Called to action: Reber Simpkins Cann, educator, activist and social worker

by Lerin Williams

Sadie T.M. Alexander from the comic book 'Negro Heroes'
Toussaint L’Ouverture from the comic book 'Negro Heroes'

Published by the National Urban League in cooperation with Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Negro Heroes was a comic book that featured illustrated histories of contemporary figures, and lesser-known activists who fought for liberation and social justice. The comic book served as an innovative form of outreach dedicated to highlighting the diverse contributions and transformative legacies of Black excellence to young, African-American communities across the country. Honoring the transnational struggle for liberation, the second issue of 1948 included Toussaint L’Ouverture and the story of the Haitian Revolution. Blending popular culture with historical figures, Jackie Robinson donned the cover and Sugar Chile Robinson, child piano prodigy, was featured. The issue also highlighted educational advocate and leader Booker T. Washington; scholar, lawyer and first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Sadie T. M. Alexander; and Mabel K. Staupers, a nurse and lead organizer who fought for three decades to ensure Black nurses were employed in hospitals, the Army and the Navy. The Negro Heroes comic book extended upon the National Urban League’s youth employment guidance efforts and promoted the sorority’s Job Opportunity Project. Both organizations hoped African-American youth would be inspired to pursue employment with a mindset of unlimited possibility upon reading about the trajectories of present and past leaders.

Reber Simpkins in the July 1920 Brownies Book, Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections Division

Initiated into Delta Sigma Theta Sorority in 1922, Reber Simpkins Cann served as its chairperson of the Cincinnati chapter of the organization, national secretary from 1944 to 1952, and national vice president from 1952 to 1954. Born in Rapides Parish on July 26, 1902, Reber Simpkins became an educator, social worker and equity advocate. She graduated from Wilberforce University with a bachelor of arts degree, and there met her future husband, Braxton Cann. After teaching at the same elementary school she attended as a child in Shreveport, Louisiana, she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Initially employed at the Shoemaker Clinic, Reber Simpkins Cann acquired a position working for the Transient Service Bureau, a program that provided relief and assistance to unemployed residents and non-residents. After fourteen years of service, Simpkins became a supervisor in the Welfare Department.

The Reber Simpkins Cann papers include the 1948 summer issue of Negro Heroes, in addition to detailed minutes, agendas, reports and correspondence from a myriad of social justice organizations. Simpkins Cann served on various councils, and participated in initiatives to improve employment opportunities, access and quality of life for Black communities in Cincinnati, Ohio and on a national level. Her advocacy efforts included participation in the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Council of Negro Women, the Council of Social Agencies, the Cincinnati Council on World Affairs and the Cincinnati Department of Urban Development, among others. Community-led initiatives by these organizations used reports and assessments in order to document the gaps in accessibility to healthcare and recreational services for children and families; took inventories of community services and needs; and created involvement in community planning to keep track of the allocation of resources. The Reber Simpkins Cann papers provide a wealth of information on these topics.

(Caption: NAACP letter detailing the call for action against discrimination by government contractors)

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services [MH-245560-OMS-20]. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

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