By Taylor Markey
Alumna and civil rights leader Helena Hicks spoke about segregation and enacting change during an event at this university March 30.
The Baha’i Club hosted an event titled “The Story of Helena Hicks: A UMD Alumni and Civil Rights Leader” at 5:30 p.m. in the Thurgood Marshall Room of Stamp. The Baha’i Assembly of Prince George’s County North helped as well.
This event marked Hicks’ second time coming to this university since having a negative experience while working toward her doctorate in 1987.
She explained that when she was getting ready to graduate, “they had a [doctoral] committee of five men, no women … and one of them said to me … ‘I’m not reading a black story.’”
Hicks decided not go to graduation and received her degree in the mail.
“If you put your hand into a snake’s cage and he bites you, would you stick your hand in there again?” she asked in order to explain her reasoning behind not returning to the university.
She said she is always excited to talk about civil rights.
“It doesn’t go away because we never finish it,” Hicks said. “We are always on the road to equality and civil rights”
She described the process as a “bumpy road.” She said she has accepted the end goal will not be reached in her lifetime.
“It’s okay because I think I have done enough in my lifetime to push it there,” Hicks said.
Hicks was born, raised and educated in Baltimore. She talked about the community she lived in and the women within it as well, along with African-American women in general.
“We have always been good at equality in the work world,” Hicks said. “Anything a man can do we figured out how to do it, we would do it too. That’s very unique to African-Americans in the sense that we never stopped. We still are in that mode where we have always done whatever needed to be done … the rest of the world is just catching up with us.”
During a Q&A at the end of her talk, Hicks brought up how there are more women in the world than men, and women carry a heavy burden. They “have to take the bull by the horns.”
“I don’t see anything wrong with male help,” she said. “You can help me, but don’t try to do it for me.”
She described Baltimore as not having a big culture of segregation and that there were enough jobs to spread across the whole population.
“I always thought it was probably one of the dumbest things that caught on in this country,” Hicks said. “It makes no sense. If you’re in business, you want everybody to come to your door. It didn’t make any sense to me to turn away people just because they weren’t a particular color.”
She asked the audience to think about a time they were ignored and how awful of a feeling it is. She stressed that everyone needs to be treated like human beings.
“It’s a painful thing to be rejected and ignored,” Hicks said.
Hicks also told the story of how she led a group of students to integrate Baltimore lunch counters as a student at Morgan State University.
She would catch the bus by Read’s Drug Store. There was only one bus to Morgan, so students either got on the bus that morning or did not get to school, Hicks said.
She described it as a cold morning as she and her friends watched several buses pass them because they were full. Hicks said the group wanted to go in and sit down because it was cold. She said they should go in, to which they replied “Well, they won’t let us in.”
“I said, ‘You don’t know whether they will or not. Let’s go in. We’re gonna go in, if they don’t want us in here then let them put us out,’” she said.
Someone who Hicks said she assumed was the assistant manager told them to leave, and the manager told them to leave as well. The manager called Morgan State University’s dean at the time and was finally going to call the police in order to get them to leave.
Hicks remembered the nearest police station was Pine Street Station, which she described as the “filthiest, nastiest place in the world to have to go.” Because they did not want to end up there, they left.
Hicks said the dean was proud of her and her friends for standing up to the manager. The dean had to call the manager back and asked Hicks what he should tell him. She said, “Tell him we will stop there every morning and rest.”
She said a whole group went on the second day. At first, the manager did not want to serve them but then realized he had to. At the end of the week, “they released a statement to the paper saying they were open to serving everyone,” Hicks said.
Hicks asked and answered the question of whether they were afraid the people working there would do something to them.
“Fear is not something you can carry with you when you’re fighting civil rights,” she said.
Hicks said she went to Howard University to get her master’s degree and had never attended school with a white person until then. She never sat beside a white person in school and never had a white teacher until she was an adult, she said.
In August 1971, Hicks worked for the Department of Social Services as the director of day care. During her time there, she said she would see kids playing with white dolls.
“You can’t give a black child a white doll and expect them to automatically make that association,” Hicks said.
She told the national sales manager in Washington she wanted a black doll and she wanted her name to be Helena so people would know she had something to do with it.
A doll was put in the Childhood Resources, Inc. catalog, which is “what they sent to every day care center in the whole United States of America,” Hicks said.
At the end of her talk, Hicks said she hopes the audience makes a positive imprint. She said they are the ones to make the world different.
Junita Hughes, a junior psychology major, said she is taking a humanities professional writing course and writing a research paper about black activism and how different communication tools have influenced the success of prominent movements.
“I thought that it would be interesting to really learn about her experience, especially being a woman,” Hughes said. “So, I think her whole story just really interested me because a lot of times we don’t often get the perspective of women and we don’t see that they do play a huge role when it comes to activism.”
Radiance Talley, the president of the Baha’i Club, said the club is all about bringing people together.
She said once she became president she wanted to do bigger interfaith events and deep, elevated conversations for the campus community every month.
Talley said she thinks it is important to raise awareness and to educate people.
“So many people are lethargic and it’s just sad when people aren’t aware or they just don’t care,” Talley said.
Featured Photo Credit: Dr. Helena Hicks passed around a Childhood Resources, Inc. catalog that includes the doll named after her. (Bloc Reporter/Taylor Markey)