The Family Firm

Roy Ottoway Wilkins was born at the turn of the twentieth century, on
August 31, 1901. ("Ottoway" was a tribute to the doctor who delivered
him, but it was possibly too unusual and was discarded as soon as Wilkins
could write.) His grandfather, Asberry Wilkins, had been born a slave
but had won his freedom when he was fourteen years old at the end of
the Civil War. In Holly Springs, Mississippi, where Asberry had worked
as a field hand, there was little opportunity for former slaves to make a
living, so he became a sharecropper. With his wife, Emma, he raised five
children, of which Wilkins's father, William, was the second eldest. William
had ambitions far beyond Holly Springs. He attended Rust College,
a local black college, but opportunities were no better for William than
they had been for his father, and when he graduated the only work he
could find was as a porter. The limitations of life for a young black man
in Mississippi angered him, and he constantly challenged the white racism
he confronted—often with his fists. One night, after William had been
in one too many confrontations, Asberry was warned that his son was in
danger. He encouraged William and his wife, Mayfield, a teacher, to leave
town immediately. The pair took the first train north in the hope they
would find work and a life free of the grinding oppression of the South.
The young couple eventually settled in St. Louis, but opportunities
were not much greater in Missouri than Mississippi, and William Wilkins
could only find work laboring in a brickyard. Nevertheless, it was enough
to allow the couple to move into an apartment. There, Roy Wilkins was
born in 1901, followed by his sister, Armeda, two years later and brother,
Earl, in 1905. The senior Wilkins was stern and remote, emotionally and
physically exhausted by the challenges of the daily realities of life in St.
Louis. He began to take more and more comfort in religion. Life became
even harder when, within a year of the birth of her youngest child,
Mayfield Wilkins died of tuberculosis. As her health declined, she feared
that her husband would not be able to look after the children and would,
in desperation, send them to his mother in Holly Springs. Having escaped
from Mississippi, Mayfield did not want her children to be raised
there, so she wrote to her sister Elizabeth who lived in St. Paul, Minnesota,
with her husband, Sam Williams, to ask that they raise the three
children. The couple agreed, and the children left their father to start a
new life in Minnesota. The Williamses adopted the children in 1911; but,
although Wilkins saw his father, who became a traveling preacher, only
intermittently throughout his childhood, he maintained contact with him
and his stepmother until their deaths in the 1950s.
This tragic turn of events shaped Wilkins's life in an unexpected way.
The influence of Sam Williams had a profound effect on the young boy.
Williams was born in Mississippi but had also gone North to settle in St.
Paul, where he found work looking after the private railway car of the
president of the Northern Pacific Railroad. As such, he held a position of
middle-class respectability in the local community. According to Wilkins,
he was "not hard and not soft," but believed in discipline, diligence, and
hard work. He advised his nephew that if a black man wanted to advance,
he must be educated and neat and have clean fingernails—advice
the young Roy Wilkins took to heart. He certainly followed his uncle's
thrifty example. As a young boy he had a morning and evening newspaper
round, and he financed his college studies with various summer jobs,
working in a slaughterhouse and serving as a dining car waiter on the railroad
back and forth to Seattle and as a redcap at St. Paul's Union Station.
(This latter job led to a lifelong fascination with railways and transportation;
Wilkins retained an encyclopedic knowledge of railway timetables,
instantly recalling the best route to get from one city to another. In his
later years, he often spent Sunday afternoons talking with the redcaps at La
Guardia airport, close to his home in Queens, New York.) The fact that
Sam Williams owned his own house, had no debts, and put all three of his
adoptive children through college was always a source of pride to Wilkins,
and throughout his life he was preoccupied with financial security—both
his own and the NAACP's. Gilbert Jonas, who worked with Wilkins at the
Association in the 1960s and 1970s, describes him as "notoriously tight
fisted with the NAACP's money," adding that he was barely more generous
with his own. He lived a relatively frugal life—his only extravagances
were classic sports cars and occasional vacations in Europe or the Caribbean—and
expected a similar parsimonious attitude from his staff.
During Wilkins's childhood, St. Paul's black population was smaller
than in many other northern cities, and although hotels and restaurants
were segregated, housing, schools, public leisure facilities, and transportation,
for the most part, were not. The Williamses were one of the few
black families living in their neighborhood, which was populated primarily
by Swedish, Norwegian, Polish, German, and Irish first- and second-generation
immigrants, many of whom spoke little English. Wilkins's best
friend was Swedish, as were the Williamses' immediate neighbors, who
treated Wilkins as one of their own family and with whom he kept in contact
for many years after leaving Minnesota. An indication of the legacy
this neighborhood had on him, as well as a glimpse of his sharp sense of
humor, can be seen in a letter Wilkins wrote to Walter White, his future
colleague, in 1931 en route to his new life with the NAACP in New York.
