On this day in 1899 was the birth of Anna Arnold Hedgeman, a politician, educator, writer, and civil rights leader, as well as the first woman (and first black woman) to serve on a NYC mayor’s cabinet. She was born in Iowa and moved at a young age with her family to Anoka, Minnesota, where they were the only black family in town. She grew up in a home that put importance on education and work ethic, but didn’t go to school until she was seven, though she did learn to read at home. After graduating high school, she went on to become the first African-American student (and later first black graduate) at Hamline University, where she earned a BA in English.
After leaving college, she taught at the historically black Rust College in Mississippi and during the 1920s she began working for the YWCA. This was some of her first experience with segregation, as she became the executive director of the black branch of the YWCA in New Jersey, and later went on to hold the same position in Ohio, Harlem, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn; each of them at a segregated branch.
Through the 1930s however, she was deeply active in the Civil Rights Movement, to the point that she had to resign from directorship of the Brooklyn YWCA. She began to dip her toe into politics at the same time; in the 1930s she was a consultant for the NYC’s Department of Welfare, investigating racial issues like the living conditions of minorities, civil service positions for under-represented citizens, and underground slavery. Her other work including serving as the executive director of the National Committee for a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, and on Harry Truman’s presidential campaign in 1948. Over her life she was the member of a number of organizations related to civil rights, religion, and also drug and alcohol abuse issues.
It was in the 1950s that she became the first woman to serve on the NYC mayor’s cabinet, however it almost didn’t happen. Though the mayor (Robert F. Wagner, Jr.) promised her the position, he tried to renege on his promise, until Anna assembled numerous allies in the African-American press and put him under the eye of the media. It worked, though in her role as an intermediary between Harlem and City Hall, she was given a hidden-away basement office.
Working alongside Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph (other activists), she helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, which brought over 250,000 activists to DC; 40,000 of which alone she recruited on her own. In 1966, she was one of the co-founders of the National Organization for Women. She would go on to also work as a lecturer and teacher, especially in regards to African-American studies. She traveled through both Africa and the U.S., with a focus on black schools where she spoke about the importance of understanding and using history to achieve equality in the present.
She died at the age of 90, in Harlem Hospital, having lived a long and successful life where she earned numerous honorary degrees, as well as the Pioneer Woman Award and the Extraordinary Woman of Achievement Award.