You can get angry at the things people do, but you can’t hate any person,”
says Marie Wilkinson while grasping the torture whip she inherited from her
father-in-law, an escaped slave. “I take this whip and I teach a lot of people
not to hate.” Years past any state’s retirement age, Wilkinson, 91, sifts diligently
through fair housing concerns, phoned offers of volunteerism, and photographs
of young children she has helped to dignified adulthood.
Fewer than four minutes have passed, and I understand how Marie
Wilkinson has been selected as the recipient of the Catholic Church’s
highest honor for missionary work in America. The Lumen Christi
Awardthe Latin means “Light of Christ”was presented
to Wilkinson last October by the Catholic Church Extension Society,
an organization that distributes more than $16 million each year
to missionary efforts in poor Catholic dioceses throughout the United
States and its territories. (See www.catholicextension.
Though Marie Wilkinson’s civil-rights crusade began long before
Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat or Reverend Martin Luther
King, Jr., marched in Birmingham, Marie’s legacy of charming every
prejudicial obstacle in her path is fittingly rewarded in the wake
of our nation’s worst hate crime. But Lumen Christi Award judges
selected Wilkinson over more than 50 selfless, U.S. bishop-nominated
candidates months before the September 11 disasters. Judges included
Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, Jose Roberto Gutierrez,
cofounder and president of the Hispanic Telecommunications Network,
Sondra Healy, chairwoman of Turtle Wax, Inc., actress Catherine
Hicks of TV’s 7th Heaven, Bishop Joseph Howze of Biloxi,
Mississippi, and Ethel Kennedy, director emeritus of the John F.
Kennedy Library Foundation.
“I’m ageless,” says Wilkinson through a warm, weathered grin. “That’s why I
never get old.” Then she freely offers that she was born the same year as Mother
Teresa of Calcutta, quietly hoping that I would avoid doing my homework. Born
Marie LeBeau in New Orleans, Wilkinson was raised a devout Catholic, studied
business at now defunct Straight College, visited Chicago at age 20 and met
Charles Wilkinson on a blind date in nearby Aurora, Illinois.
“I was engaged to another man in New Orleans, but Charles fell in love with
me and I fell in love with him.” She retreated to Louisiana briefly, returning
to Illinois for good in 1927.
Take Me to the River
“Something else was keeping me here, too. I loved the river,” she
says of Illinois’s scenic Fox River. “I thought it was beautiful, and it reminded
me of home.”
Memories of Wilkinson’s onetime life in the French Quarter do not always invoke
smiles, however. Rivers may trickle down mountains by way of nature. But prejudice
trickles down from teacher to teacher of hatesometimes human nature. Wilkinson
remembers the early hurt of sweeping segregation in Louisiana schools, restaurants,
stores and buses.
“If we were allowed to go into a store, we couldn’t try on any clothes. Only
the white people could do that. There were certain places you couldn’t gothat
was the South.”
She heard the North was different. Perhaps, these had been unfounded rumors.
She was alarmed at the separation by color in this former Illinois farming community.
“There were some lovely people, but it was very, very prejudiced,” she recalls
of early Aurora, eyes closed, while gently rocking her own body in an arthritis
sufferer’s lift chair that she loves to show off. “Even in the Catholic Church
there were not many African Americans. I was shocked about that, too. So I knew
God had put me here for a reason.”
Marie and Charles married in 1930, moving into a modest two-level home on Aurora’s
North View Street. More than 60 years of volunteerism and prayer kept them bonded
in faith and community before Charles passed away. Marie remained in their home,
on a street now bearing her name. Thousands know how to find what has simply
become known as “Marie’s house.” This is where the poor, the hungry, the displaced,
the unemployed, the sick and the mistreated have wandered for decades. And they
always found the door open.
Justice for All
While she carefully fixes her salt-and-pepper hair beneath a colorful
cap, we settle in on covered furniture with a splash of area rugs
beneath our feet and a papering of awards and memorabilia watching
us from all walls. The phone rings, she grabs it on the cordless,
and I feel for a man named Mike on the other end. “We’ve never met
but somebody told me you were gonna call because you wanted to help.
Are you sure you wanna journey with me?Cause honey,
you’re gonna be busy.”
And busy she has been. Having worked directly with five of the past mayors
of Aurora, Wilkinson braved the establishment from the start. One leader insisted
that she couldn’t change people. “I told him, ‘I can’t, but God can.’ And then
he told me, ‘But you might get hurt.’ And I told him. ‘Then it would be for
a good reason.’”
Eyebrows raised early as Wilkinson began pulling Hispanic migrant factory workers
from the boxcars they were living in. They had no water, no electricity. Shoes
would have been a luxury, for she found hundreds of weary and bleeding feet
wrapped in nothing more than cloth towels.
Not only did Wilkinson find them shoes, but she gracefully bullied factory
owners until they resolved to find year-round work for employees so that families
could stay together. “I said, ‘You’ve got all these factories, so why not keep
the people here and let them work?’” she remembers. And she charged City Hall until schools and adequate
housing were built to accommodate the growing number of families that had moved
to the river community.
Wilkinson also arranged for a Spanish-speaking priest to be brought in from
the city because the local pastor had not thought about the Hispanic
workers’ desire for Confession. “[The priest] was there from 9 a.m.
to midnight, hearing confessions in a room over a grocery store.”
