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Heroines of History: These are American women, and their actions were not motivated by fortune or fame. There was no glory, and in many cases very little recognition for their activities. They simply did what needed to be done, and they did so in an extraordinary way. They roared without making a sound, and it is time that they were given a voice. Endesha Ida Mae Holland, we hear you.
Ida Mae Holland was born on August 29, 1944, in Greenwood, Mississippi. She lived with her mother and three older siblings in a rundown wooden shack. The leaky ceilings were plastered with newspapers, and when the lights were turned off at night the cockroaches took over.
Her mother, also named Ida Mae, took in sewing and ironing from the rich white ladies in town and served as the local midwife, referred to by locals at the Second Doctor Lady. However, due to the fact that she had ataxia, a degenerative neurological disorder, she would often wind up lying on the floor to finish the ironing because she didn’t have the strength by the end of the day to stand anymore.
To help make ends meet, she rented rooms to local prostitutes, garnering dirty looks from their neighbors. But well aware of her limitations, Ida Mae’s mother was not one to pass up an opportunity, which is why, when Ida Mae was nine and hit by a car driven by one of the elderly white ladies from town, they readily accepted the food and money that the woman gave to assuage her guilt. Knowing that this was the only recompense the Hollands would receive, they prolonged Ida Mae’s healing until the woman passed away so that they could continue to receive the gifts.
Once her leg was officially healed, Ida Mae began to accompany her mother into town as she attended to her sewing work. One family in particular took notice of Ida Mae because they wanted her to care for their daughter. So at the age of ten, Ida Mae began babysitting.
On her eleventh birthday, she was called away from her charge because the master wanted to see her and give her $5 for her birthday. Ida Mae was thrilled, as this was a huge amount of money for her. It was also the first time she had ever been upstairs in the big house. However, upon being shown into the master’s bedroom, she was placed on the bed where he raped her. True to his word, he did give her $5 when he finished.
Hurt and ashamed, Ida Mae decided she wasn’t going to burden her mother with what happened, especially since she was now a woman herself. Returning to school, Ida Mae quickly discovered that she was not alone in her experience and that other girls who bragged of being invited upstairs in the ‘big house’ shared her secret. She began to cut school, spending her days smoking, drinking and getting into trouble.
It soon became apparent to her, that men, both black and white, were willing to pay to have sex with her. As she was now twelve, a woman, and with no desire to work in the fields like her older siblings, Ida Mae turned her first trick. Shortly thereafter, she was caught with liquor at school and expelled. She never went back, but instead turned to prostitution full time, charging black men $5 and white men $10.
This turn of events was especially distressing to Ida Mae’s mother, who, despite having had no formal education herself, was ambitious and self-taught. She tried to instill this drive and ambition into Ida Mae, having realized it was too late to reform her older children. She pleaded with Ida Mae to”make somebody” of herself. However, Ida Mae continued to slip further and further away, getting into trouble on multiple occasions for street fighting, petty larceny, and prostitution.
It was about this time that Ida Mae met a man named Ike. They became a steady couple and, because he provided her with money, she stopped turning tricks. Before long, Ida Mae discovered she was pregnant. At first Ike was excited and dutiful, but as the months wore on he was around less and less.
Ida Mae soon fell back in with some old friends, shoplifting with them on a regular basis, until they were caught and sentenced to 30 days in the county workhouse and fined $100. As she didn’t have the $100, Ida Mae spent two months of her pregnancy in the workhouse, before being released and moving back in with her mother.
On July 10, 1961, shortly before Ida Mae’s 17th birthday, she gave birth to a son, Cedric. Her mother served as midwife, and Cedric was the last baby she delivered, as she became wheelchair bound because of her ataxia not long after his birth. Ida Mae promised her mother she would stop breaking the law.
Ike had never visited her while she was incarcerated and Ida Mae suspected that he had been stepping out with other women during that time. However, after the birth of their baby, Ike dutifully brought Ida Mae and Cedric food, clothes and money every week. They would even go out to juke houses at night, leaving Cedric with one of their mothers. However, these outings generally ended in bitter fights and when Ida Mae found out that Ike was cheating on her, she sought out the woman in question and assaulted her. This landed Ida Mae in the workhouse once again.
By the time she was released, Ike had moved away, Cedric was shy around her, and her mother’s ataxia had worsened, removing their only source of income. Ida Mae returned to prostitution.
It was in 1962, that Ida Mae was finally able to turn her life around. While out looking to turn tricks, she followed a young, well-dressed man back to his office trying to convince him to hire her. This man was a volunteer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and instead of hiring Ida Mae for a trick, he introduced her to a whole new world. She had never before seen black women working on typewriters and making phone calls to try to register black voters. For the first time in her life, Ida Mae realized that there were more opportunities available for black women than what she had seen on the Delta.
