|Helen Renfrow (1904-68), 1923 Grinnellian|
When the family returned to Grinnell sometime around 1910, Helen was the first to enroll in school, and therefore the first to confront life as an African American child in Grinnell's overwhelmingly white schools. The slim evidence that survives indicates that she did well, but exactly how she managed life at school remains guesswork. Articles published after her death, eager to praise an obviously praiseworthy life, reported that she graduated from Grinnell High School as the valedictorian of her class, but the commencement programs assign that role to someone else. We know that, while in eighth grade, she won a $5 gold piece in a competition sponsored by the DAR. But was she deprived of her prize because of race as some later accounts indicate? It is not difficult to imagine this happening, but I have so far not been able to confirm this rather harsh, childhood encounter with racism. Quite the contrary, The Bystander, an African American newspaper published in Des Moines, reported that Helen won the prize "last Friday," but said nothing about her being refused on account of her race.
|The Bystander February 28, 1919.|
|1923 Grinnell High School Yearbook, The Grinnellian, p. 42.|
But how did Helen choose Fisk University in far-off Nashville? Fisk was one of several "Negro" colleges founded in the nineteenth century, and one can imagine that Helen would have been eager to be part of a mostly African American world after her years in Grinnell. But why Fisk? I am aware of no record that explains her choice, but it might be that Fisk was a college with which she had some contact here in Grinnell.
|Fisk University Campus, ca. 1920 (photo courtesy of A. M. Kleimola)|
|Fisk University Jubilee Singers (ca. 1880)|
|Notice from Grinnell College Scarlet and Black, 22 November 1916|
|President's Report to the Board of Trustees, Fisk University (Fisk University News 12, no. 4[Jan. 1922], p. 2).|
But for other Fisk students money was the chief problem, and it seems likely that Renfrow family finances influenced Helen's decision to leave Fisk. In the early 1920s, tuition at Fisk was $50 a year, and room and board was estimated to cost another $250 or so, not counting travel and other associated expenses. In the context of today's college costs, this sum sounds trifling, but to the Renfrow household in the 1920s it was not at all insignificant. What Lee Renfrow was earning in the 1920s is unknown, but we do know that in 1915 he reported his previous year's income as totaling $400. One hopes that he was earning considerably more than that by 1923, but, even if his salary was two or three times his 1914 earnings, the cost of Helen's education would have been hard on the family budget.
|Alice Renfrow, 1924 Grinnellian|
Meanwhile, Rudolph, third-oldest of the children, left Grinnell High School in 1923 before graduating, and enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute Academy; after his 1927 graduation, he continued at Hampton, matriculating at the Institute's trade school. Of course, Rudolph, too, worked to help put himself through school, but there can be little doubt that the Renfrows were feeling the pinch of two children away at school, a third at home, graduated but unable to secure work appropriate to her education, and a fourth, Evanel, set to complete her high school education in 1926.
So the Renfrows had things to work out, and work them out they did. Helen returned to school in 1927 at the University of Iowa where she was able to complete requirements by summer 1928. Exactly what happened after that is a bit murky. By some accounts Helen left Iowa City immediately after graduation to teach at Lander College, a women's college in Greenwood, South Carolina, but when I inquired of today's Lander University archives whether they could confirm Helen's presence, the librarian reported that Helen's name did not appear in any catalog or yearbook published between 1928 and 1931. Helen may also have worked for a time at Alabama State Teachers College (or Alabama State University as it now is) in Montgomery, Alabama, but so far I have not been able to confirm or learn the details of her employment there.
|Allyn and Helen Lemme (ca. 1929), Daily Iowan, February 18, 2008, p. 5a.|
Helen accepted a position as research technician in the internal medicine laboratory at the University of Iowa. Here she was part of Dr. Elmer DeGowin's lab that pioneered blood preservation, storage, and transfusion. As important as that work was, Helen Lemme made her most enduring contributions outside the laboratory. For years she and her husband had opened their house—first at 15 E. Prentiss Street, and then later around the corner at 603 S. Capitol—to African American students who were denied residence in the university dormitories. Generations of Iowa graduates recalled with affection "Ma Lemme," her advice and encouragement, as well as the good eating that they enjoyed while living with the Lemmes. Helen became so famous for her meals that a February, 1942 article in The Daily Iowan touted her chili, chicken gumbo and other dishes, and printed her recipes!
Over the years the Lemme home became a favorite gathering place for Iowa City's young African Americans. With a tile floor for dancing, built-in high fidelity for playing records, and walls covered with murals and dotted with the signatures of visitors, the basement was a much-loved destination. The Lemmes also occasionally hosted visiting celebrities, one of whom was Duke Ellington, whose band had performed in concert one Friday night in March, 1949. Long after the concert—about 3:30 AM—the Lemmes brought Ellington and his band to their home where the music continued long past sun-up. According to one man who was present for the jam session, the Duke, various members of his band, as well as some local talent, took turns producing the "finest in jazz music that has ever been heard in Iowa City."
Helen Lemme was also active in the larger community. She was a long-time member of the city's Human Rights Commission (as it is called today), was President of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, and was very active in local Democratic Party politics—at various times she was precinct committeewoman, delegate to both county and state conventions, and a member of the party's Black Caucus. Indeed, in 1944 Helen had advocated for greater representation of African Americans at the Democrats' national convention. Active in her church (First Baptist), the local PTA (Henry Sabin school), YMCA, Girl Scouts, Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and many other organizations, Helen Lemme worked hard to improve her community—and its reception of all its citizens. Her work did not go unnoticed: in 1955 Helen Lemme was named the first "Woman of the Year" in Iowa City, and was later recognized as the first African American to be named "Best Citizen of Iowa City."
Helen's last years included some sorrow. In 1961 she lost her husband Allyn, a victim of heart failure, and his death must have been hard on her. Allyn may not have cooked much for the students who lived with them, but accounts of the basement gatherings in their home inevitably feature Allyn as cordial host. Despite her loss, Helen carried on the work that she and Allyn had begun so many years before. But in December, 1968 a devastating fire in the house at 603 S. Capitol took her life, and burned down most of the building that for so long had been home to Helen's generosity and compassion. After her funeral at First Baptist, she was buried next to her husband in Iowa City's Memory Gardens Cemetery.
|Helen Lemme Elementary, 3100 E. Washington St., Iowa City, IA|