At age 11, Endesha Ida Mae Holland, noted playwright and scholar, was raped by her boss, an elderly white man whose grandchild she was babysitting at the time. When he was finished, he tossed her a fiver.
By the time Holland was a teen, she was a prostitute, charging white men ten dollars for services rendered and black men half that. She became a mother at 16 and spent the next several years in and out of prison on charges of prostitution, theft and street fighting.
In 1963, Holland was fresh out of jail and looking for a customer on the street when she followed a man to his office. The man was headed to a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meeting, a group in Greenwood, Mississippi registering black voters.
“I saw and heard things in that office I had never seen or heard before,” Dr. Holland would later tell Ebony magazine. “I had never seen black people sitting down using typewriters or heard black people talking about civil rights or voter registration.”
The man she followed that day, Bob Moses, leader of the SNCC, gave her a desk and a typewriter and asked her to join the Movement. It was the beginning of something extraordinary. Holland, who died 12 years ago this month, earned her GED and eventually enrolled here, at the University of Minnesota, earning a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies in 1979. She would go on to earn a master’s in American Studies in 1984 and a Ph.D., also in American studies, in 1986. When she passed, she was professor emeritus of theater at the University of Southern California.
“Ida Mae was one of our roommates in the little Movement house, which was home base for Civil Rights and anti-war activity off the University of Minnesota campus, in the late 1960s,” Heather Baum, of St. Paul, wrote in her eulogy of Holland. “Ida was a great friend. She never stopped talking about Greenwood … and mesmerized us during many late night story and song circles. A raw, hilarious, brilliant and organic organizer; she was driven by a powerful sense of justice. She galvanized us all … and gave us the courage we needed to do what had to be done.”
Holland was a civil rights activist in the Twin Cities and beyond, marching, speaking and registering voters. As a vocal public activist, she was incarcerated an additional thirteen times. In 1965, the KKK torched her family home, killing her wheelchair-bound mother. When Holland published her memoir, “From the Mississippi Delta,” it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and, with Oprah Winfrey as a backer, adapted as a play.
An archive of Holland’s work, awards and papers are part of the Givens Collection at the University of Minnesota library, but she deserves to be celebrated on campus beyond this. She deserves to be celebrated more publicly, her statue prominently erected, her story told not just this month, Black History Month, but always. Through her life and legacy, Holland, sex worker, activist, alumna, mother, dramatist and author, shows us we each have the power to not just change our own personal circumstances, but to change the whole world.
This letter has been lightly edited for clarity and style.
Hilal Isler teaches social justice, peace, and youth studies at the University of Minnesota.