Community-minded Greensburg women honored for pioneering civil rights
When they noticed the absence of minority tellers at a Greensburg bank in the early 1970s, Gertrude Allen and Lillie Mae Sanders threatened to withdraw funds if the bank didn't hire minorities for positions other than housekeeping and maintenance.
And when the bank manager told them there were no qualified minority applicants, they suggested a person who was evenutally hired for the job.
“They made a point,” Allen's daughter, Janice Allen, said. “The bank administrator was smart enough to realize that he wasn't dealing with two cute little black women. ... They spoke for the community.”
Allen, 95, and Sanders, 93, were honored this month for their work at a banquet hosted by their families that drew 230 people. Government leaders lauded their work with certificates and proclamations at the event.
A letter from Gov. Tom Corbett reads: “I hope that your example of service will continue to inspire others.”
A proclamation from Greensburg Mayor Ronald E. Silvis calls the women “pioneers in equal opportunity.”
The women worked alongside Sister Mary Agnes Schildkamp, a Seton Hill nun who was recognized posthumously at the event. Throughout their work, family members said, God was pivotal.
“It was God who told them what to say and how to say it and who to approach,” Janice Allen said. “In all of their works, they were led. They were supported, they were protected in all of their works. They still are.”
Gertrude Allen grew up in Fayette County, one of 13 children, 11 of whom lived to adulthood. As a result of a lack of nutrients, Allen suffered rickets as a child, which stunted her growth.
After graduating from Connellsville High School in 1936, Allen moved to Bovard, where she met her neighbor Lillie Mae Sanders.
Among her works, Allen was a member of the YWCA, a member of First Antioch Baptist Church in Greensburg and as treasurer of Greensburg's first Human Relations Commission in the 1970s. The Human Relations Commission was charged with investigating complaints of bias and could hold public hearings.
She worked with Community Action of Greensburg during the 1970s and 1980s, “dedicated to helping the underprivileged of all races,” which included taking children on summer trips and sponsoring youth programs, Janice Allen said. Gertrude Allen was president of the group.
She worked as a nutrition aide at the Penn State Westmoreland County Extension, and through that, as treasurer of the Pennsylvania Extension Para-Professional Association.
Allen said her mother remembers being proud of helping a crying boy who didn't want to go to school because he didn't have clothing or shoes for the first day of school. Along with Sister Mary Agnes, they tapped into funds and outfitted the boy, “so that when he left the store, he was smiling,” Janice Allen said.
“I hope that the fact that there were people that loved him in the condition that he was and went out of their way to help him made a positive impact on his life,” Janice Allen said. “They weren't just helping the black. They were helping black, white, didn't matter. Somebody that needed a helping hand — that's who they were there for.”
Gertrude Allen remains humble.
“I don't think the scope of what she did was apparent to her because until you see some of the pictures and the articles and put everything together, it's hard to realize that one person did all that, but she did,” Janice Allen said.
Gertrude Allen has four children, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Lillie Mae Sanders
Lillie Mae Sanders grew up in Bovard, attended Greensburg High School, worked at Bon Ton Department Store in Greensburg and studied to become a radio announcer for WHJB Cablevision. She became the first black female announcer in Greensburg.
Sanders worked in the library at West Pittsburgh Street Elementary School, at the water authority, and at L&R Cleaning, a business she founded. All the while, she remained active in her Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greensburg.
In adulthood, Sanders began to notice the racial divide and began working with Allen and Sister Mary Agnes, “relentless for change,” according to a biography written by Sanders' granddaughter Lisa Felton-Lewis.
As part of their works, the women ran a thrift shop, allowing people to pay “pennies on the dollar” for the products, the biography reads.
They advocated for inclusion of black people on the Greensburg and Hempfield cheerleading squads and cafeteria staff.
Sanders served on a public affairs committee to make sure housing was available for those in need and on a human rights committee to ensure fair and equal representation for utility workers.
She helped to found the sorority Alpha Phi Omega, later known as the “Alphas.” The sorority hosted elegant and empowering luncheons, which gave an opportunity for women from across the area to meet and provided scholarship money to students.
Sanders has two daughters, 11 grandchildren, 34 great grandchildren and 41 great-great-grandchildren.
To this day, she believes in prayer — “Amen, Amen,” she said.
Rossilynne Skena is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.