In June 1961, DeVerne Calloway sat down at her typewriter to write a column about the uncertain future of the Freedom Rides organized by the activist group Congress of Racial Equity (CORE).
For almost two months, the Freedom Riders had faced severe beatings and harsh arrests in their efforts to challenge segregated interstate buses.
Calloway, who joined CORE in 1946 while living in Chicago, was now the executive editor and co-publisher of a Black newspaper in St. Louis called The New Citizen.
Some movement leaders suggested that the activists take a “cooling off period.” But to Calloway, letting up was not an option.
“There is only one answer – a continued agitation and pressure for the full dignity and equal recognition of every American citizen,” she wrote at the time.
While Calloway was passionate about her writing and leading the newspaper, she knew that sharing her views as a Black woman in a small publication wouldn’t necessarily give her community a seat at the table.
A year later in 1962, DeVerne Calloway became the first Black woman elected to the Missouri state legislature, where she served in the state House for 20 years.
As a human rights activist, she fought to increase aid to public education, as well as improve services for dependent children and impoverished families. She fought for prison reform, and she also introduced legislation in 1971 to legalize abortion in Missouri, two years before Roe v. Wade.
On January 23, 1993, DeVerne Calloway died at 76 in her sister’s home in Memphis. But her legacy continues to inspire young politicians, and her life is celebrated during Black History Month.
Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove, a Kansas City Democrat and president of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, said Calloway laid the foundation for what a Black woman politician in Missouri looks like.
“Well-behaved women rarely make history,” she said. “So that gives me the ability and the confidence to say what’s on my mind. And, it further encourages me to encourage other young, particularly Black women, to engage in the civic process.”
A young teacher
Born in Memphis, Tenn., on June 17, 1916, Calloway went on to graduate cum laude from LeMoyne-Owen College, a historically Black college.
She served as a teacher for three years in Mississippi and Georgia schools, and those experiences fueled her lifelong commitment to improve public education, she later said.
She joined the American Red Cross and traveled to China, Burma and India during World War II. While in India she led a protest against the segregation of Black soldiers in Red Cross facilities.
In 1946, she married Ernest Calloway, who was a political activist and union organizer. He later became president of the St. Louis NAACP, where DeVerne Calloway volunteered, and a professor of urban affairs at Saint Louis University.
“They say behind every great man, there was a great woman,” said Terry Kennedy, a former longtime St. Louis alderman and currently the board’s clerk. “Well, in this instance, behind this great woman was her husband, Ernest Calloway, who was a clear political theoretician. They were a power couple.”
In February 1961, the couple began publishing The Citizen Crusader (later named The New Citizen), a newspaper covering Black politics and civil rights in St. Louis.
Although there were a handful of Black newspapers at the time, the Crusader was among the most progressive, said Donald Suggs, who was an oral surgeon at the time and later became publisher of the Black weekly The St. Louis American.
“The Crusader was a must read for people like me who followed politics,” said Suggs, noting that he particularly appreciated DeVerne Calloway’s “outspoken” writing.
Calloway’s mother, Sadie Lee, hated the idea of her being a writer because Lee longed for her to be a “lady of leisure,” according to archived letters between the two collected by The State Historical Society of Missouri.
“All you want is a pencil to worry yourself to death with writing a lot of stuff that only gives you headaches and old age before your time,” her mother wrote.
But despite relentless pressure from her mother, Calloway wouldn’t back down.
“I am sympathetic because it is time Negroes stood up for their rights,” she told her mother in a letter. “When they get free from the white man in the South – maybe they will take on a new character + Right now the imprint of slavery is too strong upon them.”
Kennedy grew up down the street from the Calloways, and he would often run messages from both his father, an aldermen at the time, or his mother over to the couple.
“In those days, you didn’t always use the phone — you sent the children with a message,” he said.
When DeVerne Calloway won her election in 1962, it was tremendous “point of pride” for his neighborhood and a feeling that they were collectively moving forward.
“You knew she had the best interest of our community at heart,” Kennedy said. “It was not unusual to see her out at the picket lines. She was not above getting out and getting her hands dirty, if you would, and being in the forefront.”
Kennedy remembers when his father took him to a packed meeting at the Black movie theater in 1965, where community leaders organized a bus boycott in part because then Bi-State Transit System (now Metro) wouldn’t hire Black drivers. DeVerne Calloway was also there, laying the “ground rules” for cooperation — meaning no in-fighting, he said.
“Her status and the positions that she took put her in a place to help galvanize that unity at the time,” he said, “because you knew that she was not about division.”
In 1965, while the federal government was dragging its feet on passing a fair housing law, 14 states had passed fair housing bills – and Calloway wanted Missouri to be the 15th.
On March 3, 1965, Calloway and St. Louis Democrat Rep. Raymond Howard introduced a fair-housing bill, which would have made it a misdemeanor offense to discriminate against renters or homebuyers based on race, color, religion, or national origin. The “anti-ghetto” piece of the proposed legislation focused on providing quality affordable housing and promoting housing integration.
It was the first fair housing legislation proposed in Missouri – and she led the drafting of the next three. Each year, she gained more supporters.
“Open occupancy in housing is the unfinished business of the civil rights movement,” she told a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter in 1967. “The clamor in the streets has died down, but the Negro’s desire for full citizenship is still deeply imbedded. The fight for freedom of choice of residence will continue until it is won.”
On April 11, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which also included the Fair Housing Act. Its passage came a week after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Pressure from legislators, particularly Black legislators, was instrumental in moving the national law forward.
As a former teacher herself, Calloway fought to ensure the future of Harris-Stowe Teachers College (now Harris-Stowe State University), where many Black teachers were earn degrees. In 1978, Calloway served on the education committee that presided over the transfer of administrative control of the college from the St. Louis Board of Education to the state.
Aside from sponsoring legislation, Calloway worked heavily behind the scenes. In an interview with Kenn Thomas of University of Missouri–St. Louis, she said that if she found that legislators were perpetuating negative views about Blacks, she “went to work on them” and tried to get them to see another side of the issue.
“I called myself an ambassador and considered myself a bridge,” she said, “which the extreme Black race-conscious people and the extreme White race-conscious people could – somehow or other through me – could sort of get along with one another.”
This article by Rebecca Rivas is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.