Whitten, Anna L.
A Life of Public Service
In 1999, Anna Whitten received the Women of Achievement Award from the YWCA of Kalamazoo. In their brochure for the event, Whitten was described as “one of the busiest public service volunteers–brings her trademark inspiration and uplifting personality to each project she undertakes. Anna Whitten has been serving the Kalamazoo community for over three decades. Her interests span all socioeconomic, cultural and age boundaries, and she has been instrumental in establishing some of the community’s most important organizations.” The brochure goes on to detail the many specific contributions to the health and well being of the community that Whitten played an active role in supporting and building.
Early Life in Port Huron
Born Anna L. Sherrill in Port Huron, MI in 1921, her parents met and married while living in Alabama. Like thousands of other southern blacks in the 1920’s and 30’s, Whitten’s parents fled north to escape the conditions of living in the Jim Crow south. Her father Walter was a cook employed by the Grand Trunk Railway, an early version of what would become the Canadian National Railway. One of the stops along the train’s route was Port Huron, a city split by the St. Clair River, with Sarnia, Ontario on the opposite side. Whitten’s memories of life growing up in the culturally mixed city tended to be rosy in the depiction of a happy and stable upbringing, despite the fact that racial animus was prevalent, albeit often in more subtle forms, in northern states. In recalling her youthful days growing up in the thumb region of Michigan, what Anna described as the “garden spot of the world”, Michael Lozon’s biography of Whitten, Batting a Thousand: A Portrait of Anna Whitten, Kalamazoo’s Kindhearted Angel, finds her waxing nostalgic about her childhood:
“There really wasn’t anything that I thought was bigger or better than Port Huron while I was growing up. We had a melting pot of individuals who lived there–Jews, Gentiles, Blacks, Hispanics, Norwegians, Italians, and others. I assume that mix had something to do with us being a border town.”
“One of our friends was Italian. She brought homemade spaghetti to our house every Saturday. I remember that as being the best spaghetti in the world. And my mother, she fried chicken for that family. So every Saturday, we would dine together at our house. They would have our fried chicken and we would have their spaghetti. Oh, that was ever so wonderful.” (Lozon)
Whitten and her parents would also take Sunday road trips in their automobile, a unique amenity that many of her childhood friends didn’t have. “After morning church and dinner, the first thing we did was go for a joyride. My dad would say ‘We haven’t been down this road before, so let’s go see what’s down here’”. Vacations to the big city of Detroit, and to Alabama to visit family members were also common occurrences. It was also during her time in Port Huron that Anna developed lifelong interest in church activities, as well as her focus on the importance of learning. Citing her hardworking parents as the most important influences in her life, Anna saw in them examples of kindness and compassion.
Sadly, in 1934, after suffering from a short bout of pneumonia, Anna’s father abruptly passed away, leaving Anna and her mother to find ways of supporting themselves during the depth of the Depression. While her mother carried on as a seamstress for the Works Progress Administration, making clothes for local children in need, Anna focused on academic goals, one of which was to be on the school honor roll. Seeing the ways in which education could be a foundation for adult independence, Anna’s mother Nellie encouraged her daughter to think seriously about life after high school, and how she might shape a career out of her interests in helping others.
“What my parents did rubbed off on me. I try very hard to follow in their footsteps by being generous and compassionate. Giving back was a pattern for my mother and father. They were always doing things for other people or volunteering their time. It was almost instinctual for them. And they expected nothing in repayment for a good deed. That example still holds true for me today. You don’t do something for someone expecting to be paid back in some way. If they do recognize you, fine. If they don’t, it’s still fine.” (Lozon)
With this in mind, Anna saw in nursing, a potential avenue to use her skillset in a meaningful way. Her ideal goal was to become a missionary, serving the medical needs of Africans. Enrolling in Port Huron Junior College allowed Anna to stay close to her mother, who she felt benefited from her presence and support. At PHJC, she took courses that were prerequisites before she could enter a nursing program. But in the Spring of 1941, as she neared graduating from the junior college, she was offered a job as an underwriter for the Chicago-based Supreme Liberty Life, the first Black-owned insurance company in the northern portion of the country. Her uncle was the highest-ranking agent in the Detroit office, and he thought Anna would benefit from the experience and the financial security. With the support of her mother, Anna made the decision to take the job and delay her entering nursing school for several years. In 1942, Anna married Edward Atchison. They had a son (Edward) together, but divorced after several years of marriage.
The Move to Kalamazoo
Before she located to Kalamazoo in 1950, Anna found love again while vacationing with relatives in Tennessee. Approached while reading in a park while Edward played, Clifford Whitten asked Anna what she was reading, and from there, a courtship slowly developed between the two. Clifford, also a divorcee, who was attending barbering school in Detroit, had also been visiting his family at the same time, and when both returned to their Michigan lives, they kept in touch, eventually marrying after Anna joined him in Kalamazoo. Clifford had found work at a barber shop in Kalamazoo that was owned by his uncle. Anna’s only knowledge of the southwestern Michigan city was that it was on the railway line to Chicago, and that it was known for its production of celery. Despite her initial reservations about Kalamazoo, she saw in it, a clean and charming city. Kalamazoo’s size didn’t phase Anna, and she embraced the opportunity to get to know her adopted hometown.
