March has been associated with women’s history since the late 1970s, when the first Women’s History Week was celebrated in California. In 1987, the week became a federally designated month. In order to acknowledge the varied and important roles women have played in New Hanover County’s history, this column features African American educator, activist, and politician, Lethia Mae Sherman Hankins.
Lethia Mae Sherman was born in South Carolina in 1934. Her family moved to Wilmington shortly after her birth. Her father, Benjamin, worked at the shipyard during the war and for the City of Wilmington in the late 1940s. Lethia was an only child and the first of her family to go to college. She told Wilma magazine in May 2003, “My parents were not educated but believed if I could get this thing called an education, I could really do something.”
Hankins graduated from the county’s African American high school, Williston Industrial High School, in 1951. She graduated from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina, Greensboro (now N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro) in 1956. She majored in English and History in college and was a member of the dramatics club. She married Harry Leon Hankins in 1957. Lethia Hankins taught elsewhere before joining the faculty at her alma mater, Williston, in 1959. Hankins was hired to teach English at Williston, and she subsequently taught speech and drama. Hankins remained on the faculty at Williston Senior High School until it closed in 1968. Hankins joined the faculty at John T. Hoggard High School at that time. She later taught at Emsley A. Laney High School. She retired in 1994.
Hankins was active in numerous local groups. She joined the local Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and served as its president from 1998 to 2001. She was active in the First Baptist Missionary Church. Hankins was co-chair of the non-profit 1898 Foundation and presided over the dedication of the city’s 1898 Memorial in 2008. She was chair of the New Hanover County Human Relations Commission and the Wilmington Housing Authority Commissioners. She was a trustee at Cape Fear Community College and served on the boards of the Young Woman’s Christian Association and the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts. She also served on the City’s Commission on African American History and the Cape Fear Museum Associates Board.
In 2005, in recognition of her work to improve race relations in New Hanover County, Hankins won the YWCA’s Dorothy Height Racial Justice Award. Dorothy Height was a major Civil Rights leader, who worked with the YWCA to help the institution become racially inclusive. Height began her association with the Y in the 1930s and became the head of the organization’s Office of Racial Justice in 1965. Hankins was nominated for the award by the local branch of the YWCA for her decades of work with students and the community on issues of racial justice. The nomination for the award declared “During the height of the turmoil caused by the integration of our schools in 1968, Ms. Hankins was always able to reason with her students and convey to them confidence that integration could and would be harmonious.”
Hankins served on the Wilmington City Council after spending a long career as an educator in New Hanover County’s schools. Hankins won a run-off election in November 2003. Her election was seen by the paper as “an encouraging sign of racial reconciliation” since the majority of the electorate was white, and her opponent was, too. Hankins served one term on the council. She passed away in 2014 at age 79.
After Hankins died, her family donated dozens of artifacts and photographs to Cape Fear Museum, including Hankins’ prestigious YWCA Dorothy Height Racial Justice Award.
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February: The Great Fire of 1886
January 2020: Cape Fear Museum gets a new home, January 18, 1992
December: The Catherine Kennedy Home: a longstanding local institution
November: Taft Day, November 9, 1909
October: The Daily Record, October 20, 1898
September: September 15, 1990
August: Honoring “Hi Buddy” Wade on his 90th Birthday
July: July 15, 1977, One Short March, One Long Journey
June: The USS North Carolina lands a Kingfisher, June 25, 1971
May: May is Prom Season, May 12, 1962
April: Income Tax Deadline Day
March: Women’s History Month, March 8
February: A February Fundraiser, 2008
January 2019: Voting for Liquor by the Drink, January 12, 1979
December: A Day’s News, December 12, 1936
November: November 10, 1898
October: Halloween, October 31
September: Getting a Car Fixed: September 3, 1929
August: “Two Hundred Years of Light by the Light”: August 5, 1989
July: Tommies Parading in Wilmington: July 17, 1943
June: Williston is Closed: June 26, 1968
May: May 13, 1919: Traveling Home from War
April: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated: April 4, 1968
March: Sending Victory Mail Home
February: Human Relations Month
January 2018: Galloway’s Sick Note