The Rev. Dr. Lillian D. Anthony, my friend - Bettina Network's Blog

The Rev. Dr. Lillian D. Anthony, my friend

by: Marceline Donaldson, president

Bettina Network Foundation, inc.


There are some people one expects to go on forever, but none of us lives forever.

Lillian was a force of nature. Her strength came from the clear, truthful, fearless and love filled way she lived her life.

I have always called Lillian ‘my friend’, but as I look back over our lives I realize she was also one of my mentors from whom I learned a lot.

I met Lillian back in the l960’s in Minneapolis. She was challenging the City of Minneapolis about its lack of civil rights and was in the process of becoming the first head of one of the first city civil rights departments in the United States.

It was amazing for me – a young, southern, quiet, full of my early training.  A person who wore gloves everyplace and usually with an umbrella at hand, who had been trained to always remember who she was and act accordingly – to meet this woman who always knew who she was and she was neither quiet nor southern.

I was just coming out of a not so great marriage and trying to stand on my own two feet for the first time in life. I’d found a beautiful house I loved and tried to buy, but the owner declared he would not sell to an African American. I was furious; was not going to take such; and wasn’t sure where to go or what to do when someone suggested I call Lillian Anthony – which I did.

Lillian responded immediately. She was head of the newly established Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights starting in l968 and had some power to address what happened to me.

We met and talked and hit it off right away. Lillian went off to address the problem and in a couple days called and we met again. She told me the problem was solved, the owner had no problem selling the house to an African American woman and she knew that for sure because she’d just bought it.

We started to laugh, almost uncontrollably. It was a joke that was funny far beneath what was on the surface and so off we went on a lifetime of what can only be described as a hilarious friendship full of one-upmanship’s. When we met at social, civic, or other events we would point and laugh uproariously because we knew we were the sharpest looking people in the room. I knew I looked better than Lillian and she knew she looked better than me.

We often went shopping together – to estate sales, of course – but we had to fight to buy what we wanted because we always saw the same item at the same time and it was a free-for-all as to who got to it first.

I was invited to a meeting in Chicago in the early 1970’s of 100 Black Women and so was Lillian, who was one of the coordinators of that event. Once there I met Elma Lewis – who had not yet become Miss. Lewis. There was a skit in the room with all of us gathered and a woman dressed as a waitress came in with her clothes askew looking very stressed and disheveled, crying out – ‘help me, they shot him’.

No one in the room moved, except me, who jumped up to run to this woman to help her in her obvious distress, while telling everyone else in the room how they should be helping also. Elma wanted to know “who is that woman”. Lillian, who was sitting next to Elma said – that’s just Marceline. She is always in the middle of everything saving the world . Elma called me over to sit next to her and she and Lillian laughed and carried on – at my expense.

Turns out, the waitress was a part of the skit to see who would respond and to then start a discussion on being involved. However, that didn’t work because Lillian, Elma and I couldn’t stop laughing and just having a great time out of all of this.

That was the start of a great trio of friends. We weren’t together a lot, but when we did get together it was always a good time.

Lillian designed the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, becoming its first chairperson. She did an amazing job of helping to found the Department and headed it in a way which helped develop the entire field. No, Skip Gates was not the first and neither was Harvard.

Lillian ran into trouble at the University as Black men challenged her position which they thought should belong to an African American man who they claimed should have better credentials than Lillians’. So Lillian resigned and went off to the University of Massachusetts to obtain a Doctorate in Education. In addition she also served on the faculties of the University of Nebraska, George Mason University and Towson University in Maryland.

Even before all of this, Lillian went to seminary at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and received her Master of Religious Education in 1953 long before women were even beginning to see the possibility of a seminary education. Before that, Lillian received her undergraduate degree from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, MO.

After leaving seminary Lillian worked at Witherspoon Presbyterian Church as the director of religious education. A job most women found if they were lucky enough to finish their seminary education and find a job. The Church was way behind the society- still is today – in addressing the equality of men and women and Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans.

Lillian also taught in Assuit, Egypt and was the North Central Area representative for the Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Ordination was not possible then, even though God’s call to Lillian to the ordained ministry was strong,  so she went instead into Religious Education. Lillian did not ignore this call to ordination into the Presbyterian ministry, which wasn’t realized until decades after she turned to listen to what God was calling her to do. What was clear in Lillian’s life was that God calls and man decides to ignore God’s way and pursue his own, blocking the path of women and minorities. It was clear looking at Lillian’s life, that it is dangerous for men to block God’s call, but they never seem to get that message because they are still today blocking as best they can – only today being joined by a few others who are not White European males!

