Minnie Kennedy

December 2010
Written By: 
Susan Scott Hester
Photographs by: 
Paul Mehaffey

Rebel with a cause, lifelong educator and civil rights activist, ninety-four-year-old Minnie Kennedy is your next-door neighbor, with a story for the books

Minnie Kennedy walks through the narrow door of the one-room Strawberry Village schoolhouse, slowly treading on its plank floor toward the long wooden desks and thatch chairs piled in the corner. Standing tall in the front of the room, she says, “This is where the teacher would sit,” as she brings the room to life. “It hasn’t changed much since I went to school here,” Minnie remarks in amazement. At 94, spirited, funny, and wicked-sharp, Minnie Kennedy, early childhood teacher, Head Start training officer, Civil Rights activist, education consultant, and university professor, reflects on her childhood in Hobcaw Barony, fourteen rice plantations that eventually became the winter estate of Wall Street millionaire Benard Baruch. What makes her story unique isn’t that she, a black woman of the rural, segregated South, graduated from college, studied at the prestigious Columbia University in New York, or led an anti-segregationist campaign for Martin Luther King, Jr. This is the story of your neighbor, a descendant of West African slaves, who created a triumphant life—and changed others’ in the process.

A narrow, sandy road off of Highway 17 through the woods of Hobcaw Barony leads the way to Minnie’s roots. Born here in 1916 and raised through childhood, Kennedy considered the Barony, “Minnie’s World.” Within the walls of the Kennedy home, the village church, and the one-room schoolhouse, Minnie learned the three “Fs”: family, faith, and fundamentals. Her moral, spiritual, and educational foundations were built on these sandy grounds, motivating every endeavor away from home.

A grassy patch in the shade of pines just outside the fence from the Baruch “big house” marks the site of Minnie’s birthplace. It’s family lore that Minnie clutched onto the midwife’s apron and wouldn’t let go, expressing her rebellious spirit from the minute she entered the world. “I think they knew then that I was going to be trouble, a radical, always questioning everything and everyone,” she says.

Her family’s South Carolina legacy began on the rice plantations of the Waccamaw River coastline. Minnie’s parents, born in the late 1800s, fortified her common sense and down-to-earth character. Looking across the big-house lawn toward the marsh, Minnie recalls her father, William, returning from leading a day’s hunting expedition alongside Bernard Baruch’s honored guests, like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. William Kennedy had a strong work ethic and practical skills and knowledge, while Minnie adopted her bolder, speak-your-mind attitude from her mother, Daisy Kennedy, who would say, “You see what you have to do, and then you go do it.”

The Kennedy household was a tight ship. “From the time we were three or four, we all had responsibilities. Everyone had to do their job to keep the family afloat,” Minnie says. Yet, Minnie’s hands craved books instead of a rake, shovel, or mop. “Even though we were working to help the family bring in two dollars and fifty cents a week, I was gung-ho that I needed an education, so I learned to read very early.” Minnie quickly earned fame for her literacy. Her Gullah neighbor would say, “You Daisy Kennedy’s daughter, da smaat one,” a reputation formed by her service to the community, reading and writing letters for them.

As a young girl Minnie was aware of socio-economic codes by literally living on the border of rich and poor, bosses and workers. Pointing to the dividing line between the Kennedy house and the Baruch mansion, distinguishing two different worlds, Minnie recalls, “They had a gate here, so my mom and dad wake up in the morning, go through the gate, and go to work. No blacks lived in there . . . the blacks were living in those villages.” Yet, the Hobcaw Barony villages outside the gate represented a larger, multiracial family that transcended these barriers. Paralleling her “Rosie the Riveter” experience as a welder in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the early 1940s, Minnie recalls with optimism the sense of community she experienced outside of Baruch’s gate. “During the week they were like brothers and sisters because they were doing the same work. When they’re not working they’re sitting with each other on the porch—whites, blacks—talking about children, or how you cook vegetables. People weren’t educated, but we had something. They looked after each other, and children had no problem.”

The “It takes a village” approach to education was evident in Minnie’s decades of early childhood teaching. “In our society,” she says, “school is one thing; parents are one thing; community is another thing. My teaching was, the three have to be together. The child, the learner, is like in the middle of a triangle.” But it wasn’t just numbers and letters for Minnie; she infused her teaching with the values and morals of her parents and interrelations of Hobcaw Barony: mutual respect, responsibility, and communication. Teaching them how to “use their words,” Minnie would explain to three- and four-year-olds, “You are not in this world by yourself.”

