The Encyclopedia of E. Evelyn Gandy
History of “Alcorn Chapter of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club Outstanding Achievement in Government Award, 1978”
by KieYonna Banks, Abigail Bowers, Turner Colvin, TLayna Mcswain, Hailey Pearson, Jason Ridgeway, Joseph Reosti, and Kyle Simpson
Evelyn Gandy and Politics
Edythe Evelyn Gandy was a lawyer and staple of the 20th century Mississippi Democratic Party. In 1978, Gandy received the honor of Outstanding Achievement in Government from the Alcorn Chapter of The Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club. This organization’s goal is to “promote and protect the interests of African American Business and Professional Women” (NANBPWC). By this time in her career, she had already made history as the first woman to become State Treasurer, State Welfare Board Commissioner, State Insurance Commissioner, and Lieutenant Governor. She also had a complex history with civil rights and racism in Mississippi.
Evelyn Gandy was a staunch and professed segregationist. Her dealings on race seem antithetical to the mission behind the Alcorn Award. At the beginning of her career she served as a research assistant to U.S. Senator Theodore G. Bilbo, during which time she conducted most of the research for his book Take Your Choice, Separation or Mongrelization, a raving defense of white supremacy. In every campaign, from her successful 1947 campaign for State House Representative through her lost first campaign for Lieutenant Governor in 1963, she explicitly named her connection to Bilbo, and her belief in, and will to defend, segregation in her campaign materials. However, Gandy remained with the Democratic Party after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. She also brought the Department of Public Welfare into compliance with federal mandates to integrate the department’s workforce and to not discriminate in the distribution of welfare funds. Furthermore, as Lieutenant Governor, she co-chaired the Mississippi Delegation to the 1976 Democratic National Convention with Aaron Henry, a deeply respected leader of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and then-President of the Mississippi NAACP. They cast their votes for Jimmy Carter, rather than segregationist George Wallace. Evelyn Gandy is a complex figure in Mississippi and American political history.
The National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club (NANBPWC) was first established in 1935 by seven women: Emma Odessa Young, Ollie Chinn Porter, Effie Diton, Bertha P. Rhodes, Josephine B. Keene, Adelaide Flemming, and Goldeana P. Flipping. Before the National Association, several independent Professional Women clubs had existed in various cities. Emma Young, a member of the New York Club of Business and Professional Women proposed the idea of a national organization in 1934. Then, in July of 1935 the president of the New York club, Ollie Porter, realized this proposal and began the efforts to create a national organization.
The seven founders of the NANBPWC were members of local clubs in three different states: New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Over the course of the association's life new states were added, now accounting for all 50 states in America. The NANBPWC also has a presence abroad in places such as Canada, Africa, and Asia through its International Affairs Division. Due to the large scale the NANBPWC operates under, it was divided into seven different districts in the late 1950s: the Southeast, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, South Central, Western, and North Central Districts.
Each of these larger districts are organized by smaller clubs which operate at local levels in cities, counties, and universities, such as Alcorn State. The clubs feature programs such as the Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Technology, and Service (LETS) program to help facilitate leadership and business roles for women in their communities. They often also have a focus on volunteer work within their communities in order to raise awareness for things such as breast cancer and food insecurity. The NANBPWC has also hosted Vocal Arts competitions through the local clubs and districts beginning in 1983. Furthermore, they hold annual conferences on the anniversary of the association's foundation, where they occasionally honor certain members or host contests for “Miss Business and Professional Women” in which they award a woman for her political or economic success. The association also gives other honors and awards regarding the elevation of opportunities to black women.
The Achievements of Gandy
The Alcorn Chapter of the NANBPWC honors those who show outstanding achievement in providing a sustainable environment for black women by providing educational and economic opportunities. The award is given to those who help support the NANBPWC and its mission. In her government career, Evelyn Gandy broke down barriers from her time as House Representative to her time as Lieutenant Governor. Being the first woman elected Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi, she showed that women could serve in politics and rise to male-dominated government positions in the South. Alongside serving in previously male-dominated positions, Gandy passed legislation that positively impacted women in Mississippi, and her status as Lieutenant Governor painted her as a trailblazer. For her efforts in benefiting women and African American women in Mississippi, the NANBPWC acknowledged her contributions by awarding her their honor in 1978.
While in office as Lieutenant Governor, Gandy passed the Sixteenth Section Reform Act of 1978. This act reformed the leasing of reserved land in Mississippi and, in turn, helped African American girls receive better public education. Sixteenth Section Land refers to a term used by The Ordinance of 1785, a document signed into law by Thomas Jefferson in 1785. Townships in the colonial United States typically consisted of thirty-six square miles of land. The Ordinance of 1785 required that each sixteenth section of that land be reserved for public schools. This law would remain as borders took shape in the United States, assigning newly formed states as “trustees” of this reserved land. After Mississippi became a state in 1817, mismanagement saw the grounds donated and sold to private groups. Finally, section 211 of Mississippi’s 1890 constitution explicitly specified that Mississippi could not sell Sixteenth Section Land to private companies. Section 211 set the stage for further reform. Gandy passed the Sixteenth Section Reform Act in 1978, and the new act provided improved leasing guidelines for Sixteenth Section Land. Thanks to this reform, more rural areas previously faced with underfunded schools now saw an exponential increase in annual revenue. This economic boost meant students in predominantly Black areas of the rural Mississippi Delta received better public education. African American girls received better educational opportunities in previously underfunded and unsupported regions of Mississippi.