Before I met Lillian, she had served the Federal Government from 1965-1968 as the district director for the Department of Labor establishing anti-poverty programs in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

When I moved to Massachusetts, Lillian was already there at the University of Massachsuetts working on a doctorate in Education. She insisted I join her because she felt I would need something to fall back on and with a doctorate I could teach in Academia someplace.  I was not an academician, nor anything close and I decided that was not my path. She, Elma and I got together several times while Lillian was studying and both tried to push me into this doctorate business, but I resisted and took another path.

Several years after I moved to Massachusetts, Elma Lewis called to say she had heard from Lillian who was concerned about me because we hadn’t been in touch for quite some time and wanted Elma to make sure I was alright. They both knew my penchant for jumping into the fire and they both have had to pull me out several times.  According to Elma, there were rumors and they were worried about me.

Elma called me to say John Ross was picking me up to bring me to her house for lunch, but before he did he was going to take me on a tour of Boston. I told Elma I already knew Boston, had been living here for a few years and that was great, but I preferred lunch times to tour times. Elma said nothing and John Ross picked me up and took me on a tour of Boston. Elma was now Miss Lewis and you did her bidding.  John Ross asked all kinds of questions – how are you, what are you doing, are you alright financially, can we do anything for you, and on and on he went. I finally stopped him to ask why he was trying to get into my business. John Ross said he wasn’t he was just instructed by Elma to ask all of these questions because they needed to make sure I was alright and didn’t want me to say everything was fine – when we talked over lunch – and everything was not fine.

John Ross took me to Elma’s, where she was on the phone with Lillian and they both demanded I not stay out of touch for so long and whenever I had a problem of any kind they were just a phone call away.

That was a very emotional moment for me, but I knew that was how they both were and I must have had some kind of publicity or gossip which made them think they needed to circle the wagons.

Having had that kind of mentoring, I have tried to live up to their example and be there for others – although I have not been perfect following my mentors. I do fall away and still get busy with my own business and have missed many such opportunities presented to me by the universe.

One passion in Lillian’s life was ‘collecting’. It is a passion we both shared, but mine was about 18th century French furnishings, art objects, etc. Lillian’s was about collecting negative Black images throughout history. She had an amazing collection and her house – wherever it was – reflected this passion.

At one point in Louisville and again in St. Louis her home was a place classes of school children visited with their teachers to take the tour of Ms. Lillian’s home.

Oddly enough – or should I say expectedly enough – our two passions ran parallel because as Lillian became more knowledgeable about her area of collecting she ran across many objects which were from 18th century and beyond  in the time frame of my collecting and items made by some of the same people and companies I loved. Lillian knew about and owned items made by the Dresden, Meissen and other factories of negative Black images and while artistically exquisite the subject matter made you wonder about this use of the artists talent. I remember when Lillian bought a beautiful piece of Dresden china which depicted a Black child being born out of an alligators egg and others pieces that went downhill from there.

My thoughts about negative Black images had to do with the Aunt Jemima dolls and the Uncle Tom depictions, but they went far beyond those simple objects into incredible works of art meant to support the racism against African Americans in as many and as subtle and not so subtle ways as possible.

Lillian brought a part of her collection to Boston for an exhibit along with a program speaking to this form of maintaining the structure of racism. It was well attended and the curiosity and amazement from those who had my early thoughts about this area was astounding.

Lillian was head of the Afro American studies department in Louisville, Kentucky and moved to Maryland to become a professor in the same area at Towson University.

Her life and career extended across the country and in several institutions. She left each one better for having served there.

Lillian’s last job before retiring was as the associate for equal employment opportunity/affirmative action in the human resources department in the Prebbyterian Church’s national office in Louisville, Kentucky.

Lillian was also able to function as an ordained minister before her death and her sermons were memorable, moving and caused you to rethink who you are and how you were responding to God’s call in your life.

Lillian was clearly one of God’s chosen and never forgot that she was called by God to spend her life ministering to God’s people and she did that with love, compassion, fearlessness, dignity and grace.

She received many awards and honorary recognitions like the Mary McLeod Bethune Award, presented by the Louisville National Council of Negro Women. She was also appointed to the President’s Disability Task Force.

What many people did not know was that Lillian lived with Lupus most of her adult life. How she did all of what she did and dealt with a very debilitating disease we will never know. Lillian was never a victim and nothing that happened to her turned her into a victim. She was always a child of God who she believed was the active force in her life and to whom she owed everything.  She lived that life to the fullest – always.

Unfortunately for me, I did not stay as close to Lillian as a friend should and so my grief is not over the loss of a friend – who I know is celebrating with all of her friends right now having a joyous time – but over the loss of my opportunity and responsibility not to lose track of someone who I was close to and loved like a sister.

Through all of this I have learned that life and our society separates friends and families and thereby increases the burden on those we love and don’t keep up with because of our busyness trying to keep body and soul together.

Each time this happens I resolve to not let it happen ever again and then I hear of a close friend who has died and my guilt, regret and sense of great loss starts all over again.


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