Last updated: January 13, 2021
Anna Arnold Hedgeman participated in and led some of the 20th century’s most important developments, including advances in education, public health, politics, and workplace justice.[i] We honor her as an ancestor for shattering glass ceilings imposed on her by her race and gender.
Born in Marshalltown Iowa and raised in Anoka, Minnesota, Arnold began shattering glass ceilings in 1918. She became the first Black student at Hamlin University, a Methodist College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Four years later, she became the university’s first Black graduate. Arnold earned a bachelor’s degree in English. Arnold briefly taught at Rust College, a Black school in Holly Springs, Mississippi, before becoming disillusioned by segregation in the south. For the next twelve years, Arnold worked on an off with the YMCA. In 1933, she became the executive director of the Black branch in Philadelphia. Arnold made the branch a vital part of the community, but only stayed a year.
Moving to New York in 1934 to marry Merritt A. Hedgeman, she began working with the city’s Emergency Relief Bureau. The Bureau had only recently begun to hire Black supervisors, and Hedgeman served as its first consultant on racial problems. In addition to serving the city’s Black community, Hedgeman also worked with its Jewish and Italian constituents. She stayed with the ERB until 1937 when it became the Department of Welfare. She resigned and accepted a position as director of the Black branch of the Brooklyn YWCA. While in the position she organized a citizen’s coordinating committee to seek provisional appointments to the Department of Welfare for Black constituents. The committee secured the first 150 appointments the city had ever given to the Black community. Hedgeman was also able to expand employment opportunities for Black clerks in Brooklyn department stores. Her stay with the Brooklyn YMCA was cut short after the central board viewed some of her tactics, i.e. picket lines and challenging the old guard leadership, as too militant.
In 1944, A. Philip Randolph offered Hedgeman a job as executive director of the National Council for a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). She accepted the position because she believed that permanent legislation was needed to outlaw discrimination in employment. After a major legislative drive in 1946 failed, Hedgeman resigned to become dean of women at Howard University.
In 1948, Congressman William L. Dawson, vice president of the Democratic National Committee, asked Hedgeman to join Harry Truman’s presidential campaign. Hedgeman accepted the offer only because Dawson supported the FEPC, and became the campaign’s executive director of the national citizen’s committee. She was tasked with raising funds from African Americans. After the election, Hedgeman received a patronage appointment as assistant to Oscar R. Ewing, administrator of the Federal Security Agency. The Federal Security Agency later became the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. On February 12, 1949, she was sworn in as the first Black American to hold a position in the Federal Security Agency. At the request of Ambassador Chester Bowles, Hedgeman spent three months in India in 1952 as an exchange leader for the State Department. She resigned upon her return following the Republican victory in the presidential election.
On January 1, 1954, Hedgeman became the first Black woman to hold a mayoral cabinet position in the history of New York City. She served under Robert F. Wagner as a mayoral assistant. She was responsible for eight city departments, acting as liaison with the mayor. She also gave speeches, represented the mayor at conferences and conventions, and hosted United Nations’ visitors to the city. Hedgeman stayed in the position until 1958. Growing increasingly frustrated with the city’s lack of response to Black concerns, she accepted a position as a public relations consultant for the Fuller Products Company. When S. B. Fuller purchased the New York Age, the nation’s oldest Black newspaper, Hedgeman was asked to serve as associate editor and columnist. Due to dwindling circulation, the paper ceased production in 1960.
In February 1963, Hedgeman played an instrumental role in conceptualizing the 1963 March on Washington as a joint effort. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin called for a march for job opportunities to be held in October 1963. Martin Luther King Jr. was planning a July march to pressure public opinion on a strong civil rights bill. Hedgeman suggested that they combine efforts into a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to be held in August 1963. She was the only woman on the organizing committee. Other women played important roles in fundraising for the event. When she realized that no women were slated to speak, she protested the minimal recognition of women who were civil rights leaders. She persuaded the male dominated committee that this oversight was a mistake. As a result, Daisy Bates was invited to speak. As plans for the march were taking shape, Hedgeman was appointed by the National Council of Churches to serve as coordinator of its newly formed Commission on Religion and Race. The purpose of the commission was to mobilize resources for Protestant and Orthodox churches to work against racial injustice in American life. One of her first assignments was to relate the March on Washington to its renewed commitment of Protestant churches for justice for all. She was asked to help mobilize thirty thousand white Protestant church leaders to march. An estimated one-third of the March of Washington participants were white. While with the NCC, she worked to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In 1964, she published her memoir, The Trumpet Sounds: A Memoir of Negro Leadership. The following year she took leave from the commission on religion and race to campaign for president of the City Council of New York on the Reform Democratic ticket. Though her campaign was unsuccessful, she was the first woman and the first Black woman to run for the office.
Though Hedgeman has yet to become a household name, she has received numerous honors. She received the Frederick Douglass Award from the New York Urban League; the National Human Relations Award from the State Fair Board of Texas; and awards from the Schomberg Collection of Negro Literature and the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations. Hedgeman received citations from the NAACP, the SCLC, the National Council of Negro Women, and United Church Women. Hamlin University awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1948. The New York State Conference on Midlife and Older Women awarded her the “pioneer woman” award in 1983.
Anna Arnold Hedgeman passed away at the Greater Harlem Nursing home on January 17, 1990. Her legacy should inspire the next generation of change makers to continue to shatter glass ceilings despite the trials and tribulations they will endure. She is associated with the National Mall and Memorial Parks.
This article is part of the "Exploring the Meaning of Black Womanhood Series: Hidden Figures in NPS Places" written by Dr. Mia L. Carey, NPS Mellon Humanities Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. This project was made possible through the National Park Service in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Bass, Patrik Henry. 2002. Like a Mighty Stream: The March on Washington August 28, 1963. Running Press Book Publishers.
Hine, Diane Clark. 2005. Hallie Quinn Brown. Black Women in America: Volume 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P. 37-40.
Lott, Martha. 2017. The Relationship between the “Invisibility” of African American Women in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and Their Portrayal in Modern Film. Journal of Black Studies. 48(4).
Scanlon, Jennifer. 2016. Until There is Justice: The Life of Anna Arnold Hedgeman. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[i] See Scanlon, Until There is Justice: The Life of Anna Arnold Hedgeman