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Helen Lemme Reading Club records

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 include book reviews, literary essays, training guides for discussion leaders, and articles dealing with issues of race. The collection contains extensive book lists that demonstrate the focus of the reading group. There is a slender file of newspaper clippings on Helen Lemme.

The collection also includes one folder on the Black Women's Support Group. The support group was developed in conjunction with the reading club, also 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, however, was a short-lived organization that lasted only one or two years.

The collection also includes a survey conducted during one of the first meetings of the reading club. In the surveys there are suggestions for possible names of the book club as well as suggestions about how to make the reading group better. In the correspondence file includes letters from members proposing books to read. There are also letters about the use of the Afro-American Cultural Center, and reservation slips for the group to meet there on a regular basis. The collection also contains a number of mailing lists that demonstrate the changing membership of the reading group.


  • 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

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. 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 continues to be comprised 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. 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.]

In 2019 the University of Iowa's Afro-American Cultural Center opened a browsing library in honor of the Helen Lemme Reading Club containing books that the club read along with other works by and featuring African-Americans.


4.00 linear inches

Language of Materials



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

Method of Acquisition

The records (donor no. 568) were donated by Susan Mask in 1998.

Related Materials

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

Eugenia M. Hernandez, 2000.
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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)