote an article about the problem, which was published right before her husband left town for work. She came home from the airport and the phone rang.
“I answered it, and a man’s voice said, ‘We know your husband’s gone, we saw you come home and we’re going to get you and your children by the end of the day,’ ” Wolgemuth said. “And I said, ‘Get me? What do you mean get me?’ And he said, ‘Kill you. We’re going to kill you today.’ ”
Wolgemuth said she calmly hung up the phone and drove to her friend’s house, and later to a hotel.
But that event was memorable for another reason. Later, as she drove back home to meet her husband, she listened to the radio. And that’s when she learned that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed.
High hopes for the future
Although she’s seen a lot of violence and hatred throughout the years, Wolgemuth said she’s continued to be impressed by by the world’s progress in civil rights.
“Over my life, I guess I’ve just had this sense of optimism,” Wolgemuth said. “As a historian, I shouldn’t have that. I should just know there’s ups and downs, good times and bad, times of changes.”
“But things have changed in that it isn’t right to be prejudiced on the basis of color,” she continued. “People still are, but we all know that it’s not acceptable. And that in itself is a good change. I think each generation has to work on its own prejudices.”