On New Year’s morning, January 1, 2018, our beloved Mamie was called home. She experienced a heart attack at a New York rehabilitation center while recuperating from a fall suffered during a vacation in Martha’s Vineyard.
Dr. Mamie L. McKnight achieved a high level of education and received many accolades and awards over the course of her life, including induction into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000. But she was never one to seek the spotlight.
The Dallas Morning News, in a “High Life” profile of Mamie, reflected, ‘[t]hough Dr. McKnight is not the most visible or the most vocal black leader in Dallas, she serves as a quiet inspiration for many.”
Mamie exuded boundless energy that was contagious to those whose lives she touched. And she was tireless in her dedication to educating and serving others, and preserving the history of African-Americans, particularly in the Dallas, Texas community she loved so dearly. Her youngest brother, Arthur Abernathy, remarked to the Dallas Morning News, “I think it’s just something that’s in her – she cannot sit still and allow herself to be comfortable and rest, when there’s so much to be done.”
Mamie Lee Abernathy was born on February 20, 1929 in Dallas, Texas, the third of seven children of James Hovie Abernathy and Mamie Bell (Mitchell) Abernathy. She was baptized into the Christian faith at a young age at Greater El Bethel Baptist Church in Dallas. She attended N.W. Harlee Elementary in Oak Cliff, Dallas, and was Valedictorian of her class at Lincoln High School. As Valedictorian, she was allowed to wear a long, white dress instead of the traditional cap and gown, and she played a piano solo during the graduation ceremony.
Like her father and all of her siblings, Mamie pursued higher education, and maintained a lifelong love of learning. She attended Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and received her B.S. and M.S. degrees in Mathematics and Chemistry from Prairie View A&M University. Mamie enjoyed sharing stories about the infamous Dr. Tolson, her English professor at Wiley (the inspiration for the movie, “The Great Debaters”), and it was at Wiley that Mamie was initiated into Phi chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
After receiving her master’s degree, Mamie desired to pursue a career as a research scientist and applied to several defense firms in Dallas. After receiving no response, she took the names of her black colleges off of her resume and received several interview requests. The interest disappeared when she showed up, and they discovered her race. In one instance, she was told the position had been filled, just to see the job advertisement reappear in the newspaper days later. Realizing that her dream of becoming a research scientist may be more difficult and take longer than she expected (since she was never one to “give up” on anything), she decided to accept a teaching position at her alma mater, Lincoln High School. This launched her eventual career and lifelong passion for education, and led her to accept positions as a teacher and counselor at James Madison High School and Sequoyah Junior High.
Ever the avid mathematician and scientist, at age 25, Mamie published an article on the prismoidal formula in a journal of the National Scientific Honor Society, Beta Kappa Chi. This formula is used to calculate the volume of prisms, pyramids and wedges.
In August,1952, she married Elza McKnight, Jr., whom she met at Wiley. They were reintroduced by their mutual friends, Nathaniel and Muriel Penn. Elza and Mamie resided in Dallas and were married for 52-years, until Elza’s death in 2004. They had one daughter, Ginger.
Work, marriage and motherhood did not stop Mamie from continuing her education. And her husband, Elza, a teacher in the Richardson Independent School District, encouraged her endeavors. She spent two summers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on a National Science Foundation scholarship. And shortly following the birth of their daughter, Mamie and Elza commuted for a year between Dallas and Austin, while Mamie accepted a grant to study at the University of Texas at Austin. Ginger spent her first year of life at UT and was referred to by Mamie and her fellow students as “the Id.” Mamie also did pre-doctoral studies at Texas Women’s University and what is now the University of Texas at Dallas.
In 1970, Mamie received her doctorate in Education, with a specialty in counseling and psychology, from North Texas State University (now, the University of North Texas). She also obtained her license to practice psychology.
