Missouri DAR chapter nominates Mamie Hughes for highest award

Monday, May 10, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Paging Bess Truman.

Mamie Hughes has a message.

Hughes, former head of the Black Economic Union of Greater Kansas City, recently learned that she would receive the highest award given by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The area DAR chapter that nominated her for the Medal of Honor is the one that made Truman an honorary member. The connection, Hughes said, recalls an awkward moment from more than 60 years ago when Truman denounced racial prejudice in a statement related to the DAR's 1939 refusal to allow contralto Marian Anderson to sing in Washington's Constitution Hall.

Hughes considers her Medal of Honor in context of this historical continuum.

"What this award says is what Bess Truman was calling the world's attention to has now been attended to," she said. "If Bess Truman were here, she would be celebrating with us."

The idea for Hughes' award began last year when members of the Independence Pioneers chapter attended the DAR's annual Continental Congress — or national convention — at Constitution Hall. At that gathering, longtime civil rights activist Dorothy Height received a Medal of Honor. Among those in attendance was Geraldine Crouch, an Independence Pioneers chapter member.

"I said, 'I know somebody who should get that award,'" Crouch recalled.

Crouch had known Hughes from the mid-1960s, and she convinced her fellow chapter members to begin the lengthy nomination process. The honor recognizes recipients for their leadership, trustworthiness, patriotism and service.

Hughes had that covered.

Among those who wrote letters vouching for her were civic leader Adele Hall; Pete Levi, former head of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce; and Gayle Krigel, Midwest Center for Holocaust Education board member.

They mentioned Hughes' service on the Jackson County legislature; her time asregional director of ACTION, a federal volunteer service agency; and her work as Kansas City's ombudsman for those affected by construction of the Bruce R. Watkins Drive. Today a bridge over Watkins Drive bears Hughes' name.

But DAR Medal of Honor recipients also must have made an "unusual and lasting contribution to American heritage."

Chapter members believed Hughes fit that bill as well, given her time as head of the Black Economic Union and her role in the preservation of the 18th and Vine District, a historic area in Kansas City.

"That is where Mamie Hughes is unique," said Linda Hardin Sehrt, regent of the Independence Pioneers chapter. "She had the vision to preserve the 18th and Vine District."

Hughes was quick to note that the redeveloped district was the result of work done by a long list of individuals, of which she was just one.

"It wasn't as if this one person waved her hand and everything was saved," she said.

The nominating process took several months. Sehrt said Hughes was only the third candidate — and the first African-American — whom the chapter had successfully nominated for the Medal of Honor in its 95-year history.

Hughes received the award at the Drumm Farm Clubhouse in Independence one day after she turned 81.

Hughes said she would accept the award mindful of its historical context.

Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR over the 1939 Marian Anderson episode.

In 1945, Bess Truman accepted an invitation to a DAR tea, disappointing Adam Clayton Powell, an African-American congressman from New York who said she should decline the invitation. Truman, in turn, issued her statement in which she said she deplored "any action which denied artistic talent an opportunity to express itself because of prejudice against race or origin."

The statement put Truman on record regarding civil rights largely before her husband established his civil rights credentials as president. In 1947, he became the first chief executive to address the NAACP. A year later, he issued an executive order initiating the integration of the armed forces.

Yet Bess Truman refused to resign from the DAR, displaying her "stubborn streak," as her daughter, Margaret Truman Daniel, once wrote.

Today the national DAR said it regrets the 1939 incident and in recent years has celebrated the memory of Anderson, who died in 1993.

It's humbling, Hughes said, that the organization now has decided to accord her the same honor it did to Height, who died last week at age 98.

"I'm in some pretty good company," Hughes said.

"Let us look at this world as we want it to be," she added. "Go back to Bess and Eleanor, both of whom would be happy and saying, 'Congratulations, Mamie' and 'Congratulations to the Independence chapter for making America what we want it to be.'"

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