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Edmonds, Helen Gray (1911–1995) - History of African Americans, the U.S. South, and Modern Europe

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Helen Gray Edmonds was born on December 3, 1911, in Lawrenceville, Virginia, the daughter of John Edward Edmonds, a building trades contractor, and Ann Williams, a full-time homemaker. She went to St. Paul’s school in Lawrenceville and then Morgan State College. Her parents provided the early influences in her life, particularly as they encouraged her to pursue an education.“There was never a moment in our family,” she later recalled, “that higher education wasn’t stressed.” Edmonds received a bachelor’s degree in history from Morgan State in 1933, then attended Ohio State University, earning a master’s degree in 1938 and a Ph.D. in 1946. She was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in history in Ohio State University’s history.

Edmonds accepted a teaching position at Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and then at Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville. In 1940 she joined the faculty at North Carolina Central University, where she taught until her retirement in 1971 and where she reached the rank of distinguished professor of history. Edmonds also served North Carolina Central University as chair of the history department and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Inspired by W.E.B. DuBois’s study at the University of Berlin, she spent a year at the University of Heidelberg, from 1954 to 1955. As professor emeritus, Edmonds has been visiting scholar at the University of Rochester, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Radcliffe College.

Author of two books and numerous scholarly articles, Edmonds has also earned several awards, including the American Historical Association’s Award of Scholarly Distinction. She was the first recipient of the Candace Award of the Coalition of 100 Black Women, was named Distinguished Woman of North Carolina, and won the Oliver Max Gardner Award of the University of North Carolina, for the “greatest contribution to the human race.”

In her service outside the academy, Edmonds served as president of Links, a women’s service organization, in a period during which they raised $1 million in support of the United Negro College Fund. She has also held civic positions with the Southern Fellowships Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. She has had a lifelong affiliation with the Republican Party and seconded President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s nomination for reelection in 1956. She then served as the President’s Special Emissary in Liberia and as an alternate delegate to the United Nations. She was later appointed by President Richard Nixon to the National Advisory Council of the Peace Corps. Helen Gray Edmonds died on May 9, 1995, in Durham, North Carolina.

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