Ida Mae cleaned herself up and officially joined the SNCC in 1963. She attended and helped organize marches, she tried to register voters and she helped distribute groceries alongside Bob Moses, Willie Peacock, Medgar Evers and Stokely Carmichael. The SNCC became her whole world.
Yet her past followed her. Many of the SNCC workers would warn newcomers that she was scandalous and that they should keep their distance from her – despite the amount of time she spent at SNCC, she was a volunteer and therefore still had to turn the occasional trick to help pay the rent. Eventually, the day came that her past proved useful. A large group of workers was arrested and sentenced to 33 days in the Mississippi workhouse. As this was her third visit to the workhouse, she knew the lay of the land.
Despite the early whisperings about her character, she did her best to help the other workers, especially those from the north, until they were released.
After this latest stint in the workhouse, Ida Mae was arrested on a regular basis because of her SNCC activities as a leader in the protests and marches. Most of the arrests made during this time did not lead to jail time, as the Greenwood police discovered that simply arresting the leaders of protests/marches effectively ended them.
After being held for several hours, the workers would be taken to the outskirts of town and released. By the time they walked back, the protest would be over. However, Ida Mae’s unofficial job with the SNCC was to turn her arrests into jail time. Once in jail, she would check in with the other freedom workers to ensure they were all right and to provide whatever moral support and protection she could.
She even traveled to Winona, MS, when Fannie Lou Hamer and a few other SNCC workers were jailed. This jailing was particularly heinous because while incarcerated, the police forced other black inmates to savagely beat the SNCC workers with blackjacks. Ida Mae was one of the only SNCC workers who had the courage to walk into the holding area of the police station in order to check on their condition. She offered what encouragement she could, and then reported back about their deplorable injuries.
Ida Mae’s time in jail was unremarkable, until a judge decided he was tired of having freedom workers parading in and out of the local jails and that he was going to set a new precedent. He sentenced Ida Mae and a handful of other workers to serve 33 days in Parchman, the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
While in Parchman, the workers were held one to a cell, on iron cots with no mattresses, fed on starvation rations, and kept under bright lights twenty-four hours a day. The workers were in bad shape by the time they were released, but were welcomed back to Greenwood as returning heroes.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited shortly after their release to show his support. Ida Mae not only had the opportunity to speak with him, but also to introduce him to her mama. Her mother, fearful of retribution from the white community, had up until this point warned Ida Mae to stay away from the freedom workers. This moment was the turning point that made her mother proud of what she was doing.
It was shortly after Dr. King’s visit that the SNCC organized a speaking tour and asked Ida Mae to be one of the speakers. Despite her lifelong dream of leaving Mississippi, she hesitated. She had never been out of the Delta, much less on a plane, and was ashamed of her thick accent. However, she had done well in several interviews, and had no fear of speaking in front of people, so when the SNCC leaders asked again, she said yes. Ida Mae spoke in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Maine, Vermont and Minneapolis.
Audiences always responded well to her tales of hardships in the Delta and her experiences in jail and at the hands of the police. SNCC was able to raise money at each event. While on the road, Ida Mae was housed by a member or supporter of the SNCC. For the first time in her life was invited to sit at the table and break bread with white people. However, her presence also meant that several of these families got a taste of the Delta up close and personal when hate groups would harass them, even breaking a plate glass window in one private home.
It was on this tour that Ida Mae saw her first university campuses. Back in Greenwood, several SNCC workers had convinced Ida Mae to get her high school equivalency diploma, but attending a university hadn’t occurred to her until she met Shirley Ricket in Minneapolis. Half joking, Ida Mae said she wanted to attend the University but would need Shirley’s help. Shirley responded in all earnestness, that if Ida Mae came back to Minneapolis, she would do just that. It was with this thought and the freedom she had seen in the North that Ida Mae returned to find a much changed Delta.
The freedom workers who attended college had returned to their respective schools. Things were fairly quiet; eerily quiet on both the freedom workers’ side and the white supremacists’ side.
One morning, Ida Mae’s mother woke her early because the dogs in the neighborhood were acting funny. Ida Mae tied their dog to the woodshed so he wouldn’t get into trouble, then got ready to go into the SNCC office. It was earlier than normal when she headed out, but before she could make it to the office, she heard an explosion.
Ida Mae ran back to her house in time to see her mother, covered in flames with neighbors trying to roll her in the grass to kill the fire. Because her mother’s ataxia had put her in a wheelchair, she had been unable to get out of the house by herself when it was firebombed. Two neighbors pulled her out, but it was too late. She died from her burns. Thankfully, Cedric had been sent to the store, so he was not in the house at the time.
Though nobody was ever charged, it was commonly believed that the KKK had firebombed the house in retaliation for Ida Mae’s freedom work. Ida Mae was devastated, and the fact that her sister blamed her for their mother’s death made things worse.