"We leave here next Friday for ten days in Minnesota," Wilkins wrote,
"where I will get in a little golf, fishing, and swimming along with my
people, the blond, blue-eyed Scandinavians."
The environment in which Wilkins grew up bore little of the social
complexities of rural Mississippi, for example, where class, hierarchy, power,
and proximity all played a part in creating the appalling, oppressive
conditions in which many black Americans were forced to exist. Although
he must have grown up with family stories about his father's flight from
likely death in Mississippi and the anger and frustration that followed, on
a daily basis Wilkins was shielded to a large extent from this reality during
his childhood and school years. While he had attended a black kindergarten
in St. Louis, once they were in St. Paul, he and his siblings attended
desegregated schools. Wilkins thrived in the classroom. When he enrolled
at the University of Minnesota to study sociology and economics, he
quickly became involved in the school newspaper and other aspects of
college life, despite the fact that there were some restrictions on black
students at the university.
Wilkins's entry into college life, that bridge to adulthood, coincided
with his first real awareness of the violence of white racism. On June 15,
1920, three young black men who had just arrived in Duluth, Minnesota,
as part of a traveling circus became victims of a lynching. The three were
part of a group of six men accused of raping a white woman. As news of
the alleged attack spread, a mob of thousands gathered outside the jail
where the men were held. Some of the mob broke into the building and
took away three of the prisoners, who were then tried and found guilty in
a mock trial. They were then beaten almost to death and hanged from a
lamppost in downtown Duluth. The proximity of the violence was shocking
to Wilkins—it took place just 150 miles from his hometown—but he
was particularly appalled at the viciousness and hatred of the thousands
of white people who had joined in the attacks. The murders challenged
Wilkins's view of a group he had previously thought of as neighbors and
friends and made him aware of the vulnerability of blacks even in a relatively
benign state such as Minnesota. "For the first time in my life," he
later said, "I understood what Du Bois had been writing about. I found
myself thinking of black people as a very vulnerable us—and white people
as an unpredictable violent them."
Despite Wilkins's plan to study a subject that offered the prospect
of secure employment when he graduated, he was far more interested
in journalism, which offered a platform from which to challenge attacks
like that at Duluth. While in high school, he had edited the school newspaper
and regularly contributed poetry and news articles. In his second
year at the University of Minnesota, he joined the staff of the Minnesota
Daily, the college-produced commercial newspaper with a circulation of
around 10,000, as the paper's first black reporter. After a year he became
night editor of the paper, dividing his time between the classroom
and the newsroom for the remainder of his college career. By the time
Wilkins left university in 1923, any thoughts of a career in sociology were
abandoned, and it was inevitable that he would continue working in and
for newspapers.
His professional life began at a small weekly publication called the
Northwestern Bulletin, which had been founded by a friend of Wilkins. It
was a good place to begin but was far too small to contain his ambitions,
so when he was offered the chance to edit The Appeal, a black newspaper
with a proud history of crusading journalism, he seized the opportunity.
Unfortunately, The Appeal's glory days were behind it, and the paper had
become heavily reliant on advertising and features. Wilkins attempted to
revive its campaigning zeal, running more stories about local and national
black issues, and he enjoyed the chances the paper gave him to meet
important people as they passed through the city; nonetheless it did not
offer a big enough platform on which to establish his career as a newsman.
When his father heard that the publisher of the Kansas City Call,
a relatively new black weekly newspaper, was looking for a news editor,
he pointed out that his son was more than qualified. Wilkins was hired
and given his first assignment—to cover the NAACP convention that was
taking place in the city. The Call changed Wilkins's life in several ways.
Chester Franklin, the publisher, became a mentor to the young journalist
and would prove to be a powerful ally during Wilkins's years at the
NAACP. In addition, Wilkins's new role would introduce him to a whole
new world.
Kansas City was one of the main destinations for thousands of poor,
rural blacks migrating from the South; and, as the black population
grew, so did the number of restrictive laws and covenants limiting blacks'
freedom in the city: all public facilities apart from the trolley cars were
rigorously segregated. Conditions were appalling for many of the new
migrants: an NAACP study of race relations in the city published in 1925
found inadequate black schools, regular reports of police brutality, and a
severe shortage of habitable, let alone decent, accommodation for the rising
black population. Wilkins's new position gave him a forum to protest
against the racism he saw, heard about, and experienced, and he made
full use of it. One of his earliest campaigns was against a school bond issue,
which would have allocated almost $1,000,000 to build a new high
school for white students, while under $30,000 was earmarked to remodel
a factory building for a black elementary school. The Call "crusaded
and beat the bushes and whipped up community sentiment" in protest.
Wilkins calculated that the complacency of those in favor of the issue who
would not vote, assuming that the bond issue would pass without any
problem, would clear the way for those against the issue to win the vote
and defeat the proposal—which is exactly what happened.
