Iowa’s First African American Woman Legislator, Willie Stevenson Glanton, Dies at 95

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Willie Stevenson Glanton

By Genma Stringer Holmes

On July 6, 2017, Rep. Willie Stevenson Glanton, Iowa’s first Black female legislator died at 95. A Humanitarian and Civil Rights legend, Rep. Glanton, had many ties to the Nashville community. She and her husband, Judge Luther T. Glanton, were graduates of Tennessee State University. According to TSU’s yearbook, Ayeni, Rep. Glanton graduated in 1942 and her husband, Judge Glanton, graduated in 1939. The Glantons were aunt and uncle to 1980 TSU alum and local attorney, Luvell Glanton. He credits them for being role models to him as well as other members of the Glanton family.

In the Ole South, when Black folks were still drinking from colored only water fountains, could not enter the front door of many establishments, or even marry outside their race; Rep. Glanton was blazing trails as a woman and a person of color. She was the first woman elected to the Iowa General Assembly; the first woman to become assistant Polk County attorney; the first woman and first Black person elected president of the Iowa Chapter of the Federal Bar Association; the first Back attorney at the U.S. Small Business Administration in 1966 and the first Black member of the Des Moines City Council in 1985.

Rep. Glanton, a native of Hot Springs, Arkansas, was raised by her father and mother, a businessman and a teacher, who were very active in voter registration education with the Negro Civic League. Her early childhood educators were influencers who encouraged her to attend college.  Her abilities to speak and write well led her to TSU. While at TSU, Rep. Glanton was an excellent student and was a member of several clubs and collegiate organizations; Personality Torch Bearers, Alba Rosa Club, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Secretary of Forensic Society, Student Christian Association, Alpha Iota Business Fraternity, History Study Club and Miss Arkansas 1941. After graduating with a B.S. in business, Rep. Glanton spent seven years “having a great time getting to know Washington, D. C.” where she met leaders like Mary McCloud Bethune. She earned her law degree from Robert H. Terrell Law School and started working with the U. S. War Department.

In 1942, when Rep. Glanton was graduating from TSU, her future husband, Judge Glanton, was graduating from Drake Law School, where he was the first Black Student. Following his graduation, Judge Glanton joined the U. S. Army and served as an intelligence officer during World War II. After the war, he served on the staff of U.S. chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, at the Nuremberg trials, which prosecuted prominent members of Nazi Germany who had participated in executing millions of Jews during the Holocaust. Judge Glanton remained active in the U.S. Army Reserves for many years, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. He later became Iowa’s first Black judge in 1959.

When the Glantons started their legal careers, segregation was deeply woven into the fabric of America. In 1939, when Judge Glanton graduated, World War II was beginning. In 1942, when Rep. Glanton graduated and Judge Glanton from Drake, Blacks were being lynched throughout the South. In 1948, President Truman outlawed segregation in the military that Judge Glanton had already served in for six years. By then, Judge Glanton had helped send to prisonthe Nazis who started WW II.

The Glantons were married in 1951. One year after Rep. Glanton passed the bar in Iowa in 1953, she became the first woman assistant attorney in Polk County, Iowa. Judge Glanton was the first Black assistant county attorney in 1951. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court Ruled on Brown v. Board of Topeka Kansas. In August 1955, Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. And, in December 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott started. As the Glantons were setting up their offices and would eventual become a legal power couple, our country was bursting at the seams with the desperate need for legal minds to fight segregation and racism in the courtrooms at the local, state, and federal levels. The Glantons fought segregation and racism on all fronts, at home and abroad.

In 1964, when Rep. Glanton ran for office for the Iowa General Assembly, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, declaring discrimination based on race illegal. The 24th Amendment abolished the poll tax, which originally had been established in the South after Reconstruction to make it difficult for poor blacks to vote. Even though those gains were momentous, the fight for equality was met with violence and indifference. During that same year, three civil rights workers, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, disappeared in Mississippi. They were found buried six weeks later.

At the time she decided to run for public office, Rep. Glanton knew her race would play a major factor in her bid. Nevertheless, it did not stop her. In a statement to the Carrol Times on July 11, 1964, she stated, “I am a Negro and I think anyone would be conscious of this.” The paper goes on to state that she deplored the inevitable speculation that she may be running just to prove a Negro can be elected. “I think the only way to combat,” she stopped and began again, “I would hope that the substance of what I had to say would take care of that.”

She won, of course. And made headline news around the world.

When Luvell Glanton was asked about his rich, family’s legacy and the gains they championed for Human and Civil Rights vs. today’s racial climate of our country, he stated, “My uncle and aunt would be having a fit! However, they would not be sitting on the sidelines laying down. They would be actively protesting and helping to make changes by challenging the injustices that are non stop. We are not fighting anymore. We are allowing what we are seeing to happen.” He further stated, “I attended Drake University because of my uncle who was then a board trustee. He pushed me and made me do what I needed to do to become successful. We are a family of lawyers and doctors. My son, Luvell, Jr. is a M.D., and my nieces, Jerice Glanton and Syeta Glanton, are lawyers. They followed their examples as well. My uncle and aunt were very well connected throughout their careers. Many are not aware of this but Attorney General Robert Kennedy wanted him to serve in his administration had he lived and won.”

According to Des Moines University website:

In 2004, to honor the Glantons’ leadership, service and commitment to justice and education, Des Moines University established the Luther T. Glanton Jr. and Willie Stevenson Glanton Fund. With donor contributions, the fund provides scholarships for minority students, under-represented in health care, and supports programming that helps all DMU students become more culturally competent health professionals. DMU’s annual Glanton Dinner has since become a signature event that brings together hundreds of people representing civic, business and nonprofit organizations.

The Nashville ties with the Glantons do not stop with family or TSU. Meharry has a connection as well. Judge Glanton joined the DMU Board of Trustees in 1979; when he died in 1991, Rep. Glanton took his place on the board and became its chair in 1999 and served until 2012. When former executive Vice President and provost of Meharry Medical College, Dr. Angela Walker Franklin, became the 15th president of DMU in spring 2011, a close friendship developed between the two women. On the passing of Rep. Glanton, Dr. Franklin stated, “Mrs. Glanton was an inspiration to so many. She was a trailblazer, an innovator, a champion for women and minorities, and all around friend and mentor. She meant so much to me as I assumed my role at DMU. I am there for many reasons. One in particular is because she was there on the board, an encouraging and supportive spirit.”

Rep. Glanton was very involved in her church and many civic organizations. She received numerous awards over her lifetime and was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986 and chosen as on of Des Moines Registers’ “10 most influential Black Iowans of the 20th Century.”

A wake will be held from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. July 14, with tributes starting at 5:30. The memorial service will start at 11 a.m. July 15 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 4114 Allison Ave., followed by burial at McLarens Resthaven Cemetery in West Des Moines. 

Sources: Newspapers.com, Carrol Times, TSU’s Ayeni, American Bar Association, Des Moines Register and DMU.

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