Longtime friend Josie Johnson offers tribute to ‘a tough sister’
By Charles Hallman
Asked which adjectives she’d use to describe Minneapolis’ first civil rights director Rev. Lillian D. Anthony, her longtime friend and former colleague Josie Johnson said “committed, determined and persistent” easily came to mind.
A graduate of Lincoln (MO) University and an associate minister in the Presbyterian Church, Anthony passed away at age 88 on June 26 in Louisville, Ky. According to her obituary, Dr. Anthony “transformed her home into the first African American Heritage House Museum founded in Louisville.”
However, Anthony did this as well while living on Minneapolis’ North Side in the late 1960s, recalls Johnson. “She converted her home in ways like a museum. I had known Lillian for many, many years, way back to the 1960s. I called her ‘Sister D,” says Johnson, who first worked with her as a mayoral liaison soon after Anthony came to the area to work on social justice issues for the Presbyterian Church in 1965.
After the Minneapolis City Council approved the creation of a new civil rights department, “I encouraged her to apply for the new position,” remembers Johnson.
Anthony was named civil rights director in 1967 to address discrimination issues. She had over a decade of experience in this area in both federal and municipal governmental levels. “Lillian worked very hard at that assignment and her work,” says Johnson.
Yet Anthony resigned two years later, partly because she became “tired of making things happen,” says Johnson, who insisted that Anthony accept an offer to be the first faculty member of the new Afro-American Studies Department established in 1969 at the University of Minnesota. She taught Black history courses as well as served as the department’s associate chairman.
She eventually left Minnesota, became an ordained Presbyterian minister, and worked at other colleges, but her quest for civil rights and justice never was fully satisfied. She was “a person of conscience,” wrote MSR Columnist Ron Edwards in a recent column. “Dr. Anthony understood the principles of compassion and fairness. She knew the importance of not forgetting our history.”
“She was a tough sister,” adds Johnson, herself a legendary community activist and educator. “She didn’t take [any] stuff. She didn’t let you get away with things. She was pretty special.”
More importantly, Anthony fully believed in her people: “Lillian did things like set up exhibits for young Black children,” notes Johnson. “She was very generous with her gifts and things that she had in her home — things she had collected from various trips to various parts of Africa. She was very proud of the material she accumulated over time and was eager to share them with our children.
“Though she didn’t have children of her own, Lillian was committed to our children. She loved African American children, and opened her home to them and their parents. Her home [also] became a place where distinguished African American scholars would come to talk about Black history. She brought important people to our city to talk about Black history.”
Anthony hosted African naming ceremonies at her home as well, says Johnson. “At that time in the late ‘60s we were very much involved in naming ceremonies where our African American people were changing their American slave names to African names.” Johnson recalls one occasion that involved her godson and Mahmoud El-Kati’s youngest son. “We had wonderful, elaborate ceremonies there.”
The two women stayed in touch over the years. “She really encouraged me to pursue a doctorate” at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst “because she had gotten hers there,” says Dr. Johnson. “Lillian was a person that I knew well… We stayed in telephone contact over the years. We talked at least twice or three times a year.
“She recognized that there was never enough progress in the area of civil rights.” Even while living elsewhere, Anthony often expressed to Johnson “her sense of concern” on how Black students were being recruited and retained “or the kinds of programs that were being funded for the University [of Minnesota] to be inclusive. She always was interested in what is going on here.
“Lillian was an important civil rights advocate in our state and in our nation,” says Johnson on Anthony’s legacy. “She made significant contributions — she was committed, determined and persistent in trying to fulfill the obligation that each of her positions identified as missions for providing opportunities for African American people, which extended to all people.”
“Her focus was on equality, justice and opportunity for us as a people. I think like all of us, she too felt sad that many of the objectives, missions, and goals of our struggles were not fully met. As recently as a year ago, Lillian and I were able to share our sadness about the treatment of our first Black president.”
Finally, Johnson suggested that a fitting tribute for “Sister Dr. Lillian D. Anthony” is to look back at the work she and others did during the 1960s “and try to honor her work and her memory by returning to the goals and objectives that we had, and to stay focused on saving our children.
“[What] that means in my judgment is that we have to [teach] them their history, live our history, remember our ancestors, and make sure that none of us will die in vain and be forgotten.”
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