Minnie Kennedy was my favorite jailbird

  • Friday, January 17, 2014

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Picture a little old lady walking along the streets of Georgetown. She didn’t own a car, she was 97 when she died this week, and she was outspoken as all get-out.

Every time I would see Minnie Kennedy, we’d hug and I would routinely say I’m glad to see my favorite jailbird.

She didn’t wear stripes, or an orange jumpsuit. But she spent a few days in a jail in Louisiana for one of the best of reasons — she stood up for principles of equality under the law, human rights and for literacy.

I grew up in Georgetown County, a white kid in the days of segregation.

Minnie Kennedy was born on Christmas Day in 1916 at Hobcaw Barony, Baruch’s place on the Waccamaw Neck.

Her dad and her mom — William and Daisy Kennedy — both worked for Bernard Baruch. They were a black family on a rich white man’s 17,500-acre plantation.

Baruch promised her dad he would help pay for her college. When she graduated from Howard High School she wanted to go to college. William Kennedy managed to pay the tuition and board. When she graduated from

South Carolina State College she sent a letter and a bill to Baruch, against her dad’s wishes. She reminded Baruch of the promise he made years before. Baruch kept his word, and paid William Kennedy the $600 it cost for Minnie to earn her degree.

This little slip of a black girl told an advisor to Presidents and Prime Ministers he needed to keep his promise.

Many people who read about the Great Depression and World War II know that as the men of America went off to war, the women stepped up to do many of the jobs formerly held by men.

A stereotype of the time was “Rosie the Riveter.”

Minnie was the personification of that Rosie, working as a welder in the Brooklyn Navy Yard from 1942 to 1945 to help the war effort.

She earned a degree and went on to teach at Howard High School in Georgetown, and was a professor at several colleges and universities.

Minnie told me that her love of teaching and of kids was a big part of why she did that.

But a side benefit was the way it helped her afford to travel the world. She’d work nine months, save her money, and every few years take an extended trip.

Among other places, she walked the Great Wall of China.

She marched in Selma, Alabama and was in Washington at Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.

And, as the country struggled with the abuses of power and the evils of segregation, she took her small self to Mississippi and Louisiana to help teach people to read.

At the time, in Louisiana and many other states, passing a literacy test was a requirement to be able to register to vote.

In many places, the powers-that-be knew that many black people could not read and the law was used to keep them from being able to vote.

Minnie Kennedy joined with a group of others who went to Plaquemine, Louisiana to bring the joys of reading to their fellow man, and to give them access to the power of the ballot box.

It’s hot in Georgetown, South Carolina in the summertime, and it’s just as hot in the Mississippi Delta and Bayou Country of Louisiana.

Minnie and others — black and white — worked hard with these people who shared King’s dream of being “free at last” and having the right to vote.

She told of an old black man she worked with. It was a struggle for him, but he learned to read well enough to pass the literacy test and be able to vote.

After days of sweltering in the hot sun and enduring the sultry nights, Kennedy and the others decided to give themselves a day off on a Sunday. They drove in several cars from Plaquemine, and got on the ferry for the trip across the river to New Orleans.

Minnie got out of the car she was in, and joined some of her friends and fellow literacy workers to talk as the ferry made its way across the water.

The ferry boat captain told Minnie to get back in the car. She was black, and black folks weren’t allowed to talk with white folks on the ferry.

She thought he was joking, and joked back to the man, “You’re not white, you’re pink.”

He turned the ferry around and obviously radioed to the Louisiana state police or to a parish sheriff’s office.

When the boat returned to shore, a line of about a dozen troopers or deputies arrested Kennedy and the others and took them to jail where they sat from Sunday until Thursday.

After that bad experience, Kennedy returned to her home in New York.

When she retired years later, she moved back to her home town of Georgetown.

I first met Minnie Kennedy when she brought a drawing by the Georgetown Times. It showed her family’s home and the village, church and school where she grew up, Baruch’s house and more. She wanted to get a copy or print of it.

Over the years, several of us at the Times have done stories about Minnie. She talked for more than 75 hours over an eight-month period with author Harry Roegner. He wrote her biography, Minnie of Hobcaw, and she’s long been involved in the community.

Since Minnie didn’t own a car or drive, friends and neighbors would often take her to get groceries, to appointments or meetings, or she would just walk. My wife would often pick her up to go to meetings of the Palmetto Project, where they and others would share a covered-dish dinner and work to improve race relations.

She never let her small size get in the way of a principle.

And she’s my favorite jailbird.

She made Georgetown, South Carolina, New York and Louisiana better places.

We will all miss her, whether we knew her or not,

It’s somehow fitting that she died earlier this week on Tuesday, January 14. Her memorial service at Prince George, Winyah Episcopal Church will be at 11 o’clock Saturday morning, January 25.

This Saturday at 11 o’clock, you can picture that she and Martin Luther King Jr. will be watching the parade from above that is being held in his honor in the West End of Georgetown.

She was a gem.

Farewell, my favorite jailbird.

Tommy Howard is editor of the Georgetown Times and its family of newspapers.

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