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50 Years/50 Collections: The Collins Family

This week’s blog post is authored by Dr. Tiyi Morris, Associate Professor of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University.

Clarie Collins Harvey at her desk in 1939.

Clarie Collins Harvey was the embodiment of Maya Angelou's phenomenal woman. Born Emma Claire Augusta Collins in Meridian, Mississippi in 1916, Harvey was a civil and human rights activist, religious leader, and businesswoman. Her activism was shaped by her intersectionality as a Black woman. She worked throughout her life for social and political change, both behind the scenes and on the front lines. In her various roles, she advocated for women's empowerment in the male-dominated arenas of business, politics, and international affairs. The Clarie Collins Harvey papers, located at the Amistad Research Center, illuminates her ecumenical, professional, civil rights, peace, and civic and community development efforts. It also demonstrates the local, national, and international impact of Harvey’s work.

Harvey was the only child of Mary Rayford and Reverend Malachi Collins, whose firm grounding in their religious faith and social responsibility had an enormous influence on Harvey's life. Her ecumenical work, through which she broke both gender and racial barriers, was inspired by her parents' activism in the Methodist church. Working with the YWCA and Methodist youth organizations, Harvey's social activism began early in life. As an adult, she served the Methodist church in a variety of capacities from the 1940s through the 1980s, including membership on the General Board of Education, the General Board of Christian Social Concerns, the Methodist Committee for Oversees Relief, the Board of Social and Economic Relations, and as a Consultant for the World Council of Churches Central Committee. In May of 1971, Harvey became the first Black president of Church Women United, the largest movement of Christian women working for world peace. Harvey's ecumenical work was again recognized in 1976 when she received the “Upper Room Citation;” the first Black to be so honored.

As a businesswoman, Harvey also had an important local and national impact. She began running the Collins Funeral Home with her mother after her father's unexpected death in 1939. The funeral home, which her father co-founded in 1916 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and moved to Jackson in 1924, became a central institution in the city's Black business district located on Farish St. It was the base of Harvey's philanthropic work and community development efforts throughout her life. She was heavily involved in professional organizations, such as the National Negro Funeral Directors Association receiving their first Woman of the Year award in 1955. In January of 1968 she was elected to chair the Hinds County Community Service Association, a group under the auspices of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), working specifically with anti-poverty programs. She also worked diligently to revitalize the Farish Street district through the Farish Street Management Association and the Jackson Chapter of the National Business League during the 1980s. As the figurehead of a prominent business, Harvey was also able to bring legitimacy to civil rights activism among her middle class peers.

Attendees at funeral of slain activist Medgar Evers in front of Collins Funeral Home, 1963.

Harvey was a key figure in the Mississippi civil rights movement, which is not surprising given that her father was one of the founders of the Jackson NAACP and her mother was a member of the Mississippi State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. She, too, was a member of both organizations and used her experience in these organizations to create her own civil rights organization, Womanpower Unlimited. Established as a way to support the Freedom Riders who arrived in Jackson in May of 1961, Womanpower Unlimited evolved into a group of women with a broad-based civil rights agenda who engaged in activities ranging from the mainstays of civil rights activism – voter education and registration and school desegregation efforts – to anti-poverty work and peace activism. As an entrepreneur who owned the building in which her company and residence were housed, and whose services were patronized solely by African Americans, she was free from the economic intimidation that restricted the actions of many Blacks openly engaged in civil rights activism. Harvey's civil rights activism included government sponsored initiatives such as the Mississippi Civil Rights Advisory Committee, in addition to grassroots organizing.

Harvey's activism, like that of many other Black women who have ensured the survival of Black families and communities, was an integral part of her life. She fought tirelessly for civil rights, women's advancement, and on behalf of marginalized groups, domestically and internationally. She was truly a humanist and a world citizen. Her contributions were formally recognized by the state of Mississippi when she received the Outstanding Mississippian Award from Governor William Waller, in honor of her “noteworthy achievements as a humanitarian and business leader,” in 1974. By the time of her death in 1995, Clarie Collins Harvey had helped transform Mississippi and immeasurably impacted the nation.

Fortunately for us, Clarie Collins Harvey had the foresight to preserve her papers and donate them to the Amistad Research Center. This was a conscious decision to preserve a public record of her life and activism as she worked with her assistant, Connie Shanks, to meticulously organize her papers for donation. In doing so, Harvey has left a wonderful collection for us to explore so many facets of Black life in the twentieth century, from entrepreneurship and the Black middle class, to civil rights and women's organizations.

The finding aid for the Clarie Collins Harvey papers is located here. The Amistad Research Center also holds the records of the Collins Funeral Home and the finding aid for the records can be found here.

Disclaimer: Images from the Clarie Collins Harvey papers and the Collins Funeral Home records. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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