Governor Branstad, Lt. Governor Reynolds, Dr. Jill Olsen, my fellow inductees and honored guests, as I survey this impressive audience; I only wish you all were with me three weeks ago. At that time I was entering the security gate in Atlanta when a TSA agent scanned my identification and sneered, “Iowa? Really?” More about my response later.
First, I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the Hall of Fame committee for selecting me for this prestigious award, with special acknowledgement to Alba Perez and Som Baccam for nominating me. We three might be the original rainbow coalition as we share a brightly hued perspective of the world in our own shy and retiring manner. (Ok, not so much.) Perhaps, it’s because we truly understand being foreigners in Iowa-Alba and Som arriving speaking limited English and I being the child of immigrants from the Segregated South-a culture vividly depicted in the novel and film called “The Help.” Alba, muchas gracias and Som, Dai Zone. It is a privilege to call you friends.
Thank you also to my Corinthian Baptist Church family. I am grateful for the spiritual nourishment with special mention to Linda Harrell for providing my children with the loving support that allowed me to do it all.
Perhaps because I grew up in a family of Alpha males (big and little A- alphas) that I sought out every female based organization, beginning with the Third World Women’s coalition, a group I co-founded while attending Carleton College. (By the way, if I had known being Iowa born and Minnesota residency could be the key to political victory, I’d be doing something else this summer.)
Currently, I have 53 sisters in Des Moines—the sassy and cerebral women of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Jack and Jill and Links.
I am also indebted to another group of reverential, magnanimous women who arrived in Des Moines 118 years ago with an unwavering mission to improve the health and well-being of people regardless of their status. The Sisters of Mercy legacy exemplifies the equality we are celebrating today. From the election of the Iowa’s first African American chief of the medical staff 58 years ago to the first female chief 23 years later, Mercy Des Moines has walked the talk while some are just now embracing the benefits of a diverse society. I wish you could have witnessed with me Wednesday, as 35 proud Iowa newcomers graduated from Mercy College of Health Sciences. Many were refugee camp survivors who now armed with their certificates, are uniquely poised to join the healthcare profession by serving with excellence every day, in every way. Surely, the Sisters—themselves immigrants—are looking down smiling.
Someone said, “It doesn’t matter where you go in life, it’s who you have beside you that makes it worthwhile.” For me, this is certainly true of those I have acknowledged, but most especially for the three who have lived with me the longest. When she was 7 years old, my daughter Carey asked why she couldn’t just have regular parents. While they have had great blessings, yes, it hasn’t been easy growing up in the Easley McGhee world of school board elections and judicial pursuits. So Carey and Ty, your life is like a piece of clay that is still being molded to its final form—Dad and I hope soon know why God blessed you with two hands-one to help yourself and one to help others. You are in the Hall of Fame of my heart.
Ironically, as we gather today to celebrate the anniversary of women’s equality and soon the dedication of the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington D.C., the number one viewed movie in the country is “The Help.” For some of us, many of the movie’s scenes are painful reminders of our own families’ arduous history. Every single female relative from my parent’s generation was a domestic worker-some- even in the same homes where their ancestors labored as slaves. Abilene and my grandmother Berta Easley shared many traits including a fierce determination the daily suffering and indignities they endured would result in a better future for their kinfolk. In 1968, some 48 years after women legally gained the right to vote, my grandmother cast her first ballot. The wait was long and bitter due to poll intimidation tactics used against African Americans in the south. We asked Bertma who she voted for on that all important day and she said couldn’t remember, being too excited. She said it wasn’t about the name she checked on the ballot, but finally having the right as American to do so.
By honoring me today, you are paying tribute to my grandmother who pushed her only son to leave home and seek a more desirable life in Iowa, and to a woman without a car, this was a world and eternity away. Mindful of this heritage, I listened as the African American TSA agent sneered at my address—assuming the lack of diversity in my state was oppressive. “Iowa, really,” he cackled. I waited, of course, until I had cleared the checkpoint and then I answered. Perhaps, you were unaware of Sue Wilson Brown, like my parents also from Virginia, who came to Iowa and founded the Intellectual Improvement Club, the Iowa Colored Women’s club and became the first female president of the NAACP; or Mary Domingues Campos, who as President of the United Mexican Center, co-founded the Brown/Black Forum, which remains today a staple of the Iowa Caucus cycle. And there is Lois Harper Eichacker, a fifth generation Iowan from Ft. Madison who served as vice chair of the Iowa department of Economic Development; as well as Gertrude Durden Rush who in 1918 became the first African American woman admitted to the Iowa Bar. After having been denied membership in the American Bart Association Rush and four other lawyers founded the National Bar Association. Permit me to acquaint you with Gwendolyn Fowler the first African American female pharmacist licensed in 1930 and Presidential appointee to the US Foreign Service; and Edna Griffin who staged a boycott against segregation here in Iowa seven years before Rosa Parks; and Willie Stevenson Glanton, the first African American female elected to the legislature and whose Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame induction noted that “she was a pioneer in every meaning of the word with respect to the potential of women”.
On behalf of these sheroes, and with one collective voice, we respond, “Iowa, indeed!”