Viola Gibson’s legacy lives through us

Visiting Oak Hill Cemetery was necessary this week so that my daughter and I could pay respects to one of the newest inductees into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame.

Four Iowa women will join the Hall of Fame during a ceremony in Des Moines next weekend. Only one is from the Cedar Rapids area and, unfortunately for us all, she died in 1989. Nonetheless, because of her work on civil rights and passion to make this a more equitable community, Viola Gibson remains a nearly household name.

My husband is a local, a graduate of Kennedy High School (Go Cougars!), but I didn’t meet him and move into Iowa in time to know Viola Gibson personally. It wasn’t until 2000 or 2001, when the Cedar Rapids Community School District chose to name a new elementary school in her honor, that I became aware of Gibson. I’ve stood in awe ever since.

Viola Gibson, Dec. 30, 1963

A practical nurse and ordained minister, Gibson’s life was dedicated to faith, family and friends. She recognized what was wrong and set out to change it. It was a passion she passed on to her daughter, Juanita, a community volunteer and civil rights activist who died in 2012.

Many people in the Cedar Rapids community who have become social justice advocates say their community involvement is due in large part to Viola Gibson. One of the best oral histories that speaks to this is available at the African American Museum of Iowa and it features longtime Cedar Rapids resident and writer Barbara Elam.

“At the time that I became a young person in this city, I became heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement and Mrs. Viola Gibson was my mentor,” Elam said, offering examples how segregated the city was at that time.

“Mrs. Gibson did push me. And I thank her to this day for all the things that she had me become involved in. I think it made, I think it made me a better person.”

By all accounts, Gibson is the type of woman I want to know, the type of person I want my daughters to emulate. That I never had an opportunity to meet her or to introduce my daughters to her is a disappointment.

That’s why my 16-year-old and I traveled to Oak Hill Cemetery this week to stand before her grave and pay our respects.

Although most who knew Gibson say she never did anything for the recognition, we still felt compelled to create a sash for her headstone, “2016 Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame.” Everyone visiting the cemetery should be aware of how important she was and how her legacy continues to inspire future generations.

As for the Women’s Hall of Fame, Gibson will finally receive this statewide recognition she earned and deserves. Not to mention she’ll be in very good company.

Also being inducted this year are:

• Grace Amemiya, a nurse and advocate for peace and justice from Ames,

• Angela Connolly, a Polk County supervisor, central Iowa leader and resident of Des Moines, and

• Dr. Michele Devlin, a professor and public health advocate from Cedar Falls.

May we all aspire to be as passionate and work so diligently for our communities.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on August 13, 2016. Photo credit: Lynda Waddington/The Gazette