Family of first black woman to enroll at IU visits campus

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — For Dina Kellams, it was the end of a quest.

Kellams, director of university archives and records management at Indiana University, had been on a mission. After finding a newspaper clipping that named Carrie Parker as the first African-American woman to enroll at IU, Kellams wanted to know more.

But little did she know that quest would lead to a meeting last week between her and Leon Parker Taylor, Parker's son.

It seemed unfathomable that Taylor, 99, would still be alive, but he was and happy to fill in the details of his mother's life. On Aug. 24, Taylor called to let Kellams know he would be visiting the campus on Aug. 27. He wanted to meet the woman who had worked so hard to track him down.

Through Parker's own writings, Kellams learned what a chore it was to get an education — a task made harder by issues related to gender and race.

Parker's father, Richard, was born a slave in 1834. Her mother "loved the idea of schooling," according to her writings, so the family moved to Indiana in hopes the children could go to school. Sadly, a few months after they arrived, Parker's mother died. Her father wanted to move back home to North Carolina, but he was convinced to stay in Indiana.

"Through his teaching and actions, my father had instilled into our hearts that no one was better than we, unless he was a better Christian," Parker wrote. "With this belief in our hearts, none of us have ever been ashamed of our race and none of us could see why the so-called superior race could not see how foolish it is to believe otherwise."

Those teachings would be important as Parker was constantly challenged in school.

"I had to fight my way to get through Clinton High School," Parker wrote. "I was in the eighth grade three years — they always bluffed Negroes out before getting into high school."

But Parker eventually advanced, and there were people who supported her efforts.

"I got so many flowers — from the white folks — I could hardly keep all of them," she wrote.

Once she got to IU, things still weren't easy.

"I did and was the first colored girl to ever enter there. I was not made to feel my color much while there, but I was trying to work my way through and almost killed myself in the attempt," Parker wrote.

While a student, she stayed in the home of a doctor who eventually forbade her to work while in school. The family told Kellams it also was hard on Parker since the doctor was "all over" the young student. Plus, she was kept extremely busy by the doctor's wife, who piled housework on the young girl.

Parker left school and got married, and her husband promised to pay for her education.

"I married but have never even seen the University since," she wrote.

During her research, Kellams learned IU folklorist Richard Dorson interviewed Parker about her quest for an education.

"Every year I'd cry to go back," Parker told Dorson, but it didn't happen.

When Parker's oldest son, John, was in college to be an electrical engineer, her dream was again given hope. The plan was for John to get a job and pay for Parker to go to school for engineering. But the Great Depression struck, and Parker's son ended up getting a job at the post office.

Taylor told Kellams that his mother didn't talk about her time at IU.

"It doesn't sound like she really dwelled on the fact that she wasn't able to return to Indiana University," Kellams said.

During last week's visit, the university talked to the family about memorializing Parker's place in history. There are plans to commission a portrait that will become part of the university's permanent collection. And there are efforts to name a scholarship or award after Parker.

Clarence Boone, associate director of Indiana University alumni relations and director of diversity and multicultural programs, met Parker's family when they visited last week. Boone had lunch with the family and was impressed with the 99-year-old Taylor.

"He has a wonderful wit about himself. This really is a fascinating person," Boone said.

Boone said the family will be formally invited to this year's homecoming events with plans to recognize Parker during its alumni event.

Boone said he had an opportunity years ago to briefly meet Frances Marshall, the first black woman to graduate from IU, so meeting Taylor was especially meaningful.

"It's a fascinating moment," Boone said.

Being able to put Parker in her rightful place in history has been a long and exhaustive search for Kellams.

"I feel really thankful that I have a job where I can do this kind of work," she said.

Boone said Parker's story shows what can come of determination and perseverance.

"Life is truly beautiful," he said.


Source: The Herald-Times,


Information from: The Herald Times,

This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by The (Bloomington) Herald-Times.

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