Just as his adult life was taking shape, Wilkins suffered three devastating
losses. His sister, Armeda, died of tuberculosis in November 1927 at
the age of twenty-four. Then, barely two months later, his aunt and uncle
died within two days of each other. Wilkins and his brother, Earl, were
left on their own. Wilkins's nephew Roger later wrote that a "profound
loneliness" marked both Roy and Earl and that no one, possibly not even
their wives, was closer to each than the other. Given his very private nature,
Wilkins said little about these losses in later years. Although he wrote
briefly about it in his autobiography, the sense of loss of home, as much
as people, is acute. His main words of tribute to his uncle, however, were
that he had died leaving no debts, "a final testament to his belief in self-help"—a
model that shaped Wilkins's philosophy for the rest of his life.
Once the family's house was sold, Wilkins brought his brother into
the Call as an advertising salesman. Earl Wilkins would remain at the
paper until his own untimely death from tuberculosis in January 1941.
Although the two brothers had been separated by circumstances and distance,
this renewed proximity brought them closer, so close that the two
brothers even dated sisters for a time. Wilkins was engaged to Marvel
Jackson, whom he had met at college, while Earl courted and later married
her sister Helen. During their engagement, Marvel Jackson moved
to New York to work first for W. E. B. Du Bois at The Crisis, then moving
to the Amsterdam News, where she later became that paper's first female
reporter. As she became more involved with the social and cultural life
of New York City, Jackson later told an interviewer, she began to have
second thoughts about her engagement and came to dread the thought
of marrying Wilkins, but was spared any awkward disentanglement by a
letter from him shortly before the proposed wedding date. During Jackson's
absence, Wilkins had met Aminda Badeau, a social worker who had
just moved to Kansas City from St. Louis; in his letter to Jackson, Wilkins
confessed that Badeau was apparently three months pregnant. Although
he promised to "straighten it out," Jackson quickly took the opportunity
to break off the engagement, and Wilkins married Badeau in June 1929.
According to Jackson, Earl Wilkins suspected Badeau of tricking his
brother; in any case, the couple remained married until Wilkins's death in
1981 but never had children.
Ironically, Wilkins would soon follow his former fiancée to New York.
By the late 1920s, he was combining his work at the Call with increasing
activity within the local branch of the NAACP. Wilkins liked to say
his family was entwined with the NAACP almost from its beginnings.
As a boy, he sold copies of The Crisis, the Association's magazine; and
his Uncle Sam was the forty-second member of the St. Paul branch, for
which Wilkins served as secretary by the time he was twenty-two. He
continued his involvement with the organization when he moved to Kansas
City; there he was considered a bright young man who could bring
some much-needed new blood into the local branch. He became secretary
of the Kansas City branch, leading its contribution to the NAACP's
campaign against the nomination of Judge John Parker to the Supreme
Court. Parker had been heard to make racist remarks in an early speech,
and when his nomination was announced the NAACP mobilized the full
weight of its organization against Parker. In Kansas City, Wilkins used
newspaper advertisements and his column in the Call to wage the battle.
When Parker was defeated, Wilkins launched a similar campaign against
Kansas senator Henry Allen at the request of the NAACP's national office.
Allen, a former governor of the state, was an interim appointment who
had voted for Parker's confirmation. Wilkins entered the fight against him
"with both feet." He persuaded Chester Franklin to donate advertising
space to the campaign against Allen, he wrote articles, he made speeches,
and he helped mobilize the state's NAACP branches against the nomination.
The campaign attracted widespread black support, and Allen lost his
seat to George McGill, the Democratic candidate.
The Parker and Allen campaigns transformed Wilkins's life. They
marked a turning point in his move from what he saw as the passivity
of journalism to a more active campaign against racism. Wilkins's efforts
in the two campaigns impressed Walter White, who at the time was
the Association's assistant secretary. He met with Wilkins during several
visits to Kansas City, and the two maintained a casual correspondence as
Wilkins's reputation as a journalist and activist grew. This contact proved
useful when, in 1930, W. E. B. Du Bois invited Wilkins to join the staff
of the NAACP as business manager for The Crisis, its membership magazine.
After much deliberation Wilkins declined the offer; but, despite
his self-confessed lack of business knowledge, he had no hesitation in
offering Du Bois some suggestions on how to improve the magazine's
financial health, most of which focused on the need for better organization.
Wilkins's decision to turn down Du Bois's offer was probably wise,
because there is no doubt that Wilkins and Du Bois would have been
a combustible combination, as subsequent events proved. Nevertheless,
the force of Wilkins's opinions made such an impression that the following
year, when White was promoted to secretary and began looking for
an assistant, James Weldon Johnson, the departing secretary, suggested,
"What about that young man who wrote the letter?"