Marie Wilkinson was a lifetime social and civil rights activist who fought against poverty, hunger, homelessness, joblessness, and injustice. Marie founded the Aurora, IL Food Pantry in the 1950’s after a near-death experience that caused her to make a personal commitment to helping the less fortunate.
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Driven by a new life purpose, Wilkinson began giving out bags of food to those in need from her bungalow on View Street. She was known to invite complete strangers into her home for meals and help them solve their problems, and she believed strongly that “people needed to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel,” recalls her daughter Sheila Scott-Wilkinson.
“Her God gave her a second chance at life and she made good with her promise to always serve the less fortunate,” — Sheila Scott-Wilkinson.
Wilkinson recruited friends and neighbors to help, and soon she had a started a soup kitchen and food pantry. Today, the Pantry continues to serve the community.
“She doesn’t like to see anybody hurting for anything,” said Rose Marshall, who has worked for decades at the Food Pantry Wilkinson started.
“She has a love for people, and her love just spreads through everybody else.” —Rose Marshall.
Community Activist and Aurora, IL Legend
Marie Wilkinson has been a well know name throughout the Aurora area. If you mention her name, everyone has input on how she has impacted their lives. Mrs. Wilkinson has strengthened her community through her activism and leadership as an advocate for human and civil rights in Aurora. Her legacy continues as a beacon of light for women, children, and minorities striving to improve their quality of life.
Education and Marriage
Born Marie LeBeau in the French Quarter of New Orleans. She was raised a devout Catholic and studied business at the former Straight University (now Dillard University). She visited Chicago at the age of 20 and met her future husband, Charles on a blind date. She moved to the State of Illinois in 1927 for good and married Charles shortly after in 1930. They had two wonderful children, Shelia Scott-Wilkinson and Donald Wilkinson. More than 60 years of volunteerism and prayer kept them bonded in faith and community before Charles passed away.
Marie’s House a Place of Welcome
Mr. & Mrs. Wilkinson moved into a modest two level home on Aurora’s North View Street, now bearing Mrs. Wilkinson’s name. The home was simply known as Marie’s house, where the poor, hungry, the displaced, the unemployed, the sick, and the mistreated were welcomed. Many have wandered to Marie’s place and they always found the door open. Mr. & Mrs. Wilkinson were always quick to give away their last pennies to a person in need.
“God chose me not to sit around, but to help people. As long as I’m living on this earth, I’m going to keep doing what I have to do.” — Marie Wilkinson
She also established college funds for underprivileged children and inclusion guidelines for the disabled.
Victory in Discrimination Suit
In the late 1940′s when Mrs. Wilkinson was refused seating at Hart’s Drive-In, because she was African American, she won her case before the State Appellate Court.
Aurora Human Relations Commission
Through the Human Relations Commission that she founded in 1964, she is credited with the first Fair Housing Ordinance in Illinois. She served for over 30 years on the Aurora Human Relations Commission and worked to implement local equal rights and program dealing with drug abuse, lead poisoning, and other health issues.
Child Development Center Established
Thirty years before the trend, Mrs. Wilkinson realized the many needs of single mothers. In the 1970′s, Mrs. Wilkinson raised $46,000 for a child-care center in Aurora. The Marie Wilkinson Child Development Center, which thrives today after 40 plus years.
In 1999, Mrs. Wilkinson was presented the Service to God and Fellow Man Award from the Aurora Kiwanis Club. In October 2002, Mrs. Wilkinson was honored with the Catholic Church’s highest honor for missionary work in America, the Lumen Christi Award, meaning Light of Christ.
Mrs. Wilkinson turned 100 in May of 2009 in which many people of all walks of life joined in her birthday celebration to wish her many thanks for all of her hard work and accomplishments over the past years in the Aurora community.
Wilkinson Biographical Timeline
From Gentle Spirit, the Biography of Marie Wilkinson
(compiled by Kathy Snow)
1909: Marie Le Beau is born in New Orleans, LA1922: She first comes to Aurora to visit a friend of her mother.1929: Marie moves to Aurora and meets Charles Wilkinson.1932: Charles and Marie Wilkinson are married.1940s: Marie sues a restaurant in a county and appellate court for refusing her service because she is of the African race. This was her first public stand for the rights of African Americans.1950s: Marie advocates for the Migrant workers and others in need in the Aurora area. She begins to collect and distribute food from her home. “Marie’s house” becomes known as a place to go for help.1959: Marie is named National Catholic Woman of the Year for her humanitarian efforts in Aurora.1960s: When the volume of donations outgrows her basement, Marie helps start the St. Vincent DePaul Center on Sard Avenue in Aurora and begins her Feed the Hungry campaign.1964: At the urging of Marie, Mayor Jay Hunter creates the Bi-Racial Commission, which will eventually become the Aurora Human Relations Commission.1965: Martin Luther King Jr. leads a march in Selma, AL, and Marie raises $12,000 to cover food, lodging and bail expenses. King calls to thank her.1967: Honored by the International Optimist Club for dedicated services to all humanity.1968: Under Marie’s lead, the Human Relations Commission opposes a state law that allows discrimination in home sales. As a result, the state passes Illinois’ first fair housing ordinance.1970: The Marie Wilkinson Child Development Center opens on Gale Street.1970: Nominated for Lane Bryant National Award for voluntary services to all people.1970: Aurora Deanery of the Rockford Diocese Special Award.1972: Honored by the Fox Valley Ebonaires for dedicated years of services in Aurora.1973: Received the Urban League Apprenticeship Program award for continue support and contribution toward success of the Aurora Apprenticeship Program.1974: Received “The Beautiful People Award” from the Chicago Urban League.1974: Received award from the Kane-Kendall Mental Health Center.1974: YWCA Most Outstanding Woman of the Year.1975: Honored as one of the Black Women in Aurora by the interested parents and tax payers for community services.1976: Received the Illinois Welfare granted certificate for Public Service in the State of Illinois.1976: Received the Illinois Welfare granted certificate for Public Service in the State of Illinois.1977: Marie helps start the Aurora Area Urban League, which later became the Quad County Urban League.1977: Received Certificate of Appreciation for outstanding Services from the Kiwanis Club.1978: Award from the Progressive Baptist Church for Humanitarian and Community services.1980: Made “Whos Who amoung Black Americans.”1980: Fred Hampton Scholarship Fund Image Award for promoting a positive image in her community.1983: Outstanding Citizen Award by the Black Student Union of Lewis University.1994: Marie helps start the Community Celebration for Reconciliation, a two-week campaign against violence in Aurora.1995: Charles Wilkinson dies after a long illness.1995: Mayor proclaimed “Marie Wilkinson Day” in Aurora with banquet dinner hosted by the City of Aurora and Beacon News honoring Marie for a lifetime of contribution to the city of Aurora.1995: Paul Harris Fellow award by Rotary Club.1998: View Street, where Marie lived since 1929, is rechristened “Marie Wilkinson Blvd.”1998: William Booth Award by the Salvation Army.”1999: “Service to God and Fellow Man” Award from the Aurora Kiwanis Club.1999: Papal Award of membership to the Order of St. Gregory the Great.2001: Marie receives the Catholic Church’s highest honor for a missionary, the Lumen Christi Award.2004: The Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry opens on Highland Avenue, a direct outgrowth of her Feed the Hungry program that started in the 1950s.2008: The city of Aurora unveils the statue of Marie Wilkinson for her 99th birthday. The bronze likeness sits outside the Aurora Public Library, welcoming guests to Downtown Aurora, IL.2010: Marie Wilkinson passes away at 101 years old.
Sources: The Beacon News, August 14, 2010