Celebrating Local Black Heroes: Anna Whitten

Image of Anna Whitten

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Michigan is proud to celebrate Local Black Heroes in honor of Black History Month. Please join us on social media and throughout the month on our website to learn more about the impact local heroes have in your community.

Join us in remembering Anna Whitten: a family woman, and a woman of faith with the keen ability to let her actions speak louder than her words. We sat down with Nicole Jennings to learn more about her great-grandmother’s impactful life.

From 1950, up until her death in 2016, Whitten was an advocating voice in Kalamazoo. Most notably she worked in education and civil rights, which left a lasting impression on our community.

Early Civil Rights Work

In the early 1950s, Whitten slowly and methodically integrated her family’s barbershop in downtown Kalamazoo. The Black-owned barbershop was run by her husband and uncle, but customers were all white. The pair was nervous that business would diminish if they started serving a more diverse clientele. Whitten took note and started sending Black men down to get a haircut, making sure that her husband knew she sent them.

Whitten was also an active NAACP member, participating in other local civil rights efforts as well. She paved the way, integrating the workforce at Gilmore Brothers department store, and a restaurant nearby. Later, she was instrumental in the naming of Kalamazoo’s Martin Luther King Jr. Park in 1987, honoring the late Civil Rights icon.

Kalamazoo Valley Community College

Whitten was a vocal advocate for education, community college, and served as a longtime member of the Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC) Board of Directors. A product of community college herself, Whitten started her tenure on KVCC’s board in 1968, holding several different roles and until her passing in 2016.

Whitten championed two programs at KVCC: ‘Focus’ and Brother-2-Brother. The Focus program helped in aiding KVCC students transfer to a four-year university, while the Brother-2-Brother program focused on helping men achieve graduation. Her distinguished contributions to the college are forever honored with a campus building named in her honor in 2005: Anna Whitten Hall.

Impact on Family

Not only was she a pioneer through her public work, but she was an encouraging voice and inspiring role model to her family. Nicole Jennings, Whitten’s great-granddaughter recalls, “My moral compass is unwavering because of hers…’the best’ is the minimum I should give and expect to receive.”

Jennings opened a Minneapolis boutique in her grandmother’s name, Queen Anna House of Fashion. “I use my store to pour into my clients what was poured into me: options, choices, and the concept of being deserving of ‘the best.’” Their goal is to “inspire and empower women of all shapes and sizes,” and allow them to “…walk into their day confident & well dressed.”

Whitten set a standard, “A standard I live today and a standard I am instilling in my children,” Nicole says. A standard that will live on for generations to come, both in Kalamazoo and beyond.

Find Local Black Heroes throughout the month of February on social media and on our website and visit ThinkBigToday.org/Volunteer for more information about how you can ignite the power and potential of youth in Southwest Michigan.

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