“In a small town, like Port Huron, everybody knows everybody. But how do you become acquainted in a town the size of Kalamazoo? I decided to walk downtown along one side of the street and then the other on my way back home. I’d speak to everybody I’d pass by. At first, not everyone returned my courtesy. Eventually, they all did.” (Lozon)
She joined the Allen Chapel AME, Kalamazoo’s oldest black church and an important community hub for blacks who lived in the Northside Neighborhood. Her personal calling to aid those less fortunate began to blossom during the 1950’s in the form of visiting the homes of those needing assistance, including nursing homes, the jail and the juvenile home. Despite finding much to appreciate about Kalamazoo, there too were the stark realities of racial discrimination and segregation that blacks encountered. While her brand of activism may have been less vocal or militant than others in the community during the civil rights years, Whitten’s commitment to help local organizations and individuals in the advancement of progress was central to her personal and religious grounding.
“If something isn’t right and no one is doing anything about it, I figured maybe I should be the one to do something along with the help of others.” (Lozon)
After her mother-in-law moved in with her and Clifford, Anna began to focus on how she could re-enter the workforce, as becoming a nurse remained a career goal. After a stint training at Bronson Hospital, Anna realized that the emotional toil of working with very ill, sometimes dying patients, was too difficult. It wasn’t long before she tried something entirely new, accepting a job at Gilmore’s Department Store, where she worked as an assistant to the head of a department. Her belief in confronting injustice remained strong, as in the case when she and another black employee were denied timely service at a downtown restaurant.
“Anna was determined to change the restaurant’s discriminatory practice. Each week day, she continued to sit a one of the tables waiting to be served lunch until the time ran out to order. After awhile, other regular patrons began to notice the snub. Eventually, disapproval from those patrons caught the attention of management, who had waitresses begin waiting on all customers in the order they arrived at the restaurant.” (Lozon)
Despite having a great relationship with Gilmore Brothers, Anna left to work for another retailer, J.R. Jones & Sons Department Store, as an elevator operator in the mid-1950’s, and then as the store’s billing clerk. The experience she gained with the department stores positioned her for her next big employment transition. In 1961, she was hired to be the secretary for the Laboratory Division of the Health Department, retiring in 1986 from what was then the Kalamazoo County Department of Human Services. The new position provided her an office at City Hall. The job went a long way in both satisfying her desire to work in a capacity connected to healthcare, and it allowed her to continue to interact with individuals and groups associated within the network of community welfare professionals, be they other government agencies or non-profits. If a group was focused on the well-being of the community, she was interested in being involved.
“I started frequenting the meetings of any organization that attempted to help people. I wasn’t interested in organizations where you just sat around and talked. People complain all the time about the way things should be rather than doing something about it. I always ask myself what can I do to make things better.” (Lozon)
‘Quiet Activism’ for Civil Rights
In 1963, her ‘quiet activism’ was needed again, as an active member of the local NAACP chapter, Whitten encouraged community members to picket the Van Avery Drugstore after fellow NAACP member David Johnson was refused a job application. Along with other activists, many of whom were connected to the NAACP and local churches, Whitten sought to expand job opportunities for blacks, who because of discriminatory hiring practices, had far fewer opportunities to experience having a well-paid, stable job.
“That (Van Avery Protest) was a show that shook the whole city to realize that people were not satisfied with how they were being treated at the time. People could see that the days of one voice crying out in the wilderness about prejudice were over. Things began to change for the better. That was a landmark happening for Kalamazoo.” (Lozon)
As the protest was dying down in the Fall of 1963, Whitten among others, organized a peaceful demonstration called The March for Equal Opportunity, singing We Shall Overcome and demanding an end to racial discrimination in housing, employment and education. Over the years, Whitten met Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, and other like-minded activists. In the 1980’s, as other cities around the nation recognized the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Anna petitioned the city commission to consider naming a street after the civil rights icon. Instead, a park was renamed for King in 1987, and a statue of his likeness was erected. In 1994, she coordinated the first community MLK Recognition Ceremony.
Over the course of her long and active life, Anna worked with a variety of organizations, including the Douglass Community Association, Kalamazoo Ladies Library Association, Board of Trustees for Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC), and the Ecumenical Senior Center. In 1968, she was elected a trustee of KVCC (the college’s second secretary), an institution she served faithfully for three decades, promoting the college as an integral way for young people to find success before entering a four-year university.
“On behalf of Anna’s efforts for KVCC, the main building on the Arcadia Commons Campus in downtown Kalamazoo was named Anna Whitten Hall in 2005.”
During the last decade of her life, Anna received many awards and accolades for her years of volunteer service, mentorship and impact as a role model. She also saw her great-granddaughter Nicole marry professional football player Greg Jennings, who also grew up in Kalamazoo. Anna passed away in May of 2016.
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, December 2022