Last week, Rockaway Times’ readers were introduced to the Women’s Industrial Service League (WISL), an organization started in 1931 by Eleanor B. Hull, an African American woman deeply moved to start the organization after witnessing the squalid living conditions, lack of year-round employment opportunities and poor healthcare blacks endured in Far Rockaway. Hull joined in solidarity with other African American women to help, and this year, the still-active WISL is celebrating an illustrious 87 years of “black women helping other black women.”
With each decade, from purchasing their own building to house homeless women, joining forces with the community to fight for fair housing and healthcare, and organizing voter drives, the feats WISL accomplished are nothing short of remarkable, especially in light of the racial climate of Rockaway in earlier decades.
According to the book, “Between Ocean and City, The Transformation of Rockaway, New York” by Lawrence and Carol P. Kaplan, “Poor people, mainly African American, whom they were unwilling to place elsewhere (in NYC), ended up in almost all sections of the peninsula, save Breezy Point, Neponsit and Belle Harbor. Racism played a key role in this process because white communities would not accept an influx of black residents. Municipal leaders and administrators accepted this as a given when they steered blacks to declining areas, thus reinforcing racial segregation. They were evicted repeatedly, without consideration for their well-being, and invariably placed in dangerously inadequate accommodations. Few, if any services, were made available to them. In Rockaway, the area’s remoteness compounded this sense of isolation from the mainstream.”
However, the WISL ladies under the leadership of Ada Green, Rev. Annie Simmons, Josie Dennis, Yolanda Walker and Florine Jenkins were determined to change that, and worked hard to do so, humbly boasting a trailblazing legacy of women who advocated fervently for their community without monetary help from the government.
Mae E. Thomas, born in 1914 in Cedarhurst, moved to Rockaway with her family. Her mother, Emily Capers Brown, was WISL’s second president (1940 to 1962), and because of her mother’s active civic leadership, Thomas was inspired to join the organization. In 1969, she became WISL’s executive secretary and became a member of the Rockaway Community Corporation (RCC). The RCC was the first official organization in Rockaway to be controlled by African Americans that coordinated all poverty-oriented services for the area’s low-income population by advocating for fair housing, family planning, drug abuse prevention, cancer detection, lead poisoning and even halting the closing of the local Legal Aide office. Thomas employed both by Planned Parenthood and Peninsula Hospital as a doctor’s assistant and community educator in family-planning services, was very active with the establishment of the Senior Citizen’s Center on Beach 37th Street and served for six years as the historian for the National Council of Negro Women.
Josie Dennis, a native of Charlottesville, Virginia, joined WISL in 1938 under the leadership of the organization’s first president, Eleanor Hull. Dennis said, “In 1931, Sister Hull’s dream became a reality when WISL was organized. We were all just Christian ladies who believed in Hull’s dream. We came together, put our shoulders to the wheel and began to make a positive difference.” Dennis served as WISL’s president from 1985 to 1997.
According to WISL’s current president, Frances Shackelford-Howell, “The countless number of women who served WISL may have begun as domestic workers, but they bettered themselves by going to school. Consequently, they became entrepreneurs, nurses, social workers, etc. They were active in their churches and community organizations. These women were not rich, but they all contributed to WISL’s rich legacy of caring, loving and serving the community.”
Shackelford-Howell, a retired high school teacher, joined WISL because she fell in love with these humble Christian women whose only ambition was to serve and help. “When I met the WISL women, I was impressed by how much love they had for the community and their sole desire to lift each other up. They didn’t depend on the government for funding, they pooled their resources to keep the organization going. In fact, I was so happy when my own mother joined. Like me, she too was moved to serve,” Shackelford-Howell said.
Today, almost nine decades later, WISL is still very much active. They sold their historic WISL building and adjacent lot in 2003 in order to establish a scholarship and awards fund for deserving high school students and senior citizens. The scholarships and awards are bestowed annually at their Scholarship and Awards Luncheon, which this year will be held on June 2 at Antun’s. Every year, WISL participates in the “Celebrate Rockaway Parade” by handing out back-to-school supplies. They also host affordable healthcare workshops, make monetary donations to local churches, and sponsor a Christmas outing to the Woodmere Rehabilitation and Health Care Center, (where WISL’s oldest living resident, 109-year-old Minnie Pearl Harris, resides). Just this past Christmas, WISL played Santa Claus by presenting gifts to the youth at First Baptist Church. For this year’s Black History Month, they hosted a breakfast Soul Food Festival.
This quote by past president Josie Dennis encapsulates the ladies of WISL: “Not for the sake of gold, not for the sake of fame, not for the price would she hold any ambition or aim. Just for the good she can do. Better than fame or applause is striving to further a cause.”