The ideal of community was engrained in Minnie, but growing up in a segregated South, issues of class and race began to rear their ugly heads. “As you got older you realize the relationships between the bosses, the servants, the blacks, the whites,” and as a little girl Minnie tried to understand, for example, why she couldn’t play with her white friends when they turned twelve, or why no one introduced her to President Roosevelt when he visited Hobcaw.

The exclusion Minnie experienced in childhood came up later when she was snubbed by the New York State Board of Education in the early 1940s. Minnie heard from friends in New York about teaching opportunities there—with better pay than coastal schools in South Carolina. She packed up and headed north, to Harlem, acing the teacher’s exam but hitting a wall. “‘We can’t expose the children to any more accents.’ That was their excuse to not give me the job,” even though “they had all kinds of European accents teaching in the schools. What they had a problem with was to hire more black teachers . . . .” It’s their loss, Minnie thought to herself. Fighting through the bureaucracy of the public-school system only enflamed her passion to teach. “I just let the administrators know that I’m not afraid . . . I’m going to teach my beliefs, and I’m going to help people who I can help.”

The church prompted questions that would fuel her desire to teach. Facing inequality and segregation in school, church, and work, Minnie started to ask questions. “I couldn’t believe that there’s a God that would create such a thing. How could He say this one’s gotta suffer, that one shouldn’t, and this one have a better house—how could a God do that? They confused so many things for me that I couldn’t be anything else in my life but a teacher because there were so many contradictions. I was a rebel! I was marching with Civil Rights people because the blacks didn’t have this right, and they didn’t have that right—I was part of that, trying to figure out my relationship with this Creator. . . . So I was a problem for many people and a kind of a salvation or something for some other people.”

Minnie’s segregated America revealed the dissonance between words and actions. “All of the things that they say, and don’t do, to me, was a conflict.” She couldn’t say the last six words of the Pledge of Allegiance, “with liberty and justice for all,” until President Obama’s recent inauguration, which she attended. She would hide behind her classmates to escape being paddled, and say, “‘With liberty and justice for white folks!’ In so much of my life growing up, my thoughts were contrary to what the whole public was doing. People are just saying it; they’re not living it. That’s why I couldn’t finish saying that pledge. What was the liberty for me?”

A large portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., adorns the wall of Minnie’s library, a symbol of her dedication to his efforts. Minnie miraculously managed to get the last seat on the bus for his historic “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall. Finding resonance in his messages preaching equality for humankind, Minnie was swept up by Dr. King’s hopeful dreams and campaigned alongside him in freedom marches across the South. “He was my salvation,” she says. “When Dr. King said, ‘I have a dream!’ I was sitting there, and I could feel the tension going out of my body. There was some trust that things could get better. It was not so much to me ‘civil rights’ as it was ‘human relations.’ It’s who you are and how you treat other people.”

Minnie spent many summers in the 1960s fighting for civil rights. Assisting New York congressman Bill Ryan, Minnie got involved in political campaigning. “It was because of him that I was interested in John F. Kennedy.” Meeting Eleanor Roosevelt while canvassing for JFK in New York, Minnie remembers with a laugh, “When it got to be my turn, her secretary said to Ms. Roosevelt, ‘Meet Ms. Minnie Kennedy.’ She shakes my hand and says, “Well, you certainly have the right name!”

In 1963, the C.O.R.E. program recruited teachers to set up voter education centers in the Deep South. Minnie’s Southern background, race, teaching experience, political activism, and compassion made her an ideal candidate, so she spent a summer in a Plaquemine, Louisiana, hotel—converted to a classroom—to teach local residents the Constitution. Traveling to the Deep South with a progressive mindset in a climate of racism was an act of bravery on Minnie’s part. She was, in fact, arrested that summer after she and her northern colleagues found themselves on the “wrong side” of a ferry. “If you come out of your car and stand on the rails to look into the water, blacks on one side and whites on the other side. We didn’t know that rule.”

In the small schoolhouse in a quiet corner of Hobcaw, Minnie runs her fingers along a dusty, wooden desk. She remembers sitting in class at four years old, pencil in hand, obediently absorbing every word. Against the daily grind of her parent’s domestic duties, school was a breath of fresh air for Minnie. “There was one teacher in one little room, helping everybody to learn something you didn’t know before. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, because it was so humane. . . . It was more than teaching you how to read and write; it was loving you. I didn’t get that same feeling of comfort in the church as I did with the one teacher in the classroom. I said, ‘That’s what I’m going to be when I grow up. I’m going to be a teacher.’”

