Mary Alexander was a member of the Council for Community Integration and co-founded the Champaign-Urbana Improvement Association. She was active in many school and community organizations including P.T.A., the Urban League, the Champaign Human Relations Commission and the East Central Illinois Area Office on Aging. She was a lifetime member of the Salem Baptist Church and Church Women United. Mary retired from the University of Illinois as a Food Service Administrator after more than 25 years of service.
She was a charter member of the National Council of Negro Women, Champaign County section.
From her biographical statement:
Mary grew up in a small town in Tennessee and at an early age not only experienced, but realized the dim plight of the American Negro in the United States. Sociologists have identified what we are calling "plight" as an ascribed status; meaning born with a planned destiny. "Colored" people in those days were expected to perform service type jobs; maids, cooks, general labor, etc. To expect a better job was not an American colored child's dream of looking towards the pursuit of happiness. Mary's drive to learn and overcome her ascribed status led her to more education at Lane College, a small black (colored) college. There she
experienced the hardships of workillg to pay for tuition and books along with studying to make good grades with very little support from her parents. They had nothing to give except prayer and motivation.
In those days, colored people from the North supposedly "had it made," in other words, they were prosperous and successful. Mary decided to move North to Champaign, Illinois to get a job and finish college. There she found that Negros could not find good jobs and began cooking for a sorority making $7.20 a week which was not enough money to return to college, and she married within 2 years. During the war, they moved to Ohio with one child, Peggy. Husband Albert, worked in a defense plant and there they managed to save money to buy a home and move back to Champaign with their two children, Peggy and
They had money for a down payment on a home but could only buy a home in the north end; the "Colored Area". Once again, no choices. Disgusted and determined, Mary joined the CCI, an inter-racial organization that represented all parts of town with all social levels represented. CCI's goal was to persuade the community to value individuals on a personal basis and to make no distinctions because of race, creed, or country origin. Through their dedicated efforts CCI accomplished the following: Housing in many areas of the city were opened up - Schools were integrated with-many changes in the school system - Organized a PAL program working with underprivileged children - Mary identified and placed children in this program.
In 1958, Mary's daughter Peggy was the first Negro to enroll and graduate from Illinois Commercial College. Mary and Albert were determined to break the color barriers at that school. To this end, the
school asked Mary to be a counselor for the white students that had acceptance problems. There were none, and she also received no pay. In 1960, Mary co-founded the (then called) Champaign Urbana
Improvement Council. Its basic purpose was to open up "new" job areas for colored people---thus again breaking ascribed destiny. The first project for this Council was to picket a new J. C. Penney's
store that did not hire a single black person. Mary organized a boycott which forced Penney's, after 3 weeks, to hire one colored salesperson. As a result of this protest, Robinson's Department Store hired one colored
salesperson, and after picketing, Coca-Cola hired a colored truck driver. Mary's daughter, Peggy, was also one of the first real sales clerks hired in the downtown business area at Lowe's Record shop and was later promoted to an Assistant Manager.
Mary then set up workshops to prepare young people for college and the working world. Mr. Webb from Robinson's Department Store assisted and used her daughter Carol as a model to demonstrate how to interview for a job, what to wear, etc. At that time, there were no other organizations in Champaign or many dedicated volunteers working on a project like this one. And during this time she was raising four children and preparing them for a life of their own in a racially imbalanced world. In 1964 the Mt. Olive Baptist Church named her "Woman of the Community" for her dedication toward Civil Rights and work in the
Champaign community. In 1965 Mary was instrumental in persuading the Burch Village Community Building to open up a cooperative nursery school which was integrated where she was Director for five years.
Mary was also Director of the Tot Lot Nursery for three years located at the University Place Christian Church. The past few comments about Mary's first years working towards building a better community through personal committment continued for many years in the following organizations: - Appointed by Mayor Bland to the Champaign City Human Relations Commission and served two terms. - Elected to the District Advisory Committee of Unit 4 schools of Champaign who's main focus was on the education status and needs of black youth. - Served on the Board of Directors of the Urban League for eight years. - Member of the Urban League Guild where she served as President for two terms. - Member of the Inter-Faith Council for Fair Housing Council. - Member of Church Women United. - Served many years as PTA President/Vice-President with Mr. Alexander at Marquette Grade School. (Also involved with PTA/room mother with all four children at Marquette Grade School). Mary was very proud of her accomplishments, not only community
involvement but especially her Christian family life. Mary and Albert were active members of the Salem Baptist Church and served as a Deaconess and member of the Missionary department. All four children were also members of this church. As parents, Mary and Albert had the opportunity to watch their children grow up and take advantage of many new opportunities as the racial barriers began to weaken.
Other activities after her retirement:
- Served on the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging Advisory Council - Member of the Home Economics Program Council, which is a Cooperative Extension service of the University of Illinois - Member and Legislative Chairperson for Church Women United Active in the Douglas Annex for Senior Citizens, where she served as President for two terms.
Source: National Council of Negro Women, Charter Members Remembered, 2008