Frances Helen Renfrow Lemme was born on February 25, 1904 in Grinnell, Iowa to Lee Augustus Renfrow and Eva Pearl Craig. She was the oldest of six children and as one of the few black students in the Grinnell public school system, she won an essay contest in 8th grade, but was not given the gold-medal prize because of her race.
Four years later, Helen graduated from Grinnell High School, chosen as valedictorian of her senior class, for which she did win (and received!) a $5.00 gold coin scholarship.
An amazing student, Lemme began her university studies in 1923 at Fisk University. Founded in 1866, Fisk is a historically black college and is the oldest institution of higher learning in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1925, Helen, after experiencing a great deal of racial prejudice in the south, transferred to the State University of Iowa, where she studied science and biology, serving as the president of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. During her time at Iowa, she supported herself by taking on extra housekeeping jobs such as cooking, sewing and tutoring.
In 1928, Helen graduated from SUI, and took her first job as a teacher at Lander University, a Methodist-based college for women, in Greenwood, South Carolina. One year later, Helen returned to Iowa City with the intention of obtaining a Master’s degree, but she was diverted by love.
On August 26, 1929, she married Allyn Lemme, who was born in Chicago (1903), moving to Iowa City at age 12 in 1915. Soon after their marriage, Helen and Allyn headed south to Montgomery, Alabama, where Helen accepted a teaching position at the Alabama State Teachers College, later named Alabama State University. But it wasn’t long before Iowa City was calling their name, so by 1931, the Lemmes had returned, with Helen, once again, planning to pursue her Master’s degree. This time, however, her illustrious plans were interrupted by the birth of her first son, Lawrence in 1931, followed by Paul in 1935.
In order to provide for their growing family, Allyn got a good job at Shorts Shoe Repair, while Helen began working as a research technician in the laboratory of the SUI Department of Internal Medicine – the first African American woman to work in any SUI medical lab. Serving as part of Dr. Elmer DeGowin‘s team (below), Helen was on the cutting edge of innovative blood-typing procedures and transfusions, while helping to develop new methods to safely store and transport blood supplies.
The research coming out of DeGowin’s lab in the late 1930’s was quickly put to practical use on the battlefield when World War II broke out in 1942.
The 1940 Johnson County census shows Allyn (age 36) and Helen (age 35) living at 15 E. Prentiss Street, with Helen’s mother, Daisy (age 64), and their two sons, Lawrence (age 8) and Paul (age 5). The family, most likely, moved into that home in the mid-1930’s, and later (after 1940) settled in for the long-haul in Iowa City at 603 S. Capitol.
As we have written about in other posts (i.e. Duke Slater, Lulu Johnson, Ozzie Simmons), SUI, from before the beginning of the twentieth century had long been considered a progressive university when it came to admitting people of color. Yet, while Iowa had an open-door policy to admissions, the color barrier was not broken when it came to living quarters. Like all the other universities in the north, blacks could attend school, but were flatly denied access to on-campus housing.
In response to this injustice, the Black Women’s Club of Iowa provided housing for African American female students attending SUI, while the Lemmes were one of only three black households in Iowa City who opened their home up to male students. As a result, Helen and Allyn’s home at 603 Capitol Street became a home away from home for literally, dozens of African American students over the years until SUI dorms finally opened to people of color in 1946. At any given time, between 1940 and even after 1946, a good number of black male students lived in the upstairs of the Lemme’s five-bedroom house, and in addition, there were approximately another dozen students who lived in an adjoining structure called the Annex.
In taking in these students, Helen Lemme quickly became known as “Ma Lemme,” and was frequently described as “sweet but demanding,” holding students to a high standard, supporting them but also insisting that they do well in their educational career. As the Lemmes became more widely known throughout the area, 603 S. Capitol Street in Iowa City became a gathering place for the black community, steeped in the music and culture of the time.
Their son, Paul Lemme, recalls some of the black artists who visited or stayed at their home over the years, saying…
(On night) the Duke Ellington band was in town to play a concert and came to our house for an (all-night) ‘jam session’.
Paul Lemme continued his recollections in an interview from his Massachusetts home…
How would you react if you simply went through your life doing what you thought needed to be done, and then found out later that others were very grateful for your efforts? She provided a home and guidance to many young college students who were experiencing an integrated America for the first time in their lives…They were trying very hard to be successful in a world that, in many cases, fought hard against them.