Mamie became one of the early Black faculty members at Southern Methodist University, where she was hired as an Assistant Professor and instructor in the education department, specializing in guidance and counseling, and where she worked with the Upward Bound program. After SMU, Mamie joined the Dallas County Community College District, where she became the Division Chair of the communications, mathematics and developmental studies department at El Centro College. She later moved to the DCCCD district office, becoming the Consultant to the DCCCD Chancellor for Community Development. She remained in this position until she “retired.” In addition to her full-time positions, Mamie also held adjunct professor positions at a number of additional colleges, including Prairie View A&M University, Wiley College, Pepperdine University, the University of Texas at Arlington, Bishop College, University of North Texas and Paul Quinn College. She also conducted courses and workshops at military bases in Las Cruces, NM. After her retirement, she taught mathematics courses at Cedar Valley College.
Mamie’s extensive career as an educator and love of the classroom and her students was only a portion of her extraordinary life. She is equally known for her role as the “historian of Black Dallas.” As many longtime Black neighborhoods in Dallas were bulldozed and gentrified during the early 1980’s, and older members of the community Mamie grew up in began to pass away, Mamie and a group of friends decided to do something to preserve the memory of these communities and people. In 1983 she founded Black Dallas Remembered, a local heritage and historic preservation nonprofit dedicated to structural preservation, research, publication and free educational activities targeting youth.
In the late 1980’s her preservation efforts focused on what would become the Freedman’s Cemetery memorial project. When crews widening Central Expressway, just north of downtown, discovered graves under Lemmon Avenue that contained the remains of former slaves, Mamie sprang into action. She spearheaded an effort that caused the City of Dallas and the Texas Department of Transportation to archive and then relocate the graves of these early Dallasites, along with the construction of a memorial, which became one of the nation’s largest cemetery excavation projects. It also earned Mamie the nickname, “Cemetery Lady,” which she enjoyed.
Mamie’s involvement in preserving the history of African-Americans in Dallas and throughout Texas continued to expand, even as she continued to work full-time as an educator and remain involved in many other organizations, activities and efforts. She worked to preserve the home of Dallas civil rights leader Juanita Craft, and organized tours of this and other African-American historic sites in the Dallas area. She also became involved in many other local preservation efforts, as well as National Trust and National Register Revue Board activities.
In recognition of her contributions, Governor Ann Richards appointed Dr. McKnight to the Texas Historical Commission Review Board, and in 1995, Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk appointed her to chair the Dallas Landmark Commission. In 1999, Governor George W. Bush appointed her to the Texas Historical Commission, where she was a Commissioner for many years.
And Dr. McKnight’s involvement in her community and in activities here and abroad didn’t end there. She was an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and served as the 17th Basileus of Dallas’ Alpha Xi Omega Chapter, and the 16th South Central Regional Director, an international board position. She also served on the national board of the sorority’s Educational Advancement Foundation and numerous national and regional committees. She also was the Editor of the first two volumes of the history of the South Central region.
Mamie was a charter member of the Trinity chapter of The Links, Incorporated, and was involved at various times with Altrusa of Dallas, the Urban League and the YWCA. She served on the boards of Friends of Fair Park, the Texas CAN Academy, the National Women’s Museum Local Advisory Committee, the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce, the American Diabetes Association’s Minority Initiative, the Greater Dallas Community of Churches, Senior Citizens of Dallas, Volunteer Center, Community Council, Goodwill Industries, Dallas Historical Society and Communities in Schools. She chaired Black Women’s Conferences, and was involved in the Tri-Ethnic Committee on School Desegregation, SMU Women’s Conference Leader, the Mayor’s Child Care Task Force, Jubilee Dallas, and many other local state and national professional, civic and community service organizations and activities.
During the 1970’s, Dr. McKnight was involved in the women’s movement, and was a Texas Delegate to the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977. In 1986 she was a representative at the International Women’s Conference in Nairobi, Kenya.
Mamie also was engaged by the U.S. Department of Education as a higher education proposal reader on many occasions. And she was a writer and editor of many publications, including a number of publications released by Black Dallas Remembered. She was a producer of the “Precious Memories” program for television and conducted many heritage and preservation workshops. She also developed and conducted a number of summer youth programs in the areas of math and science.
