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April 15, 2002  434 Words

Marie Wilkinson Fights Poverty, Bigotry With Love

CINCINNATI—The cover photo of the May St. Anthony Messenger is arresting. Marie Wilkinson, a 91-year-old African-American woman from Aurora, Illinois, is seated placidly on a lawn chair. Clutched in her weathered hands is a tattered whip, a relic from the days of slavery. A gift from her father-in-law, once a slave, Marie says the whip is a  tool to “teach a lot of people not to hate” and to eradicate racial prejudice.

Marie Wilkinson’s mission in life has been helping the poor, the sick and the oppressed. As a result of her tireless efforts, some 60 charitable organizations have been instituted. In the St. Anthony Messenger story “She Opens Doors: Marie Wilkinson,” author Carrie Swearingen writes of the indomitable spirit and life journey of this remarkable woman. After April 26, the article will also be posted at: AmericanCatholic.org.

Born Marie LeBeau in New Orleans and raised a devout Catholic, Wilkinson was pursuing a degree in business when she met her husband, Charles. Moving to Illinois in 1927, Marie found herself in a new environment, but still plagued by bigotry, segregation and the inequities of the poor.

For the next 60 years, Marie would devote her life to prayer and volunteerism. In the early days of her philanthropic career, Marie pulled Hispanic migrant factory workers from the boxcars that they lived in. She not only dressed their wounds, but also pushed factory owners to establish year-round, full-time work. When Charles passed away, she remained in the house, which was recognized by locals as a place of refuge and assistance.

Along with Marie’s charity work, a thirst for racial equality also drives her. Once, when she was refused service at a diner in the late 1940’s, Marie brought her case before the Illinois State Appeals Court, and won.

But Marie has done more than just help to tear down the walls of bigotry. She has also helped launch such charitable organizations as Feed the Hungry Program, Hesed House Homeless Shelter, Breaking Free Drug Program, the Catholic Social Action Conference and the local chapter of the Urban League. For her efforts, Marie was awarded The Lumen Christi Award funded by the Catholic Church Extension Society in 2001.

Her motivation? “I’ve tried to be an advocate for the persecuted, those who just weren’t getting a fair deal.” Marie is also quick to remember her source of guidance. “God points me in the right direction,” she says.

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