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Enolia P. McMillan, 102; matriarch of NAACP led group's move to Baltimore

October 26, 2006|From the Baltimore Sun

Enolia P. McMillan, the first female president of the NAACP and an educator whose career spanned 42 years, died of natural causes Tuesday at her home in Stevenson, Md. She was 102.

McMillan, whose father was born a slave, became a teacher in 1927 and quickly became a crusader for equal pay for black teachers and better schools for black students. In 1935, she helped reactivate the Baltimore chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, and she remained an active force in it for more than 50 years. She played a key role in persuading the NAACP to move its national headquarters from New York to Baltimore in 1986.

Kweisi Mfume, former president and chief executive of the NAACP and a close friend of the McMillan family, called McMillan a "pillar of the civil rights movement."

"She was very much the matriarch of the NAACP," he said. "She was a fighter who was relentless in pursuing justice."

Mfume credited McMillan and former NAACP Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks with orchestrating the organization's move from New York to Baltimore. While Hooks and others helped draft a financial package to initiate the move, McMillan's on-the-ground efforts made it a reality, Mfume said.

"It was Mrs. McMillan who went out and sold pies and sold commemorative bricks and held raffles and cajoled the members of that board to think about finally owning a building of their own," he said.

The eldest of four children, McMillan was born Oct. 20, 1904, in Willow Grove, Pa., to John Pettigen, who was born a slave in Virginia, and Elizabeth Fortune Pettigen, a domestic worker.

She received a bachelor's degree in education from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1927 and began teaching in Maryland. In 1933, she earned her master's degree from Columbia University in New York and in 1935 returned to Baltimore to teach.

Her experience in the schools put her in direct contact with the effects of segregation. There was only one secondary institution for blacks in the region where she worked, while there were five high schools for whites, even though the populations of blacks and whites were about the same, she recalled in a 1986 interview in the Baltimore Sun.

On Dec. 26, 1935, she married Betha D. McMillan. They had a son, Betha D. McMillan Jr.

Her role as a mother and wife -- holding lavish holiday dinners, ironing and cleaning as most women of her day did -- didn't slow her activism.

In 1969, she was elected president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP. McMillan, who was 65 when she assumed the post, said she wanted to reach out to young black militants, according to the Baltimore Evening Sun. "I've been a militant all of my life," she said, "but I am not extreme."

In addition to leading the Baltimore branch and the Maryland state conference of the NAACP, McMillan held the title of NAACP national president for many years. The role at the time was largely ceremonial, but she wielded considerable influence over the organization's national policy and its daily operations.

A teacher and administrator in the city schools for 35 years, she brought the same sense of activism to that job, successfully lobbying as a teachers union president against a law that allowed black teachers to be paid less than white teachers.

In addition to her son, McMillan is survived by four grandchildren.

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