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Former president of Washington NAACP honored for life of civil rights struggle

| Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, 12:33 a.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Jim McDonald, a community leader and former Washington County NAACP president, applauds the performances by kids at LeMoyne Center on their last day of summer camp on Friday August 9, 2013.
Civil rights activist Jim McDonald of Washington is pictured in his Army uniform. Now 77, the LeMoyne Community Center will recognize his work on Oct. 6.

Jim McDonald was trying to get home from his Army post for his grandfather's funeral in 1959 when the train stopped in Fort Worth.

He and the white sergeant with whom he shared a seat, both in uniform, went to get something to eat.

“We couldn't get waited on. ... Then a guy comes over and says, ‘We don't serve your kind here; you'll have to leave,' ” said McDonald, 77, a lifelong Washington resident. “I couldn't believe this was happening. I'm ready to give up my life for my country, and I couldn't even get a sandwich.”

The oldest of six children, McDonald said that incident in Texas helped shape his career in civil rights that stretched more than five decades. The LeMoyne Community Center in Washington will recognize his work on Sunday.

A former president of the Washington County branch of the NAACP, McDonald tackled issues in the South at a time when civil rights workers would send only one person in a team to start the car “so if it was blown up, you wouldn't lose so many.”

He visited the Mississippi home of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers after he was shot in the summer of 1963 “because it was important to go there.”

He went to the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts after the 1965 riots, and to Buffalo, N.Y., in 1967 to learn how to prevent rioting in his hometown.

“We've never had riots in Washington, Pa.,” he said. “If we communicate, we can make things better.”

He received threats while on the Washington School Board that integrated the school district. He is a member of the Washington County Housing Authority.

“You want to give back. ... I love this community,” he said.

The recognition will be the second such event for the center that takes its name from the LeMoyne family, whose home at 49 E. Maiden St. was part of the Underground Railroad during the 1860s. Baseball greats Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey opened the community center in 1956.

The first event last year recognized George Robinson, a football and baseball coach and 2001 inductee into the Washington-Greene County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

“We didn't want our people to go unsung,” said Joyce Ellis, LeMoyne's executive director. “Too many of the pillars of our community have been dying off.”

McDonald pushed to ensure “everyone had equal rights,” she said. “He transcended color. I want our kids to grow up understanding who he is.”

Betty Grinage, 80, of Washington has known McDonald most of her life and considers him “a real gentleman.”

“He helped a lot of people,” she said.

His daughter, Traci McDonald, an assistant district attorney with the Washington County District Attorney's Office, recalls him as a determined, hard worker.

“But he was always there,” she said. “He was stern and strict, and loving.”

McDonald was a state contract compliance supervisor for 33 counties before founding Monaloh Basin Engineers in Robinson, which has professional engineers and land surveyors registered in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. He remains company chairman and CEO.

McDonald credits the late Louis Waller, a Washington County civil rights leader, with helping to shape his civil rights work, though the two had different styles.

“I was a little more radical,” McDonald said. “He was more statesman-like.”

Their families became close during the years the two men crisscrossed the state on NAACP business, said Waller's daughter, Phyllis, a member of the state NAACP's executive committee.

McDonald's wife of 33 years, Joan, died from heart disease in 1993. “She was my inspiration; she was my love,” he said. “She believed in me and my cause.”

The cancer discovered in his throat about a year ago is in remission, McDonald said, and he counts his blessings.

Though LeMoyne Center expects more than 300 people to attend the fundraiser honoring him, McDonald shrugs off the attention.

“God knows what kind of work you've done,” he said. “When my time comes, he has my report card.”

Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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