A recent conversation with my parents revealed a history of racism in my family, some of which I knew and some of which shocked me. The revelations spurred me to conduct further research which not only shed light on my family’s participation in the racism that has historically marred our country, but also helped me understand what motivates me to do the work I do: assisting CEOs in building inclusive boards. I will tell my family’s story here in the hope that it can play a part in defeating the racism that continues to plague our society.
On a visit with my parents, we were discussing my mom’s upbringing and multiple residences in St. Louis. She remembered the address of the home her dad built when she was a young child and I found the image on Zillow. That led to a discussion regarding her dad’s sister, Eva, who also lived in that house as a young adult. My mom’s Aunt Eva, who lived to age 104, was a member of, and spent her last years in a home run by, the Daughters of America, also known as DoA (and not to be confused with the Daughters of the American Revolution, or DAR). We used to get letters from her with the return address of National Home D of A, Tiffin, OH. According to Wikipedia, the DoA was established as the “ladies auxiliary” of the Junior Order of United Auto Mechanics (JOUAM), a youth subsidiary that broke off from the Order of United Auto Mechanics. The OUAM name sounds innocuous to me, like an auto workers’ labor union, but in fact it was founded in the mid-1800s as an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant organization.
The Daughters of America mission statement declared it to be a “patriotic fraternity, which seeks to aid in preserving and perpetuating the Public School system; to instill a spirit of patriotism into the youth of our land; to place our flag over every schoolhouse; to promote the reading of the Holy Bible therein; and to protest against the immigration of paupers, criminals, and the enemies of our social order.”
The DoA is noted to have been associated with the KKK in the 1920s, and admitted only white American women age 16 or over and JOUAM members. As recently as 1979, documents note that admission in the group was open to “patriotic, white male and female citizens of good moral character, who believe in a supreme being as the creator and preserver of the universe and who favor the upholding of the American public school system and the reading of the holy bible in the schools thereof…” If you have read the book or seen the film “The Help,” the DoA is the secret society to which the women and girls belonged.
I knew from genealogy records that my Irish-American relatives from the late 1700s had owned slaves. Excerpts of two family wills from Fauquier County, Virginia, include assigning “acres and slaves” to one son, “one Negro” each to a boy and two girls, and the remaining eight children received a “good suit of clothes,” “one riding horse,” or a “new saddle and bridle.”
Learning of the DoA’s KKK connection on top of the slave ownership in my family background was like getting pulled underwater, choking on sea water, coming up for air thinking all is okay, and then getting caught by the riptide and pulled underwater again.
The DoA’s white supremacist beliefs are counter to who I am, what I am about, and the polar opposite of the foundation of my work: helping CEOs who are building, growing or refreshing their boards of directors with an eye for inclusion.
I then revisited some of Aunt Eva’s old letters, and I found a few in which she revealed her racism. During her stay at a prior nursing home in St. Louis in the early 1970s, she didn’t like the “riff raff” that came to visit the black residents, and she complained of the home starting to put whites and blacks in the same room. She said if that happened to her, she would move, which appears to be one of the reasons for her relocation to the DoA home in Ohio in the late 1970s.
Our country has deep roots in racism, many years of a white supremacist culture, and inequality that persists to this day; we are all affected by racism in some way, whether we are privileged or not. Someone I know attended a workshop several years ago on white supremacy culture, and I found the material instructive on different ways racism both stealthily and blatantly manifests itself in our daily lives as perfectionism, individualism, fear of open conflict, discomfort with emotions and feelings, and other disheartening characteristics, several of which I regretfully experience within myself.
Would you be willing to join me in overcoming the history of racism in our nation? Below are a few small steps you can make:
• Hire, contract, work or volunteer with someone who doesn’t look like you;
• When there are two empty seats, take the seat next to the person who is most unlike you and initiate a conversation;
• Look your neighbors, fellow citizens and non-citizens in the eye, smile, say hello and take interest in how they are different from you;
• Access your empathy and use it.
Although our history is undoubtedly troubling, and there is still much work to be done, I take heart in seeing signs of progress in the arena in which I work, corporate board membership. The consulting firm Deloitte published a Missing Pieces Report: The 2016 Board Diversity Census of Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards, which declared: “There has been an increase in the Fortune 500 of African American/Black women board members by 18.4 percent since 2012.” Let’s keep increasing those numbers!
Kim Clancy is founder and CEO of search firm Hampton O’Bannon Partners, LLC (HOP, LLC). She helps CEOs of public and private companies who want to build, grow or refresh their boards.