Gandy and Race
However, in 1978, that same year, Gandy gave a speech at the Southeastern Regional Conference of American Public Welfare which was hosted in Biloxi, Mississippi. In that speech, Gandy made appeals to the conference attendees to see more of Mississippi, its beaches, ports, restaurants, and specifically: “We hope you will visit Beauvoir–the last home of Jefferson Davis–symbolic of and a tribute to our proud heritage.” (Gandy, 1978). Both the Alcorn Chapter of the NANBPWC and this speech are only dated by year, so it is unknown which came first in 1978, or if the Black women of the Alcorn Chapter of the NANBPWC would have even known the details of Gandy’s speech. Regardless, it is yet another complicating factor in Gandy’s life regarding her, largely assumed, evolution on race. In the same year she accepted a Black women’s organization’s award, she evoked Lost Cause language in a speech to an organization on public welfare. The tensions in Gandy’s relationship with race is evident.
Those tensions highlight not just Evelyn Gandy’s life and racial politics, but the uneasy and fluctuating politics of the Mississippi Democratic Party. The party of overt white supremacy through the 1960s, the Mississippi Democratic Party was grappling with its new identity as a multi-racial alliance. This political context makes the Alcorn Chapter of NANBPWC’s award even more interesting as a historical artifact. Rather than an acknowledgement of possible personal growth of Gandy’s, it very well may have been a reasonable political gesture. Gandy’s personal ideas on race had not been clarified meaningfully in 1978, but her compliance with the new Democratic Party had been. And, of course, so had Gandy’s excellent ability to perform in government.
Gandy’s Role in Women’s Rights
On the other hand, Gandy is also considered an inspiration regarding women’s rights circles. Betsy Rowell, a councilwoman from Hattiesburg, spoke about Gandy, “Growing up, I actually believed I could do this because Ms. Gandy told me I could. She’s dedicated her life to public service, and she made it look easy. I can tell you from where I sit that it’s not. There were many times she was the only woman in a room making decisions.” This quote suggests that Gandy was a trendsetter in Mississippi politics for women, and her devotion to public service motivated other upcoming female politicians, such as Rowell, to consider previously inaccessible roles in politics.
In her political career, Gandy also faced increased misogyny during her gubernatorial campaigns. In both primaries, she was the lone woman running for governor, and her opponents were quick to capitalize on that. In the 1979 campaign, she won the primary but lost in a runoff against William Winter, a candidate who had similar political experience to Gandy and a similar platform. During the campaign, Winter openly questioned Gandy’s capacity to perform as governor based on her gender. In her 1983 campaign, she lost to Bill Allain, who, as Assistant Attorney General of Mississippi, defended the state of Mississippi against racial discrimination cases brought by Black citizens in the 1960s. Despite his own racist past and lesser political experience, Allain won the election for governor. He was not burdened by misogynist attacks from the other primary contenders, like Mike Sturdivant, who painted Gandy’s campaign as unserious because she was a woman.
After two consecutive losses in gubernatorial races–in which she faced overt misogyny and was made to publicly address her prior white supremacist views and affiliations–Evelyn Gandy left politics behind. She returned to practicing law and devoted the remainder of her life to promoting women’s causes and advocating for women to break the various glass ceilings overhead. That Gandy had shattered many glass ceilings in Mississippi law and politics for decades made her an effective and powerful voice for the strengthening of women’s rights. Her storied career brought her myriad accolades and honors, many of them honors of outstanding achievement by women’s organizations; however, the Alcorn Chapter of the NANBPWC award for Outstanding Achievement in Government alone brings to the surface the tensions with race seen in Evelyn Gandy’s life and career.
Brown, Victoria L., Seth Fendley, and Casey Malone Maugh Funderburk. “A Mississippi Woman of First: The Legacy of Edythe Evelyn Gandy.” Mississippi Law Journal 86, no. 4 (2017): 811–832.
Cameron, Mack. “Sixteenth Section Lands.” Mississippi Encyclopedia, Accessed September 15, 2023. https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/sixteenth-section-lands/#:~:text=The%20Sixteenth%20Section%20Reform%20Act,management%20of%20Sixteenth%20Section%20Lands.
National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club. “About Us, NANBPWC, Inc.” Accessed September 15, 2023. https://nanbpwc.org/about-us/.
“Putting it to rest.” The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS), 17 July, 1983.
Transcript of speech, “Southeastern Regional Conference of American Public Welfare Association” by Edythe Evelyn Gandy, 1978. M367, box 10, folder 14. Edythe Evelyn Gandy Collection. McCain Library and Archives Special Collections. University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS.
Wright, Marion T. “Women Launch $ Million Project.” The Pittsburgh Courier [Pittsburgh]. Nov. 7, 1953. p. 2. https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/article/the-pittsburgh-courier/131844184/.