Scholar and historian Helen Grey Edmonds was the first African American woman to earn a doctoral degree from Ohio State University and the first black woman to second the nomination for a candidate for President of the United States.
Edmonds was born December 3, 1911 in Lawrenceville, Virginia. Her father, John Edmonds, was a successful contractor who employed a workforce of twenty-two men. Her mother, Ann Williams Edmonds, was a homemaker who stressed the importance of education to her children. Edmonds attended Saint Paul’s High School in Lawrenceville and received her bachelor’s degree in history from Morgan State College in 1933.
She then taught history, Latin, and Greek at the Virginia Theological Seminary for one year before becoming Dean of Women at Saint Paul’s College. In 1938 Edmonds received her master’s in history from Ohio State University, and in 1946 she received her doctorate from that institution. Edmond’s dissertation was published in 1951 as her first book, The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894-1901. The work remained for a number of years the best study of blacks, the Republican Party, and North Carolina politics. Edmonds also published numerous articles in scholarly journals on politics in the South. In 1971 her second book, Black Faces in High Places, appeared.
In 1941 Edmonds joined the faculty of North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) where she remained until her retirement in 1977. During her tenure at NCCU, Edmonds taught U.S. and European diplomatic history, served as chair of the department of history, Dean of the Graduate School, and University Distinguished Professor. After her retirement from the teaching faculty in 1977, she became a member of the Board of Trustees.
In 1954 Edmonds was appointed by the U.S. Department of State as a Leader-Specialist in International Education Exchange. Through this post she helped develop educational exchanges for U.S. faculty and students in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and France. She also served as a visiting instructor in numerous institutions in the United States, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East including Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), the Free University of Berlin, the University of Stockholm, Ohio State University, and the University of Liberia.
Edmonds, an active Republican, seconded the nomination of President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco in 1956. During the second term of the Eisenhower Administration she traveled throughout Africa promoting American ideals and values in colonies that were soon-to-be independent nations. In 1970, President Richard M. Nixon appointed Edmonds as an alternate delegate to the United Nations General Assembly where she chaired the Human Rights Committee.
Edmonds also held important leadership roles in civic organizations such as the United Negro College Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund, the United Research and Development Corporation, the National Council of Negro Women, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. She was the fifth president of the African American women’s service organization, the Links.
In 1986 Edmonds was named a Distinguished Woman of North Carolina. Three years later the North Carolina Central University social science and history building was renamed in her honor. Dr. Helen Grey Edmonds died in Durham, North Carolina on May 9, 1995 at the age of 83.