Regardless of the obvious injustices Wilkinson brought to light, some things
just weren’t getting better. The lines grow deeper between her eyebrows as she
recalls the era. “It seemed like only certain people were allowed to live on
the east side of Aurora and so I said, ‘God, tell me what you want me to do.’”
Worlds ahead of time, Wilkinson realized that someone needed to begin discussions
about fair housing laws. Through the Human Relations Commission she founded
in 1964, she is credited with the first Fair Housing Ordinance in Illinois.
“Things are wide open now in this city. You can live anywhere and be free. If
you can’t, come see me. But if you can’t keep up your property, you bring in
gangs and alcoholism, don’t come to me. That’s your fault. You ruined your own
Maybe not an obvious dilemma, but prejudice ran rampant in cemeteries as well.
Only Caucasians were allowed to buy burial lots in the nicest part of a local
cemetery. Wilkinson was noticeably angered at the mere suggestion, and a wealthy
socialite came to her aid. “She said, ‘Marie, I’m going to buy several lots
in this sectionall for your people. Because you are something else.’ Well,
it was a long time before anyone died, but when they saw [an African-American]
man being buried, people ran out to create trouble. But I said, ‘We own them.’
And the wealthy woman came out and faced them and said, ‘They are hers!’” Marie
enjoys reliving this moment and she laughs.
Wilkinson publicized the needs of those whom community leaders and media outlets
once preferred to ignore. She helped to launch more than 60 charitable organizations
including Feed the Hungry Program, Hesed House Homeless Shelter, Breaking Free
Drug Program, the Catholic Social Action Conference, SciTech Youth Science Museum,
and the local chapter of the Urban Leagueto name a few. She established college
funds for underprivileged children and inclusion guidelines for the disabled.
And when refused a seat at Hart’s Drive-In (a now-closed diner) in the late
1940s, Wilkinson won her case before the Illinois State Appellate Court. Now,
Mrs. Wilkinson eats anywhere she pleases.
Come to Mama
Her insight into societal issues was and remains arresting. Thirty
years before the national trend, Wilkinson realized the needs of single motherssometimes
abandoned womenwho were left to care for their children. How were they to earn
a living and care for their preschool-aged children? And if they did one but
not the other, what would become of society when those children became adults?
Together with a group of future-minded residents, Wilkinson raised
$46,000 for a child-care center in Aurora. “But we needed more money,
another $10,000,” Marie recalls. “I called the bishop of Rockford
and he said, ‘When do you need this money?’ I said, Yesterday
was too late.’”
That was 33 years ago. The Marie Wilkinson Child Development Center thrives
today, as does Marie when she is welcomed there by flocks of children. They
hold up their latest projects, paintings waving in the air in front of the
seasoned but never tired eyes of Marie Wilkinson.
Much like the countless adults, volunteer coordinators, nonprofit launchers,
mayors, priests and friends who wave their ideas before Marie for advice, these
children recognize her wisdom. They all want Marie to say, “That’s beautiful.
Keep going. Your heart is in the right place.”
But she won’t say it unless she means it. And people listen either way, because
the lady seems to know what she is doing.
“I’ve tried to be an advocate for the persecuted, those who just weren’t getting
a fair deal,” says Wilkinson. “God points me in the right direction. I know
it is God, because the things I felt passionate about were always 30 years ahead
of their time.”
There is still a lot of work to do, she admits. “You’ve got all these people
on public aid. Get them off public aid,” she urges. “Let them become nurses,
teachers and so on, and you’ll have better neighborhoods.
“My other advice? Don’t forget to be kind to children and old people. Because
they both need you.”
The Power of Leather
Wilkinson’s two children were influenced by their mother’s faith
and lifelong passion for justiceeven if they were not always
around to see her in action. Her son, Donald, died of cancer in
the 1970s and her daughter, Sheila Scott-Wilkinson, left Aurora
to study theater in Europe when she was only 16. An accomplished
international actress and now president of the Los Angeles nonprofit
organization Theatre of Hearts/Youth Firsta program enabling
high-risk children to receive a fine-arts educationScott-Wilkinson
marvels now as she looks back at both the humility and bravery of
“Everybody was welcome in that little bungalow,” says Scott-Wilkinson. She
recalls everyone from priests and bishops to the hungry and homeless dropping
by the Wilkinson home. Extra money was scarce, but Charles and Marie Wilkinson
were always quick to give away their last pennies to a person in need.
“Any kind of challenges,”
Scott-Wilkinson says, “and they’d pray about it.” Many moms convince their children
that everything will always work out. Scott-Wilkinson recalls that her mother
always said, “We’ll pray about it.”
Marie Wilkinson says that prayers move mountains, and she has seen more than
her share of boulders. Inspired by the slave whip her father-in-law gave her,
Wilkinson still clutches the dry leather when speaking out against hate to classrooms
of children. “When my father-in-law escaped from slavery, he took this whip
with him. His mother was there, and he didn’t want to leave her behind and know
that she was going to be whipped,” she says, helping me to examine the density
of the triple-braided cowhide and the places where it is frayed from use.
Her father-in-law witnessed horrors beyond his own physical tortures, some
of which Wilkinson graphically explains. “But he never had any hate for anyone.
You can get angry at the things people do, but you can’t hate any person.
“He said, ‘Marie, take this whip. With this, you can teach a lot of people
not to hate.’”
He was right.