Quite simply, Helen Lemme devoted her life to the rights of African Americans and women, serving as an active member of the Democratic Party, working as a precinct committee-woman, a delegate to state and county conventions, and a member of the party’s Black Caucus. Helen advocated for greater representation of black voters at the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and was a specially-invited guest to Washington DC in 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson (signer of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) was inaugurated.
Locally, Lemme was involved in both the Human Rights Commission and the Iowa City Area Council of Churches, spearheading a drive to get local businesses to display stickers declaring non-discriminatory policies. She was elected President of the Iowa City League of Women Voters in 1946 and Iowa City Woman of the Year in 1955. A few years later, she was the first African American woman in Iowa City to be awarded the Best Citizen of the Year.
Helen served as president of the Henry Sabin Elementary School PTA, and was elected to seats on the boards of the YMCA, the Girl Scouts and the Civic Music Association. A strong woman of faith, Helen was president of the Iowa City Council of Church Women and represented her home church, First Baptist Church of Iowa City, on the United Campus of Christian Ministry.
Her son, Paul, once wrote a letter that addressed his mother’s outlook on life…
My mother taught me that a good education was very important to success. Success was defined simply as being able to live one’s life making a contribution to those around you.
Helen’s loving husband, Allyn Lemme, died in his sleep on March 11, 1961 at age 58, and Helen died on December 15, 1968, age 64, from inhaling smoke during a fire in her home. The Lemmes are buried in Memory Gardens in Iowa City.
In 1984, the Helen Lemme Reading Club was founded by University of Iowa African American graduate students, with the focus on black literature, inviting African American guest speakers to campus, and serving as a support group for black students. In 1993, Helen Lemme was one of the first graduates to be inducted into the UI’s Black Alumni Association’s Hall of Honor.
In celebration of her dedication to education, two years after her death in 1968, a new elementary school in Iowa City, Helen Lemme Elementary School, was named in her honor. At the 25th anniversary of the school (1995), Helen’s sister, Edith Smith, said…
She’d be so thrilled. Anything that involved the community…Getting everybody involved. That’s what she loved to do. Everybody come! Everybody do something! Let’s all get together.
The students and staff of Lemme Elementary School have a strong tradition that helps them remember their namesake. Every year the school celebrates on February 25th – Helen’s birthday – with a party that includes stories by visiting guests and those who knew Lemme.
“It’s a celebration of her life,” Lemme principal Joelle McConnaha says. “She was someone who did what she could to help others be successful. We want our students to know her story.”
“The first thing people talk about, when asked to describe Helen Lemme, is her overwhelming need to help people,” said John Bacon, former principal. “She always thought of others and that’s what we stressed to the students – to think of others before themselves.”
In 2021, Lemme School opened a big new addition, updating the school and making for a beautiful new entrance. Sandy & I live just a few blocks from Lemme, and walking by it always takes us down memory lane, since three of our four kids attended Lemme between 1987-1990.
All in all, Helen Lemme was one amazing woman who accomplished so much in her sixty-four short years. As I see it, she was indeed – Grinnell’s Golden Girl. So here’s a tip of the old hat to both Helen and Allyn Lemme – Iowa City heroes we must never forget!
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Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Helen Lemme: A History, Iowa City Public Library
Grinnell High School Panoramic 1923, DigitalGrinnell.edu
Helen Lemme in the 1940 Census, Ancestry.com
Lemme opened doors for community, Rob Daniel, Iowa City Press Citizen, February 8, 2004, pp 1, 4
A look at the life of Helen Lemme, Lemme Elementary School, Kelli Sutterman, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, February 12, 2011
Helen Lemme (1904-1968), M. Hoberg, Women of Iowa, University of Iowa
Helen Lemme in University of Iowa Med Lab, Iowa City Past
Helen and Allyn Lemme and Children 1950, Digital Grinnell.edu
About Lemme School – History, Iowa City Community Schools
Allyn Lemme obituary, Iowa City Press Citizen, March 13, 1961, p 2
Helen R. Lemme obituary, Grinnell Public Library
Helen Renfrow Lemme, Find-A-Grave
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