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Helen Lemme Reading Club records

 Collection — Box: 1
Identifier: IWA0399

Scope and Contents

The Helen Lemme Reading Club records date from 1984 to 1998 and measure 4 linear inches. The collection consists primarily of the club's meeting announcements, book lists, and articles. The articles files include book reviews, essays about Black literature, training guides for discussion leaders, and articles about race, as well as a few photocopied newspaper clippings about Helen Lemme. The collection also contains extensive book lists that demonstrate the focus of the reading group.

The file representing the Black Women's Support Group, which was developed in conjunction with the reading club, contains three letters sent to group members. The Surveys file contains records of a survey conducted during one of the first meetings of the reading club, which solicitied suggestions for the group's name and ways to improve its operation. The correspondence file includes members' book proposals, inquiries about use of the Afro American Cultural Center (Afro House), and reservation slips for the group to meet there. The Mailing lists file reflects the changing membership of the reading group.

The Helen Lemme Reading Club Library series contains a small number of materials related to the 2023 opening of the Helen Lemme Reading Club Library, a lending library located at the Afro House consisting of both books read by the Helen Lemme Reading Club and contemporary selections about the Black, African, and African American experience. The library's creation was a collaboration between UI Libraries and Afro House staff and was funded by several University grants.


  • Creation: 1984-1998


Conditions Governing Access

The records are are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright to portions of the collection has been transferred to the University of Iowa.

However, copyright status for some collection materials may be unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owner. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility and potential liability based on copyright infringement for any use rests exclusively and solely with the user. Users must properly acknowledge the Iowa Women’s Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, as the source of the material. For further information, visit

Biographical / Historical

A group of African-American University of Iowa graduate students founded the Helen Lemme Reading Club in 1984, then using the name Third Thursday Reading Club. The original purpose of the reading club was to provide a forum for Black students 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 predominantly white institution. 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. Members of 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 earned the distinction of being the longest continuously active member of The Helen Lemme Reading Club. She also served as de facto secretary for a number of years. Club membership continued to be comprised primarily of graduate students, but expanded to include faculty, staff, and other individuals who are associated with the University of Iowa.

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 1905 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 starting in the 1920s, when racial segregation of dormitory housing excluded Black 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 number of 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 the Articles about Helen Lemme file.

The Black Women's Support Group was developed in conjunction with the reading club in 1984. Mary Arnold, who was one of the founders of the reading club, participated in a number of other grassroots organizations including the Black Women's Support Group. The support group overlapped with Arnold's work at the Women's Resource and Action Center. The support group was short-lived, operating for only 1-2 years.

Beginning in 2019 and culminating in a grand opening in 2023, the University of Iowa's Afro-American Cultural Center, in collaboration with the University of Iowa Libraries staff, established a library named in honor of the Helen Lemme Reading Club. The lending library contains books that the club read along with other works about the Black, African, and African-American experience and is located at the Afro House.


4.00 linear inches

Language of Materials



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

Method of Acquisition

The majority of the Helen Lemme Reading Club records were donated by Susan Mask (donor no. 568) in 1998. The Helen Lemme Reading Club Library materials were donated by Katie Hassman (donor no. 1688) in 2023.

Related Materials

Lemme Family papers (IWA): The collection includes a genealogy.

Afro American Cultural Center records (University Archives)

Eugenia M. Hernandez, 2000.
Language of description
Script of description
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Repository Details

Part of the Iowa Women's Archives Repository

100 Main Library
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City IA 52242 IaU
319-335-5900 (Fax)