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Black History Month: An untold story…

Two Black Marietta women leave heroic legacy after breaking down racial barriers in the 1900s

Jazz vocalist and pianist Dorothy Donegan, jazz vocalist Billie Holiday, Irene Kitchings, and jazz bandleader and drummer Kenny Clarke at the Cafe Society in New York City in 1944. Kitchings was born in Marietta, Ohio.

Two black women born in Marietta in the early 1900s are part of the story of Washington County that is never told.

“Unfortunately, they were not only women, but they were two women of color,” said Monica Jones, associate dean of students and chief diversity officer at Marietta College. “They didn’t have the attention of the time so we can’t look back and see how these women navigated life.”

The two women in question, Constance Curtis Nichols and Irene Wilson Kitchings, were trailblazers, but information on them is scant.

“You’re not going to find a lot of information,” Jones said. “There are people in the community that might know a name connected to these women. They had very little voice for women who are silenced.”

At a glance:

• Irene Wilson Kitchings and Constance Curtis Nichols were both born in Marietta.

• Kitchings was born about 1908 and died in March 1979.

• Nichols was born in 1907 or 1908 and died in 1989.

• Kitchings was known as a jazz pianist and songwriter, while Nichols was a business woman and activist.

Source: Times research.

Constance Curtis Nichols

Constance Curtis Nichols was born around 1907, the daughter of a barber. She wanted to go to Marietta College to business school, but she was told that the college “didn’t take any black people.”

Instead, she went to Ohio State University in the late 1920s and early 1930s. According to the Ohio History Connection, she was one of the only women in her class, and the only black woman. At the time, no black students were allowed to live on campus.

Starting in college, Nichols became an activist as a member of the Inter-Racial Council and as an organizer for the Democratic party and the NAACP.

In the 1950s, Nichols was active in the Congress of Racial Equity and was appointed to the Columbus Human Relations Committee, along with running for city council against six white men.

The Ohio History Connection received documents regarding the Vanguard League, which was formed at her residence in 1940, in December 1975. The league was formed to end discrimination against blacks in Columbus.

Karen Robertson, curator of manuscripts for the Ohio History Connection, said they believe the invisibility of Nichols in the historic record comes from a combination of factors, most evidently her gender and race.

“Historically, the story of our country has been told through the experiences of white men, and Nichols was neither of these things,” they said. “Often women and black Americans are granted little space in our textbooks, so only a few very well-known figures can fit on the page.”

They said it is also important to consider which historic record is checked for stories.

“The stories of Constance Curtis Nichols and the Vanguard League were new to me when I first studied them as a college student in Columbus, but these stories were not new to the black community that Nichols lived, worked, and thrived in,” Robertson explained. “Her story isn’t untold in her own community, but most of the white community is ignorant of it.”

They said the stories are being told, if we take the time to listen, and when we first discover these stories, we need to listen to the folks who have been telling them, rather than rewriting our own narrative.

“On another note, I think Constance Curtis Nichols likely gets caught up in our common, but incorrect, view of segregation as a Southern problem,” Roberson said. “Her work aimed to end segregation in the North using methods that are very similar to what we see figures like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. adopting a few years later. But we haven’t told this narrative as a Northern story, so there is no room for Constance Curtis Nichols.”

Nichols died in 1989.

“A lot of black women, by the time they get the attention of the majority, in many cases, there is already a coalition that gave them momentum,” Jones said.

Irene Armstrong Kitchings

Jazz vocalist and pianist Dorothy Donegan, jazz vocalist Billie Holiday, Irene Kitchings, and jazz bandleader and drummer Kenny Clarke at the Cafe Society in New York City in 1944.(Photo submitted)

There is even less information about Irene Armstrong, who was also born around 1908 in Marietta. Her grandparents, Ami Armstrong and Henrietta Burke, lived in Adams Township for many years. Her father was a janitor at the post office.

After her brief marriage to Teddy Wilson in the 1930s, she became Irene Wilson and became Irene Kitchings after a subsequent marriage to Eldon Kitchings.

Kitchings was a jazz pianist and songwriter, penning lyrics for songs such as ‘Some Other Spring’, ‘Ghost of Yesterday’ and ‘I’m Pulling Through’, all recorded by her good friend, Billie Holiday.

According to Oxford Reference Encyclopedia of Popular Music, her reputation as a pianist was restricted largely to musicians with whom she played in the Chicago jazz scene, but she was highly praised by them.

She died in 1975 near Dayton.

“The history of the African American experience in our region is hidden in newspapers, manuscripts and books, just waiting to be discovered,” said Linda Showalter, special collections associate with the Marietta College Legacy Library. “Black History Month helps us focus on finding the stories of people like Irene Armstrong Kitchings and learning about her important contributions to American music.”

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