By Ambrell Gambrell
The Lund Auditorium exploded with applause when former U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman glided to the podium to deliver her commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.
She began the lecture by thanking the Dominican staff, students and faculty for their “incredible contributions to not just our community, but to our country—to our world.” She expressed particular gratitude to the Sinsinawa Dominican sisters for “taking the time to mold the lives of so many people,” including herself.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, Herman attended Most Pure Heart of Mary High School, the only African-American Catholic high school in the state. The Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin—the same order that founded Dominican University—led the school.
Herman revered the Dominican sisters in the same way that she did “Dr. King’s timeless legacy.”
“Every generation must define for themselves the issues of the day,” Herman said in her soft country accent. She spoke of the need for a new generation of leaders to further today’s civil rights movement.
Feeling “landlocked behind the podium,” Herman requested a microphone instead. Now able to fully engage with the audience of Dominican community members, friends of Herman and Most Pure Heart of Mary High School alums—and able to show off her eye-catching, red shoes—Herman began telling a story.
Compelled by her cordial, conversational dialect and knack for storytelling, it was almost easy to forget that Herman was the first African-American to lead the Department of Labor and the youngest director of the Women’s Bureau in the history of the Labor Department. Listening to Herman tell a story was like listening to a friend tell a story.
She was 15 years old and Most Pure Heart of Mary High School was participating in the annual May Day ceremony honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary. But Herman noticed her high school wasn’t mentioned in the newspaper’s list of participating Catholic schools. This exclusion, and the fact that black students had to line up behind white students in the parade, was unsettling for young Herman.
“I couldn’t reconcile my Jesus theology with a segregated school system,” Herman said.
She devised a plan to confront the archdiocese about the injustice at the procession. She would tell her teacher she had to use the bathroom and sneak off to the field where she’d hide and wait until she could talk to representatives of the archdiocese.
Once she heard the procession approaching her hiding spot, she got nervous and decided “[she] couldn’t do this today,” so she went into a nearby room, closed the door and waited. The noise from outside kept getting closer. They were coming into the room she was hiding in! She had to hide again. Luckily, there was a large table adorned with a large white tablecloth in the room. She crawled beneath it.
Sure enough, the men she heard approaching came into the room. What she didn’t expect to happen next was to see men’s garments falling to the floor. There she was, 15-year-old Alexis Herman, hiding under a table in a room full of men getting undressed. This was bad. She knew she had to get out of there. Trying to make a run for it, she was spotted crawling from beneath the table by someone who recognized her.
“What are you doing in here, Alexis?” the familiar man asked.
When she looked up, embarrassed, she saw the bishop sitting in a chair across the room. “I’m here to kiss the bishop’s ring,” she said. As she kneeled to kiss the bishop’s ring, she pulled the news story clipping, which excluded her school’s name, out of her pocket.
“Don’t you consider us a Catholic school? And why do the black kids have to march in the back?” Herman asked the bishop innocently, inquisitively.
She was told to leave. When she “[tip-toed] back into line” with her classmates, she didn’t tell anyone what she had done. But someone had.
The next day she was called into the principal’s office and expelled from school for her behavior.
She was devastated. Her homeroom teacher, a Sinsinawa Dominican sister, tried to comfort young Herman, telling her, “It’s going to be okay, Alexis, you did the right thing.”
It was hard for her to believe that she had done the right thing when the “right thing” got her expelled. How would she tell her parents? Her father was more understanding than her mother, so she decided to start there.
Her father was infuriated and refused to allow the school to suspend his daughter for asking questions that the parents should have asked long ago.
Mr. Herman got other parents involved to protest his daughter’s expulsion. Their efforts resulted in Most Pure Heart of Mary High having a representative in the following year’s May Day procession and its desegregation. And of course, Herman was not expelled.
Herman realized she had done the right thing after all and at the tender age of 15, she got into the habit of taking risks.
Herman now serves as chair and CEO of New Ventures, LLC and is a member of the boards of directors of Toyota, Coca-Cola Company and MGM Resorts International. She also co-chaired the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund and is a board member of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund.
Earlier in her career Herman worked for Catholic Charities where she advocated for employment opportunities for minority women. As vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee she organized the 1992 Democratic National Convention.
“What issues are you willing to crawl out from under the table for?” Herman asked the audience.
“The world is watching and listening and waiting for you.”