Anna Arnold Hedgeman

Activist for Feminism and Civil Rights

Martin Luther King Jr and Anna Arnold Hedgeman, 1958
Martin Luther King Jr and Anna Arnold Hedgeman, 1958. Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

article edited with additions by Jone Johnson Lewis

Dates: July 5, 1899 - January 17, 1990
Known for: African-American feminist; civil rights activist; founding member of NOW

Anna Arnold Hedgeman was a civil rights activist and an early leader in the National Organization for Women. She worked throughout her life on issues such as education, feminism, social justice, poverty and civil rights.

A Pioneer for Civil Rights

Anna Arnold Hedgeman's lifetime of accomplishments included many firsts:

  • First black woman to graduate from Hamline University (1922) - the university now has a scholarship named for her
  • First black woman to serve on a New York City mayoral cabinet (1954-1958)
  • First black person to hold a Federal Security Agency position

Anna Arnold Hedgeman was also the only woman on the executive committee that organized Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous March on Washington in 1963. Patrik Henry Bass called her "instrumental in organizing the march" and "the conscience of the march" in his book Like A Mighty Stream: The March on Washington August 28, 1963 (Running Press Book Publishers, 2002). When Anna Arnold Hedgeman realized there were going to be no female speakers at the event, she protested the minimal recognition of women who were civil rights heroes. She succeeded in persuading the committee that this oversight was a mistake, which led eventually to Daisy Bates being invited to speak that day at the Lincoln Memorial.

NOW Activism

Anna Arnold Hedgeman served temporarily as the first executive vice-president of NOW. Aileen Hernandez, who had been serving on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was elected executive vice-president in absentia when the first NOW officers were selected in 1966. Anna Arnold Hedgeman served as temporary executive vice-president until Aileen Hernandez officially stepped down from the EEOC and took the NOW position in March 1967.

Anna Arnold Hedgeman was the first chair of NOW's Task Force on Women in Poverty. In her 1967 task force report, she called for a meaningful expansion of economic opportunities for women and said there were no jobs or opportunities for women "at the bottom of the heap" to move into. Her suggestions included job training, job creation, regional and city planning, attention to high school dropouts and an end to the ignoring of women and girls in federal job and poverty-related programs.

Other Activism

In addition to NOW, Anna Arnold Hedgeman was involved with organizations including the YWCA, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, the National Council of Churches' Commission on Religion and Race and the National Council for a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission. She ran for Congress and president of the New York City Council, drawing attention to social issues even when she lost the elections.

A 20th Century Life in the United States

Anna Arnold was born in Iowa and grew up in Minnesota. Her mother was Mary Ellen Parker Arnold, and her father, William James Arnold II, was a businessman. The family was the only black family in Anoka, Iowa, where Anna Arnold grew up.

 She graduated from high school in 1918, and then became the first black graduate of Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Unable to find a teaching job in Minnesota where a black woman would be hired, Anna Arnold taught in Mississippi at Rust College. She could not accept living under Jim Crow discrimination, so she returned north to work for the YWCA. She worked at black YWCA branches in four states, ending up finally in Harlem, New York City.

In New York in 1933, Anna Arnold married Merritt Hedgeman, a musician and performer.   During the Depression, she was a consultant on racial problems for the Emergency Relief Bureau of New York City, studying near-slavery conditions of black women who worked in domestic service in the Bronx, and studying Puerto Rican conditions in the city.  When World War II began, she worked as a civil defense official, advocating for black workers in war industries.

In 1944 she went to work for an organization advocating for fair employment practices.  Unsuccessful at getting fair employment legislation passed, she returned to the academic world, working as an assistant dean for women at Howard University in New York.

In the 1948 election, she was executive director of the presidential re-election campaign for Harry S Truman. After he was reelected, she went to work for his government, working on issues of race and employment.  She was the first woman and the first African American to be part of a mayoral cabinet in New York City, appointed by Robert Wagner, Jr., to advocate for the poor. As a laywoman, she signed a 1966 black power statement by black members of the clergy which appeared in the New York Times.

In the 1960s she worked for religious organizations, advocating for higher education and racial reconciliation.  It was in her role as a part of religious and women's communities that she advocated strongly for the participation of white Christians in the 1963 March on Washington.

She wrote the books The Trumpet Sounds: A Memoir of Negro Leaership (1964) and The Gift of Chaos: Decades of American Discontent (1977).

Anna Arnold Hedgeman died in Harlem in 1990.