Skip to main content

Helen Lemme Reading Club (Iowa City, Iowa)



African-American University of Iowa graduate students founded the Helen Lemme Reading Club in 1984, under the name The Third Thursday Reading Club. The original purpose of the reading club was to provide a forum for African-American men and women to meet and discuss literary works by and about African-Americans. It also served as a support group, helping African-American students combat feelings of isolation in a mostly white environment.

In the early years of the reading club, there was a substantial membership consisting of graduate students from different departments, including English, History, and American Studies. Membersof the reading club volunteered to serve as discussion leaders, gather critical reviews, and help facilitate discussions. In addition to literary discussions, the reading group expanded its interests to include sponsorship of events, such as films shown at the Afro-American Cultural Center, and speakers, including James McPherson and Greg H. Williams. The reading club also evolved into a social organization, holding potluck dinners at members' homes.

Susan Mask has the distinction of being the longest continuously active member of The Helen Lemme Reading Club. She has also served as de facto secretary for a number of years. Club membership continues to be comprised of graduate students, but has expanded to include faculty, staff, and other individuals who are associated with the University of Iowa. The reading club has met continuously throughout the years and still meets today, despite a dwindling membership.

In the late 1980s, June Davis and Jo Jones initiated a campaign to have the name of the reading club changed to honor Helen Lemme. Helen Lemme was born in 1909(?) in Grinnell, Iowa, and died as a result of smoke inhalation at a fire in her home in 1968. A wife and mother, she worked as a research technician at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. University of Iowa alumni and others in the Iowa City community best remember Lemme for opening up her home to African-American University of Iowa students. Her service to the student community beganin the 1920s when African-Americans could not obtain housing in the University of Iowa dormitories or elsewhere in Iowa City because of their race. Lemme opened her home and allowed a numberof students to live with her family during this time. Even after World War II, when African-Americans were allowed to live on campus, Lemme's home remained the social nucleus that kept the student community together. Her son remembers people such as Duke Ellington coming to the Lemme home to play and entertain at all-night parties. Lemme was active in a number of forums combating racism and discrimination. She helped to create the Negro Forum, was a member of the Democratic Party's Black Caucus, and in 1946 was elected president of the Iowa City League of Women Voters. She was also an active member of the first Iowa City Human Relations Commission. Lemme was the first woman to be honored as Best Citizen in Iowa City, and the first person toreceive the honor of Iowa City Woman of the Year. The Helen Lemme elementary school in Iowa City is named in her honor. [For more information see Helen Lemme newspaper clippings, undated folder.]

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Helen Lemme Reading Club records

 Collection — Box 1: Series 1; Series 2 [Barcode: 31858073180675]
Identifier: IWA0399

African American reading club formed in 1984 by University of Iowa graduate students.

Dates: 1984-1998