Baltimore NAACP chief steps down after half-century of hard work

December 31, 1990|By Martin C. Evans

Since her childhood growing up near Chesapeake City, Enolia P. McMillan has lived by the work-ethic values she learned helping tend the family farm.

There were wood and water to haul, eggs to be collected, and stray livestock to be retrieved -- endless chores in the day-to-day struggle to wrest a livelihood from the earth.

"There was always something to be done," said Mrs. McMillan, whose father, the son of a white plantation owner and his slave mistress, pulled himself from slavery to become owner of a farm. "You're never lost for a job on a farm."

Now 86 years old, she will retire today after 21 years as president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Her departure will mark the first time in more than a half-century that the civil rights organization will be without the talents of the diminutive, soft-spoken former schoolteacher who learned about hard work on a farm near Chesapeake City.

"That is how to understand my mother," said her son and only child, Betha D. McMillan Jr., a 50-year-old computer systems engineer. "Quite often it was like getting done some country chore, whether it was raising squabs or keeping the NAACP together."

During her tenure with the Baltimore NAACP, she gained a reputation as a dogged fund-raiser and NAACP advocate. Some say her crowning achievement was persuading the organization to move its national headquarters from New York to Baltimore in 1986 -- two years after she was elected national president of the NAACP, a post she held until February.

Born in Willow Grove, Pa., on Oct. 20, 1904, and a Marylander from the age of 3, Mrs. McMillan has led a life that in many ways charts the twisted path the United States has taken in moving from slavery toward racial justice. Her observations on society as it reaches into the 1990s make it plain that much has been achieved but that much remains to be done.

Her involvement with the NAACP dates back to the mid-1930s, when she joined efforts to resurrect the moribund Baltimore branch.

Mrs. McMillan, then a principal at a Charles County high school for black children, had done a thesis on the racial inequities in that school system while working on a master's degree in school administration at New York's Columbia University. The county maintained a single high school for black students, which meant that many black children lived too far away to attend. Those who did had to make do with aging textbooks and a shortened school year.

The Maryland State Colored Teachers Association, which was pressing for equal pay for black teachers, asked her to discuss the results of her study at the association's convention. Carl Murphy, the publisher of the Afro-American Newspapers, learned her work and was so impressed that in 1935 he asked her to help revive the Baltimore NAACP and recruit members.

She has been involved with the organization ever since.

In those days, she said, fear of reprisals made it hard to persuade people to join the civil rights organization.

Baltimore was a city of strictly segregated neighborhoods, limited job opportunities and deeply ingrained traditions that were degrading to black residents. Ku Klux Klan rallies and lynchings in nearby Maryland towns were unnerving even for city residents.

"People were afraid, and they had good reason to be afraid," said Mrs. McMillan, who believes that her involvement in civil rights and teacher organizing kept her from being promoted to principal in the Baltimore school system.

Blacks were banned from shopping at some department stores, such as the old O'Neill & Company at Charles and Lexington streets. And until 1952, the old Ford Theater on Fayette Street, a descendant of the Washington theater in which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, insisted that black patrons use an outside stairway to reach the segregated "chicken coop" balcony.

With the NAACP, Mrs. McMillan walked on picket lines at these and other institutions to press for equality.

"It was exciting," Mrs. McMillan said. "Maybe I didn't have enough sense to be afraid."

Former students who remember her from her 35 years in the Baltimore school system say she was a soft-spoken woman who rarely made civil rights an issue in the classroom. And her son said it was her determination to win appointment as a school principal that most stirred her passions.

"Her teaching was a lot more important to her for years and years than civil rights," Mr. McMillan said.

That changed with the retirement in 1969 of Lillie M. Jackson, who had been Baltimore NAACP president for 34 years. Mrs. McMillan was determined to take her place.

Her election as the Baltimore NAACP president was something of a coup. Lillie Jackson's own daughter, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, wanted to succeed her mother. But Mrs. McMillan won the election, in part by promising to bring in younger leadership to answer militant critics who accused the organization of becoming something of an old folks' congregation.

She made good on her promise.

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