Enolia McMillan; First Woman to Lead NAACP

Enolia P. McMillan is applauded by NAACP Chairman Julian Bond at the organization's annual convention in 1998.
Enolia P. McMillan is applauded by NAACP Chairman Julian Bond at the organization's annual convention in 1998. (By Ric Feld -- Associated Press)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 26, 2006

Enolia P. McMillan, 102, a Baltimore educator who became an influential figure in the NAACP and the first female president of the civil rights organization, died Oct. 24 at her home in Stevenson, in Baltimore County. She had congestive heart failure.

Mrs. McMillan, whose father was born into slavery, received a master's degree in education and became a teacher and administrator, initially in segregated schools. This helped guide her NAACP activism in the 1930s, and in time, she was considered the matriarch of the Baltimore branch.

She also served as president of the Maryland State Colored Teachers' Association and was credited with bringing better-quality books to black students and better pay for black teachers.

She said that many in the school system pegged her as a troublemaker. "They put me down as a smart aleck, but that's the only way you get attention," she later said of the administrators who hired her.

She was president of the Baltimore NAACP in the 1970s and 1980s, which overlapped with her service as national president from 1984 to 1990. The national presidency at that time was a ceremonial position, but Mrs. McMillan became a leading figure in the organization's most important discussions and internal debates.

In 1983, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People shifted its longtime headquarters to Brooklyn from Manhattan after a significant rent increase. Three years later, Mrs. McMillan helped to orchestrate the group's move to Baltimore after the city offered financial incentives. (There are now plans to transfer NAACP headquarters to Washington.)

As national president, Mrs. McMillan spoke out about Reagan administration policies that she said harmed the NAACP's advocacy efforts in housing, education, employment and business.

The organization suffered large deficits and a decrease in membership, which worsened with a leadership crisis in the 1990s and what some members called a lack of direction after the victories of the civil rights era.

Mrs. McMillan was critical of the NAACP's executive director, Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., and board chairman, William F. Gibson, both of whom left the organization in the early 1990s under accusations of financial misdeeds.

Mrs. McMillan led the no-confidence vote against Gibson at an NAACP annual board meeting in 1995 that ushered in his successor, Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights icon Medgar Evers. Evers-Williams won by a single vote.

To address the NAACP's financial difficulties, Mrs. McMillan was known for demanding that everyone in her path buy a white button for $1 that read in blue letters, "I gave NAACP." This effort was credited with raising $30,000.

Julian Bond, current NAACP chairman, said yesterday: "Here's this woman who you would otherwise think would be tending to her knitting, who had been a lifetime civil rights activist, and when the organization she spent her life working for was in crisis, she jumped to make sure it was salvaged. For many people, she became the public face of the NAACP."

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