Illustration by Andrea Pippins.

The Sex Worker and Playwright Who Fought to Register Black People to Vote

Endesha Ida Mae Holland's incredible life story is one you won't often find in history books about the civil rights movement.

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Feb 5 2018, 5:30pm

Illustration by Andrea Pippins.

The history of the civil rights movement is rich with stories of extraordinary black people who led social justice efforts against tremendous adversity. Yet black women, especially those who don't fit the idealized mold of an activist icon, are too often left out of the history books. As African-American scholar Charles Payne wrote in I've Got the Light of Freedom, there is no movement without an organizing tradition of everyday people—particularly women—fighting on behalf of themselves.

The courageous Anne Moody, Daisy Bates, Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, Diane Nash, and June Johnson are just a few of the relatively unsung heroes of the black freedom and civil rights movements. In fact, black women played a huge part in grassroots voter registration in the 60s, with little recognition in mainstream media or written history. Endesha Ida Mae Holland was one of those women.

Holland, who died in 2006, was a professor, playwright, author, and lifelong activist. She was also a southerner who grew up in poverty, a sex worker, a young mother, and incarcerated at times. She eventually turned her extraordinary life story into a long-running play and memoir of the same name: From the Mississippi Delta. And although she’s not often mentioned in history books, she’s worth remembering because she represents the vast majority of activists of her time—regular, everyday people.

Holland was born in 1944 in Greenwood, Mississippi—a typical town in the rural Deep South, with 50,000 residents at the time, two thirds of them black. At that point, every single seat of Greenwood’s governmental representation was held by a white person. Meanwhile, 95 percent of its eligible white citizens were registered to vote, compared to only two percent of eligible blacks—a clear misrepresentation of the majority.

Holland and her family didn’t have much. But despite living in a roach-infested double shotgun house, Holland had aspirations for herself—dreams of leaving the Delta and moving North as millions of black people did during the Great Migration. Those dreams were crushed when, at the age of 11, she was raped by her white employer, whose grandchild she was babysitting at the time. Afterwards, he handed her a $5 bill.

Rather than continue to be sexually assaulted, Holland quit her job and began doing sex work to make money, charging white men ten dollars and black men five. Soon, she became pregnant and had a baby at 16. Later in her teens, she was incarcerated for assault and grand larceny, and ended up spending the majority of her teenage years in delinquency.

After being released from a stint in jail in 1963, Holland returned to sex work. Then one day, while doing her usual cat calling, she followed a passerby she was trying to lure all the way to an office that read “Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.” The man she followed was Bob Moses, the celebrated leader of the SNCC, a grassroots group that toured around the Deep South registering black people to vote. When she walked into the Freedom Office, he led her to a desk, where she was given a typewriter. In that moment, she joined the movement and changed the trajectory of her life. “Somehow, just by walking in and being who I was, I’d made the grade,” She writes in her memoir. “I was on the team, and now I had responsibilities like everyone else.”

In her memoir, Holland goes on to chronicle how she fought alongside Bob Moses and other black leaders from various liberation organizations to register black voters all over Mississippi. She notes that between 1963 and 1964, she became an outspoken member of SNCC’s Greenville chapter, traveling the South to attend marches. As a result, she was beaten, water-hosed, and harassed by police. By the Freedom Summer of 1964, Holland had been arrested over a dozen times for offenses such as disturbing the peace, inciting riots, and parading without a permit. She would receive money from SNCC donations on rare occasions, but would still engage in sex work once in a while, particularly when food, clothing, and feminine products became scarce.

Holland’s work to disrupt the racial status quo of the deep South didn’t go unnoticed. In February 1965, her childhood home suspiciously burned down—an incident Holland firmly believed was enacted by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Her wheelchair-struck mother, a well-regarded midwife affectionately known as “Aint Baby,” was inside. Suffering from serious burns, she died just a few days later, Holland writes. On that day, Holland swore to herself, her mother, and everything good that she would make her life memorable. “I’m gonna be Somebody. I swear ‘fore God, Mama—I’m gonna be Somebody.”

Holland kept her word. She graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1979, after thirteen years of enrolling, with a bachelor’s degree in black studies. In 1984, she earned a master’s degree in American studies, followed by a doctorate degree in the same field in 1986, totaling twenty years in education.

When she died on January 25, 2006—at 61 years old—she was a professor at the University of Southern California, where she taught in the theatre department for a decade. Her life was eulogized in the New York Times, and will be remembered by fans of her plays Fanny Lou (1984), Miss Ida B. Wells (1984), Prairie Women (1984) Second Doctor Lady (1980), and From the Mississippi Delta (1987), many of which drew from her own life experience.

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In the context of the civil rights movement, however, she is rarely named. In history class, we don't often hear stories such as hers: A former sex worker who became a prominent activist in her community, who joined the movement because “it got the white man’s goat—and it also gave me a reason to flaunt my borrowed clothes,” as Holland wrote. She and the many others who volunteered for the SNCC crucially galvanized blacks across the Deep South to act on their right to vote despite intimidation and discrimination from whites at the polls.

By allowing more ordinary and complex characters such as Holland into the narrative of the civil rights movement, we can better come to understand our own potential to contribute to revolutionary change—regardless of our background. As Holland writes in the closing sentences of her book, “If you’ve been a ho’, be a doctor, too. If you’ve hurt a man, be a healer. The world began when you were born. It will be whatever you make it.”