Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Helen Sets the Tone...

All the Renfrow children left Grinnell, laying down roots elsewhere, even if they returned to 411 First Avenue for their weddings and other family gatherings. Helen Renfrow, the oldest, remained closest to Grinnell, going to school and then taking work and making a home in Iowa City. Perhaps for that reason her story is best-known in Grinnell. But even this story has accumulated various misunderstandings that make it worth our while to take another look at the life of this remarkable—perhaps the most remarkable—child of Lee and Eva Renfrow.
Helen Renfrow (1904-68), 1923 Grinnellian
Details on Helen Renfrow's early life prove elusive. As the oldest child (and the first one born in Grinnell), Helen probably was called upon to help with her siblings; after the family moved to Red Wing, MN, three more children were born to the Renfrows—each only a little more than a year apart.  Consequently, there was plenty to do in the Renfrow household, and almost certainly Helen had a part in caring for her siblings.

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.
Her high school yearbook entry is modest, reporting only that she had followed the "normal course," intended as preparation for teaching. She listed only two extra-curriculars—YWCA and the "Orange and Black," the student newspaper.  The yearbook photograph of those who contributed to the student paper shows Helen seated, close to the center of the photograph and the only person of color among the seventeen students depicted here. As her brothers and sisters would later learn, this was to be the Renfrows' regular experience—being the lone African American in a sea of white faces.
1923 Grinnell High School Yearbook, The Grinnellian, p. 42.
Helen also pioneered the path to college, setting off for Fisk University in Nashville, TN in the autumn of 1923. Many years later, one of her sons recalled that his mother had always emphasized the importance of education, perhaps because Helen's own mother, Eva Renfrow, had done the same. In a 2007 interview with the Grinnell Magazine, Edith Renfrow, Helen's youngest sister, remembered that their mother had regularly urged her children to get an education; most of the Renfrow children took that advice to heart.

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)
People at Grinnell College certainly knew about Fisk, as one of Grinnell's early presidents had gone on to become president of Fisk:  George A. Gates, president of Grinnell between 1887 and 1900 and later president of California's Pomona College, had assumed the presidency of Fisk in 1909.  On at least one occasion before his 1912 death, Gates had returned to speak at Grinnell, and had brought with him members of the college's renowned musical group, the Jubilee Singers. But this would have been while Helen was still quite young, and was therefore unlikely to have had much impact.
Fisk University Jubilee Singers (ca. 1880)
But the Jubilee Singers returned to Grinnell in November, 1916, presenting a concert of spirituals at the Old Stone Church—the Congregational Church. Responding to the 1915 Iowa census, the senior Renfrows had declared themselves affiliated with the Congregational Church, and much later daughter Edith reported that she and her family had not experienced racial discrimination at church, and had freely mixed with everyone, including the college president.  It seems more than likely, therefore, that young Helen saw and heard the Jubilee Singers in 1916 at the Congregational Church, and perhaps had occasion to meet some of them (might one or two have overnighted with the Renfrows, one of the few African American households in the city?). Of course, Helen would still have been only twelve years old, seven years before she set off for Nashville. But in the white world that Grinnell was in those days, the image of an all African American chorus (and the college they represented) must have been entrancing.
Notice from Grinnell College Scarlet and Black, 22 November 1916
Apparently Helen remained a student at Fisk only two years. Accessing information on her studies there has proven unproductive, but it appears that she interrupted her studies at Fisk after her second year; later, in 1927, she resumed her education, but not at Fisk. According to records from the University of Iowa, Helen was enrolled there for the full 1927/28 academic year and also for summer 1928, after which she received her bachelor's degree.  Why the interruption in 1925 at Fisk?
President's Report to the Board of Trustees, Fisk University (Fisk University News 12, no. 4[Jan. 1922], p. 2).
No evidence I know of directly addresses this decision, although it is easy to imagine explanations. Even the Fisk University annual president's report in these years worried, on the one hand, about how crowded classrooms were and, on the other, about the university's relatively low retention rate. Both could discourage a serious student. When Helen entered Fisk in 1923, she enrolled with 166 other first-years. That same year at Fisk began with only 47 sophomores, 40 juniors, and 43 seniors. Put another way, the total enrollment of the other three years did not equal the size of the incoming freshman class, an indicator of very high attrition rates indeed. The president noted that many Fisk students—especially those who had come to Fisk from segregated schools that were underfunded—were not well-prepared for the rigorous education that Fisk intended, and therefore quickly paid the price—either outright failure and dismissal or else, before confronting expulsion,  students in difficulty simply left school voluntarily.

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
No doubt Helen, like many other Fisk students, worked on campus to help pay the bills, but the education of other Renfrow children—the first four all close in age—also had implications for the family budget. Alice, the second-oldest child, graduated from Grinnell High School in 1924, the year after Helen, but she did not enter college herself until 1928. Were her college plans held hostage to the family's finances?  Quite possibly; even worse, Alice, who had completed the commercial course at Grinnell High School, found it impossible to get office or secretarial work in Grinnell. In a 1982 interview she reported her frustration at being unable to get a secretary's job anywhere: "They didn't have any Negroes down at the glove factory,  [nor] at the canning factory...We all [enrolled in the commercial course] took shorthand and typing...if we excelled we were all supposed to be recognized as the ones to be selected [for office jobs], but that was not the case. There were no secretarial jobs at the college, none for me."

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.
What is clear is that in August, 1929 Helen Renfrow married Allyn Lemme, who had been born in Chicago, but was then living in Iowa City, working as a shoemaker. The wedding took place back in Grinnell at the Renfrow home on First Avenue, an indication of how close family ties remained among the Renfrows. If, as some reports maintain, Helen accepted a job in Alabama, then the Lemmes spent 1930 away from Iowa. But by the time that Lawrence, their first child, was born (July 31, 1931), the Lemmes were back in Iowa City, and here they remained for the rest of their lives (and where they had a second son, Paul, born in 1935).

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
Her influence in town was so great, however, that it did not die with her. In 1970 a new Iowa City elementary school opened at 3100 E. Washington, and was named in her honor. Her sons and some of the many African Americans who had benefited from her hospitality and support attended the opening, and spoke about the numerous contributions that Helen Lemme had made to their lives and to Iowa City. Lemme's portrait hangs in the school, and students there regularly revisit the life of Helen Lemme, whose story began in the small African American community in Grinnell, Iowa.

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