When Melinease Hutchinson received the Hampton Roads Gazetti Exemplar Award for outstanding community service on March 2, the only question her friends and family needed to ask was: “What took them so long?”
Before Beyonce was independent, and Gloria Steinem gave birth to feminism, there was Melinease Hutchinson on the front line of community activism.
“I was ahead of my time,” she boasted, an obvious smile in her voice. “I fought for [my community] before it was popular for a woman to do it.”
Indeed, the Exemplar Award marked neither the beginning nor the end of her career as an activist in her community; rather, it simply marked a milestone in life-long service.
A strong foundation
The house without a foundation rarely weathers a storm.
Melinease Hutchinson’s house is still standing 89 years later.
The second oldest of four, Melinease Hutchinson was born to the daughter of a Thomasville, GA P.K. (preacher’s kid) whose Methodist family moved as the church called her father to, landing them in Florida. Hutchinson spent early years there until a volatile family dispute erupted, causing her mother to move abruptly to New York with her aunt.
“It was like the Hatfields and the McCoys,” she laughed. “My mother said [Florida] wasn’t big enough for both of them.”
A fiery, sharp-tongued, “very stringent, very religious” woman who “didn’t take any nonsense” she raised both men and women single-handedly from that time on in Harlem.
Despite limited resources, “we never went hungry,” said Hutchinson. “Even when she got sick and could barely move around, when I got home from work, I always remember smelling something on the stove cooking.”
An avid learner, she exuded what she wanted her children to be: avid learners.
“When we would get our books from school, she would get those and read them, read magazines, the paper, anything she could get her hands on, she would read,” said Hutchinson.
She recalls her mother’s reaction to overhearing her saying with a friend that the money she was making at a summer job was so good that she didn’t need to go back to school in the fall.
“She said, ‘you think that piece of change means something,’” Hutchinson said. “She made me quit that job.”
And she sacrificed to make sure that education would be a reality.
“I wanted a pea coat,” Hutchinson said. “My mother took her winter coat, cut it down, and made me a pea coat.
“I remember seeing her that winter wear her spring jacket,” she recalled. “She would layer it. Underneath she would put on a sweater, maybe with a hole in the elbow or something, then another sweater, then her spring jacket.”
Later, Hutchinson realized that sacrifice when she was able to purchase her first house.
“It was over there where she used to clean houses,” Hutchinson recalled, “and I cried because I thought I wished I could have brought my mother here.”
“I don’t ever remember not being politically active,” Hutchinson said. “My mother was actively and politically involved. At that time it was the progressive republican movement. I was what they called a Young Progressive Republican until the crazies, the real conservatives, came in. We helped elect Eisenhower.”
She became aware of her own vested interest in community politics when she began working with a church member: civil rights activist and NAACP board member Channing H. Tobias, who would be appointed to President Harry Truman’s Civil Rights Committee.
Her first major campaign endeavor was for New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Since then, she’s volunteered for Jimmy Carter, New York mayor John Lindsay, and Freedom Rider Percy Sutton.
Hutchinson’s granddaughter, Shanease Dickey, whose community service, she admits, is an inherited trait, offered that she had even been the plaintiff in an NAACP lawsuit years ago.
“I got the paperwork from my aunt,” she said. “when I read it, I was just like, ‘wow’. She really has always been involved.”
Today, she serves on the board of the NAACP, with local politicians such as Norfolk sheriff Bob McCabe and Virginia representative Bobby Scott and in various roles for her church.
Can’t stop, won’t stop
Putting the reason why she is still, now, active in her community into words is hard. The answer involves memories, stories, losses.
Long story short: She remembers.
She remembers the sacrifices of others.
“Somebody struggled and pushed and went to the mat for this,” she stated. “People like Fannie Lou Hammer.”
She recalled witnessing pictures of the people who had come before her like Hammer, whom she said was beaten badly, but never relented.
“That’s why I never give up.”
No end for her service is in sight. And now it is more important than ever.
“It took us 300 years to get this stuff,” she said of civil rights, “and in [the last] 25 years they’re dismantling it.”
To Melinease Hutchinson, community work is not optional, it is a duty, an honor we owe those who came before us.
“She’ll never stop,” added Dickey. “She can’t. It’s in her to do this.”
And at the end of the day, “We need to make a difference,” said Hutchinson. “I think I can still make that difference.”