Ida Mae began dating Ike again, and would leave Cedric with Ike’s mother now that hers was gone. Restless and feeling as if the Delta had nothing left for her, she contacted Shirley Ricket, and discovered that not only did her offer still stand, but that Shirley would even send her a train ticket. Ida Mae packed what few belongings she had, dropped five-year- old Cedric off with Ike’s mother, moved to Minnesota.
In 1966, Ida Mae enrolled at the University of Minnesota. It would take her thirteen years to finish her BA, as she got married twice and each time dropped out of her classes to try to be a good housewife.
However, each time she would feel the call of her studies and hear her mother’s voice in her head, urging her to be somebody. Both marriages ended in divorce, but her schooling was quite successful. Ida Mae helped start an African-American studies program and initiated a prison-aid program called Women Helping Offenders. While the latter took up a lot of her time, it also provided her with a paycheck, so she was able to send for her son, now ten, to join her in 1971. In her autobiography, she would write that one of the biggest regrets of her life was leaving Cedric in Mississippi when she moved, so this reunion was a sweet one for Ida Mae.
With a bachelor’s degree in hand, Ida Mae decided to continue her education. While earning her Master’s, she enrolled in what she thought was an acting class in order to get a few easy credits, but it turned out to be an advanced seminar for playwrights. Never one to back down, she decided to fake it.
Instead of being ashamed and trying to hide her past, Ida Mae embraced where she came from. She wrote two short plays, “The Second Doctor Lady,” about her mother and “The Reconstruction of Dossie Ree,” also about her mother, but from the viewpoint of her mother’s friends. This work earned her several playwriting awards at the college level, followed by the 1981 Lorraine Hansberry Award for ‘The Second Doctor Lady.” Ida Mae received her Master’s degree in American Studies from the University of Minnesota in 1984.
Having gone that far, she decided to finish and get her Doctorate.
In 1986, twenty years after leaving the Delta, she was awarded her Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota. Unlike her previous two graduations, which she had let go by with little fanfare, she invited everyone she knew, from all walks of life, to this ceremony.
She was met with teasing catcalls and hollers from loved ones as she crossed the stage to accept her doctorate as Endesha Ida Mae Holland. The name Endesha had been bestowed upon her by her mentor Maulana Karenga. Endesha is Swahili for ‘one who drives herself and others forward.’ This name not only honored her African heritage, but also her life’s journey.
Endesha went on to teach at the university level. Her classes quickly became so popular, they were often wait-listed. She also continued to write. She wrote half a dozen plays, her most famous being “From the Mississippi Delta.” This play was an expansion of the one act, “The Second Doctor Lady,” and chronicled her path from childhood in the Jim Crow south into her successful adulthood.
In 1988, the play was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and won a Helen Hayes award as well as an Audelco Playwright’s Nomination. In 1989, it was performed by the Negro Ensemble Company at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, IL, and then at the Young Vic in London. In 1991, ‘Delta’ made it to New York in an off-Broadway production, partly financed by Oprah Winfrey, at the Circle in the Square Downtown. It ran for 218 performances before touring the country, despite mixed reviews from critics.
Because of the success of “From the Mississippi Delta,” her hometown declared that October 18th was Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland Day in Greenwood, MS. Endesha returned home for the celebration and, while receiving the key to the city on the steps of city hall, pointed out that the last time she had been there, she was on her way to jail.
Over the following years, Endesha taught at the State University of New York in Buffalo and the University of Michigan. She also continued to write and was awarded multiple achievement awards.
In the early nineties, she moved to Los Angeles to be the playwright-in-residence for the University of Southern California, then stayed on, working her way up to the position of emeritus professor until her retirement.
During this time, she was featured in the PBS documentary, “Freedom on My Mind,” and wrote a memoir with the same name as her famous play, From the Mississippi Delta. Sadly, Endesha was forced into retirement in 2003, due to the ravaging effects of the same degenerative neurological disorder her mother had, ataxia. She was sorely missed by her students who called her Dr. Endesha, and flocked to her for inspiration. She would preach to her students that they could accomplish anything they wanted, regardless of what they had done in the past. Endesha ended her memoir with the following:
“Finally, if you’re young, make a promise right now that you will never, ever give up on your dreams. If you’ve been a ho’, be a doctor, too. If you’ve hurt a man, be a healer. The world began when you were born. It will be whatever you make it.”
Endesha Ida Mae Holland died from complications of ataxia on January 25, 2006, at the age of 61.
Services were held in Los Angeles, CA and Buffalo, NY, before she was buried in Greenwood, MS. Despite never moving back, she always considered the Delta her home.
Endesha Ida Mae Holland, this is in your honor.
Thank you for all that you did.