Baruch built the schoolhouse in 1918. Understanding the importance of education, Minnie recalls, “Everybody got together, parents and grandparents, and pushed the kids because they knew that there was something missing in their life.” Baruch’s daughter, Belle, an avid equestrian, would round up children like a mother hen, carrying them on horseback to the Strawberry Village schoolhouse. Proud of her part, Minnie says, “By the time my mother died at the age of ninety-four, she could read the Bible from beginning to end. We all together taught her how to read.”

A natural leader, Minnie was often asked to lead classes. “When the teacher would be absent, he would let me teach the class because he knew I was so interested in the subject and my classmates would listen to me like I was a real teacher. When I was in school I was serious about school because I wanted to be a teacher.” While her friends were out dancing, “I would be at home at night writing about five or six papers for my friends,” she reveals. In the 1920s at Howard School in Georgetown, Minnie developed intellectually and was particularly fond of math—because, she says, there was always a right answer.

A true progressive of the time, Minnie went to the then-all-black South Carolina State College in 1935, breaking new ground for her family. She exclaims, “Getting an education! Going to college! Nobody on that plantation had gone to college before me.” She majored in political science and history, “because it was closer to life for me than anything else.”

When she left for New York in the early 1940s, Minnie carried a bag of lessons from Hobcaw Barony and Georgetown. Household chores, Bible studies, and the individualized teaching of Strawberry Village found their way into Minnie’s pedagogy, and she began to gain a name for herself. Working in several private nursery schools in New York, “I had just come from the South, from Howard School, but I knew family, that I was a human being, and the children were human beings.” In the fall of 1946, she enrolled in the Columbia Graduate School of Education to become a certified secondary-school math teacher. But her private-school career took off amidst the bitter racial divide of the 1950s and 1960s, and she challenged her students’ ideas about skin color and prejudice.

Minnie’s unique, humanist-centered teaching style worked. Parents began to notice positive changes in their child’s behavior, remarking, “Minnie, you’re the only one who teaches the way you do. The kids are talking better, and they have more patience.” Parents would say, “I want my child in Minnie’s class because they liked what I was teaching but they didn’t want to be the ones doing it!” she laughs. After her time at Rockwood in the Bronx, one of the private nursery schools, she didn’t have to apply—the schools called her. “Every other job I got, including New York University, called me.”

After her political campaigns of the early ’60s, Minnie eventually earned her graduate degree in elementary education from New York University. Shortly after, Head Start selected her to direct all of its programs in New York State. Among her many unorthodox achievements, she converted a barn into a seven-room classroom, implementing her teaching philosophy and ideal learning environment. She developed her own curriculum and challenged the status quo, encouraging interracial and inter-gender collaboration, hiring white teachers with black assistants, black teachers with white assistants, and male teachers.

During her years of dedicated service to Head Start and New York University, Minnie wrote academic articles and embarked on the lecture circuit. She worked as an education consultant, training child-development-center directors, principals, and teachers, but her giving spirit was boundless. “I would give them back the money,” she reveals. “I made them use the money to make the schools better.” Kennedy also traveled to Asia, Africa, and Scandinavia, learning how other countries educate their children, mining useful pedagogy. Minnie reached her teaching apex when she was offered a professorship at the Bank Street College of Education in 1975. “Bank Street was,” Minnie emphasizes, “a real teacher-training college. They had a school for children on site so you could see children were getting what they needed.”

She arrived ceremoniously full-circle to Georgetown to bury her mother and to retire in 1988—to the same house she lived in as a child. Returning here, Minnie felt “stronger in my own rights.” Like a matriarchal live oak, Kennedy stands firmly rooted on the shores of Hobcaw Barony after overcoming many obstacles and soaring above color, gender, and class lines. From the wooden floors of the one-room schoolhouse to the National Mall, she has marched with determination, displaying a refreshing, humanist-centered outlook in a time of literal black-and-white thinking.

“God has given me all these years for a purpose, and I’m still working to figure out what that purpose is,” Kennedy says. As she sits next to an overflowing box of fan mail, I think it’s clear what her purpose has been: To teach people to “Use your words!” and fight for what you believe. Displaying a beautiful, harmonious balance of warm heart and strong intellect, Minnie Kennedy encourages all of us to keep our eyes, hearts, and minds open. Minnie was born on Christmas Day, a day for saints and rebels.