Thelma Dale Perkins: A Life of Civic Engagement

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Undated portrait of Thelma Dale Perkins. Dale/Patterson Family papers, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Dianne Dale.

Thelma Dale Perkins was born on October 23, 1915 in her family’s home on Sumner Rd SE in Hillsdale, Washington, DC.  Her parents, John H. Dale, Jr. and Lucille Patterson Dale, belonged to families who settled in the Nation’s Capital during the Reconstruction era and produced several prominent achievers.  Her maternal uncle Frederick Douglass Patterson was the third president of Tuskegee Institution and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987.

Growing up in a family that emphasized “civic pride and service to others” probably contributed to Thelma’s desire to work hard and uphold the family tradition of civic service.  Thelma’s parents’ prized education and stressed the importance of their children furthering their studies. The youngest of four childhen, Thelma attended Birney Elementary School and the locally renowned Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, America’s first public school for African Americans. In 1932, she entered Howard University to study teaching and social work.

It was during her college years that Thelma’s involvement in volunteer and civic organizations began.  She was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and the Liberal Club, which “advocated for the integration of African Americans” into the greater society.    Thelma joined the Southern Negro Youth Congress and, as a member of the American Youth Congress, she attended informal “chats” at the White House sponsored by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to discuss issues facing youth of the day.

After graduating in 1936, she worked for distinguished Howard University sociologist Dr. E. Franklin Frasier on a National Youth Administration Fellowship and for the Federal Government. As Mrs. Perkins later recalled, “I resigned from the government rather than sign a loyalty oath and accepted the job of National Secretary of the National Negro Congress in New York City.”

Thelma made lasting friendships in her career, among them Paul and Eslanda Robeson. She was managing editor for Paul Robeson’s Freedom newspaper and involved in the campaign to get his passport restored during the McCarthy years. To celebrate, Mrs. Robeson’s appearance before the McCarthy’s Committee she invited Eslanda to her parents’ home in Hillsdale.  She states in Paul Robeson:  The Great Forerunner, “That afternoon, Essie [Eslanda] relaxed and enjoyed the visit with my parents and their neighbors as though she had known them all her life.”

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Thelma Dale Perkins speaking at an unidentified event. Dale/Patterson Family papers, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Dianne Dale.

In 1957, she married Lawrence Rickman Perkins Jr., a Lincoln University graduate and adopted two babies, Lawrence Dale Perkins and Patrice Dale Perkins.  Later in her career, Mrs. Perkins won several awards for her dedication and contributions to local organizations in New York.   As a manager of community relations for CIBA-GEIGY Corporation she initiated and developed the nationally recognized “Exceptional Black Scientist” series. “It was a great joy as it allowed me the opportunity to interact with young people and stimulate them to consider careers in science,” she later recalled.

Following the death of her husband, Mrs. Perkins moved to Chapel Hill, NC and continued her family tradition of civic involvement. On September 29, 2014 she passed away peacefully.

A small collection on her materials can be found in the Dale/Patterson Family papers in the Anacostia Community Museum Archives, donated by her niece Dianne Dale.

Note: There are several far southeast Washington, DC neighborhoods (including Hillsdale, for example) which are often colloquially considered as part of the larger and older Anacostia neighborhood.