Helen Knox Miller, 88, community volunteer, civil rights activist

October 30, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Helen Knox Miller, a longtime community volunteer and civil rights activist, died of heart failure Friday at her Roland Park Place residence. She was 88.

Born Helen Thompson Knox in Baltimore, she was raised on Wendover Road in Guilford. She graduated in 1933 from Roland Park Country School and earned her bachelor's degree in 1937 from Vassar College.

Returning to the Baltimore area, she joined the faculty of Garrison Forest School and taught until her 1941 marriage to Dr. Mitchell H. Miller Sr., a Baltimore radiotherapist. He died in 1979.

Mrs. Miller's social awareness began at an early age, when her father, Dr. James H. Mason Knox, a Baltimore pediatrician, moved his family to France in 1919 while he was working with World War I refugees. After returning to Baltimore, he gave up a flourishing medical practice to travel the Eastern Shore treating the needy for the former state Public Health Department.

She and her father toured the Eastern Shore by car, visiting the poor in towns and on rural farms, said a daughter, Katharine Knox Miller of West Hartford, Conn., executive director of the Hartford Courant Foundation. "He would do medical examinations and give vaccinations. She'd go along with him and drive the car. She was 15 and didn't even have a license."

"I think she was deeply moved by his sense of social justice. Even though he had been born into privilege, he refused to sit on it and take it for granted. He wanted to help people," said her son, Mitchell H. Miller Jr., a philosophy professor at Vassar who lives in Ossining, N.Y. "And like her father, she had a deep, deep sense of fairness and understood her privilege."

Raising her four children from the late 1940s into the 1960s did not alter Mrs. Miller's commitment to volunteering in the community and helping others.

For years, she tutored and mentored black children at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church and became active in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. She also stressed to her children the importance of public service.

"She encouraged us all to get out and do something. When I was in high school, I volunteered with the Urban League," Ms. Miller said.

During the summer of 1963, Mrs. Miller and her children went to Gwynn Oak Park to support the Congress of Racial Equality's protests, which drew nationwide attention to the whites-only amusement park.

"I went to Gilman, and when the school admitted black students she was very supportive. It was her idealism that led me into joining the civil rights movement," said her son, who, while a student at Stanford University, went to Mississippi in 1964 to help in the cause of registering black voters.

She broke ranks with others of her social class and set up a table on the grounds of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer to collect donations for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

"There she was, sitting at a card table soliciting donations for SNCC. I'm not sure how much she got or if she got anything," Mr. Miller said.

"She was also anti-Vietnam War and thought we were on the wrong path," said the Rev. Frederick J. Hannah, retired rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Reisterstown. "Helen was a good person who was always willing to stand up for what she thought was right. And she didn't care what anyone thought."

She also supported the United Negro College Fund.

For years, Mrs. Miller lived on West Lake Avenue in North Baltimore, and since the late 1980s had resided at Roland Park Place. She enjoyed playing bridge and tennis, and visiting art galleries, and was a longtime volunteer at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

She was an avid reader, and after losing much of her vision to macular degeneration, she managed to keep up with the latest literature through books on tape.

Plans for a memorial service to be held next year at Roland Park Place are incomplete.

In addition to her son and daughter, Mrs. Miller is survived by two other daughters, Marion Gordon Miller of Belchertown, Mass., and H. Tollie Miller of Bloomfield, Conn.; and six grandchildren.

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