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Mignon Barker Richmond, A Community Organizer with Heart

1897-1984

Mignon Barker Richmond
Illustration by Brooke Smart

“My life has been children.”

By Dr. Jackie Thompson

 

Mignon’s name means “little flower of Africa.” She was a prominent woman in Utah history whose story is one of hope, courage, service, and inspiration. Mignon was the first African-American woman to graduate from a college in Utah, and she served a life time as a human rights activist and community leader.

Mignon (left) with her sister, Mary. Courtesy of Mignon Mapp.

Mignon Barker was born on April 1, 1897 in Salt Lake City. Her parents were William Barker and Mary Alice Reagan Barker, who met while working at a Salt Lake City hotel. Mary was an English woman from London and William was born into slavery in Missouri. He ran away and joined the Union Army during the Civil War when he was 18, serving as a drummer before he was captured and returned to his owner. He later escaped and eventually moved to Utah. Mignon’s parents married and had one son, who died when Mignon was young, as well as a younger daughter named Mary.

Mignon Barker Richmond. Courtesy of Mignon Mapp.

Through faith, courage, determination, and inspiration from her mother, Mignon went on to accomplish great things. She attended Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City with her family, where some of her favorite hymns were “Trust and Obey” and “Count Your Blessings.” Later in life she served as Sunday School Superintendent and Chairwoman of the Trustee Board at the church.

Mignon was a hard worker. As a child, she made doll clothes for girls in her neighborhood. At age 13, she was hired as a private housekeeper. Fortunately, this provided for her educational expenses and she graduated from West High School in 1917. She then attended the Utah State Agriculture College, now known as Utah State University in Logan, Utah. Mignon refused to let racism stand in her way. One professor told her, “You’ll never get more than a ‘C’ from me because you’re a Negro.” Despite that, Mignon was an outstanding student and earned her degree in home living, textiles, and foods.

Mignon (bottom right corner) with the Red Cross. Courtesy of Mignon Mapp.

Mignon continued to experience the injustices of racism after graduating from college in 1921. It was 27 years before she was hired for a professional position and as a college graduate searching for work, it took her one and a half years to be hired at the University of Utah as a housekeeper. Mignon later worked as a cook and household manger until World War II broke out. Finally, wartime provided a need for Mignon’s talents and skills as a community organizer. She was hired as a senior director of youth volunteers for the United Service Organizations and volunteered at the Red Cross, Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and LDS Hospital.

Mignon became friends with Sylvia Durrant while serving in the YWCA. “We had programs for women working in arms plants during the war,” Sylvia remembered, “and Mignon was in charge of breakfast for the women coming off their night shifts.” When their roles with the YWCA took them to a national convention in 1956, Mignon had to leave Sylvia and sit in the black car on the train.[1]

Mignon Barker Richmond with her husband, Thomas. Courtesy of Mignon Mapp.

Mignon married Frank Smith in 1925. That marriage ended and she later married Thomas White Richmond on December 5, 1933.[2] Mignon had no children of her own, but “when she married Thomas Richmond, he had a toddler, Ophelia, from a previous marriage, and Mignon raised her as her own child. They were very close.”[3] Mignon lived by the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child” and also helped raise the children in her community. She was an avid reader and close friend of the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, who often visited her in Salt Lake.

In 1948, Mignon had her first opportunity for employment in her field when she was hired to start the school lunch program for Stewart School at the University of Utah. Five years later, she was hired to develop home-living classes at the Utah State Industrial School, an Ogden youth-correctional facility. In 1957 she became the YWCA Food Services Director in Salt Lake City. She stayed in the position until her retirement in 1962 at age 65. Service to others did not end with her retirement; during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, she headed the Women’s Job Corps and was chairwoman of Project Medicare Alert. “My life has been children,” said Mignon at age 80, when she was honored by the Salt Lake Area Black Bicentennial Committee for her achievements in education and her work as a VISTA volunteer tutoring children at Oquirrih School.

From left to right: Mary Smith, Mignon Richmond’s sister; unidentified woman; Mignon Barker Richmond; Ruby Nathaniel, Mignon Richmond’s one-time sister-in-law and very close friend. Courtesy of Mignon Mapp.

The qualities attributed to Mignon by those who knew her—“real Christian,” “determined,” “classy lady,” “quiet visionary,” “gracious,” and “good sense of humor”—paint a picture of a strong woman who pushed through hard times, working for civil rights and loving people along the way. Perhaps her sense of humor served Mignon best. When she was asked to use the servant’s entrance at a community event, Mignon quipped, “’I’m just like Marian Anderson,’ referring to the famous American contralto who was required to use the freight elevator when she stayed at the Hotel Utah.”[4]

Mignon served for many years with the Salt Lake Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was co-founder of the Nettie Gregory Center, a gathering place in Salt Lake City for minority youth groups to get involved in recreational activities. Mignon also served on boards for the Utah Community Service Council and on the Women’s Legislative Council, where she was instrumental in developing anti-poverty legislation.

Mignon Barker Richmond. Courtesy of Mignon Mapp.

Mignon received numerous awards and honors. In 1986, the Salt Lake Branch NAACP, Trinity AME Church, and Calvary Baptist Church joined with others to dedicate Richmond Park in Salt Lake City, marked by a plaque acknowledging Mignon Barker Richmond as an educator, civil leader, and humanitarian.[5] In 1992, Utah State University founded the Mignon B. Richmond Society to support multicultural students. After a lifetime of service to others, Mignon Barker Richmond passed away on March 10, 1984, at the age of 86.

 

Some of Mrs. Richmond’s Additional Accomplishments and Affiliations: 

 

Dr. Jackie Thompson recently retired from Davis School District as the Director of the Educational Equity Department. She has received numerous awards and national recognition for her work in multicultural education and human and civil rights.

Special thanks to Mrs. Mignon Mapp, Mignon Barker Richmond’s great niece, for information and photos.

Footnotes

[1] Jane Edwards, “Special to the Tribune,” Salt Lake Tribune, February 19, 1995.

[2] https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2MB-3WPW?from=lynx1&treeref=LFXG-WCM; https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Barker-1376

[3] Author interview with Mignon Mapp, great niece of Mignon Barker Richmond.

[4] Jane Edwards, “Special to the Tribune,” Salt Lake Tribune, February 19, 1995.

[5] France Davis, Light in the Midst of Zion, A History of Black Baptists in Utah, 1997, 114.