Monday, we paused to remember Martin Luther King Jr. and his tireless work to see people judged by the “content of their character.”
He is someone we know, recognize and celebrate, as we should, and he was not the only one tireless in their efforts to make change. The list of people who have changed corners of the world in quiet and steady ways is, I’m quite sure, almost infinite.
One person on that list is Mignon Barker Richmond. Mignon was born in Salt Lake City on April 1, 1897. Her parents were Mary Alice Reagan, an English woman from London, and William Barker, born into slavery in Missouri. William escaped and fled north, where he fought for the Union Army until he was captured and returned to his owner. Eventually, he escaped and made it to Utah, where he met and married Mary. They became the parents of three children.
Mignon began working at a young age, making doll clothes for neighbor children. By the age of 13, she was working as a housekeeper, spending the money she earned on her education. She graduated from West High in 1917, then went to Utah State University, formerly known as the Utah State Agricultural College. In spite of open racism, Mignon never gave up and became the first African-American women to graduate from college in Utah.
It was a stunning 27 years before she was hired for a professional position in her field of study.
It was not for lack of trying. A year and a half after her graduation, she was hired by the University of Utah — as a housekeeper. She later worked as a cook and household manager, then director of youth volunteers for United Service Organizations.
Finally in 1948, she finally got her first opportunity to work in her field — home living, textiles and foods — when she was hired to start the first school lunch program in Utah for Stewart School at the University of Utah. She later developed home-living classes for a youth correctional facility and, in 1957, she became the YWCA Food Services director in Salt Lake City.
She also spent many hours volunteering, including for the Red Cross, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the NAACP, co-founded the Nettie Gregory Center for minority youth, and served on many boards, including the Utah Community Service Council, the Women’s Legislative Council, The American Association of University Women and was the Chair of Trustees for Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City.
Her volunteerism did not stop during her years of employment or after she retired at age 65. She continued serving by heading up the “Women’s Job Corps” and was chairwoman of “Project Medicare Alert.” She also volunteered tutoring children at Oquirrih School.
In 1933, Mignon had married Thomas White Richmond, who came to the marriage with a young toddler, Ophelia. She passed away on March 10, 1984, at the age of 86. Two years later, the Salt Lake branch of the NAACP, Trinity AME Church, Calvary Baptist Church and others dedicated Richmond Park in Salt Lake City in honor of Mignon and in 1992, Utah State University founded the Mignon B. Richmond Society to support multicultural students.
I did not grow up in Utah, but my children have. None of us knew about this great woman’s lifetime of work until the #SuffrageSquad at Better Days 2020 began their project of profiling some of Utah’s great women leaders. Not only do they have an awesome website, but they also have extensive educational curricula available to Utah teachers so that people like Mignon get the attention they deserve.
When King said “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?,’” I believe Mignon Richmond could answer “Everything I can.”
Holly Richardson, a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune, is glad to learn more about Mignon and is sad that it took until 2019 for her to do so.