Dr. McKnight received numerous awards for her community service. In addition to her induction into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, she won the 1990 Outstanding Alumna Award from the University of Texas, the 2001 University of North Texas President’s Citation for Distinguished Success, the University of North Texas Outstanding Alumna Award, and the first Maurine F. Bailey Award. She received the Southern Methodist University 2005 Profile in Leadership Award, and the Zeta Phi Beta 2005 Woman of the Year Award. She was recognized by the Dallas NAACP and the American Jewish Congress, as well as among the YWCA’s 100 Women. She was awarded the Dallas County Historical Commission Award, the Women Helping Women Award from the Women’s Center of Dallas, was named a “Hometown Hero” by KDAF Fox Television and was recognized for outstanding contributions to Texas history by the Texas Historical Commission, among many other awards and honors. In her final official interview last year, Mamie and her daughter were interviewed and profiled by Dallas-Ft. Worth’s NBC affiliate for Black History Month 2017 as mother’daughter “storytellers.”
Despite the expansive life she lived in her community and among her students, she always had time for her family and friends. She particularly loved hanging out and joking with her granddaughter, Cameron. And she never gave up her private pursuits and joys. A lifelong student at heart, she loved learning new things and took courses in foreign languages, computers, guitar, macramé and art. She played in a bridge club, was an avid reader, loved “antiquing,” and took up the organ after finding a lovely antique organ on one of her jaunts. And she loved to travel and experience new places, people and cultures, even going as far as Antarctica on a Russian freighter. Until the end of her life, she devoured the New York Times every day, followed politics closely, kept up with the Dallas Morning News on her daughter’s iPad, and took notes in books about African-American history. After moving in with her daughter in New York a few years ago, she began working on her memoir, and left behind notebooks filled with stories and observations and memories. Memories, like experiences, were her treasures.
Mamie was not just a dedicated public servant and educator, but she was also a woman of faith. As an adult, she joined Crest Moore United Methodist Church in Dallas (later, Crest Moore/King Memorial United Methodist Church, and now Community United Methodist Church), where she briefly taught Sunday School. She was overjoyed when her daughter was married at St. Luke Community United Methodist Church (Dr. Zan W. Holmes, Jr. and Dr. Jeffrey Haggray officiating). The moment was made even more special to her because her longtime close friend, renowned artist, Jean Lacy, created the beautiful stained glass windows in the church sanctuary.
Mamie is preceded in death by her devoted husband, Elza; her parents, James and Mamie Abernathy; five of her siblings, Attorney James R. Abernathy, Dr. Robert O. Abernathy, Virginia P. Douglas, Norman R. Abernathy and Gary R. Abernathy; niece, Jenine Abernathy; and nephews, Christopher Abernathy, Edward Douglas, III, and Gary Q. Abernathy. She is survived by her daughter, Ginger McKnight-Chavers; her granddaughter, Cameron Q. Chavers; her son-in-law, Kevin G. Chavers; her brother, Arthur D. Abernathy; her sisters-in-law, Claudia Abernathy, Miriam Abernathy, Ernestine Abernathy, Helen Abernathy, and Yvette Abernathy; nieces, Tracey Abernathy, Valerie Douglas, Jamie Abernathy, Michele Abernathy Baker, Karen Abernathy Haith, Areika Daun Abernathy, and Ashlei Daun Abernathy; and nephews, Kevin Abernathy, Rodney Abernathy, Jerome Abernathy, Jerrod Abernathy, and Arthur McKnight, Jr.; as well as a host of cousins, extended family members and friends.
Date: Monday, January 15, 2018
Time: 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Paul Quinn College-Grand Lounge
Date: Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Time: 11:00 am
St. Luke Community United Methodist Church
Address:5710 East R.L. Thornton Freeway, Dallas, TX, 75223