Cornell University

Catherwood Library Kheel Center

Catherwood Library Kheel Center, 227 Ives Hall, 607-255-3183

Ann Kheel - National Urban League Memorial Statement

Ann Sunstein Kheel, freedom fighter
BYLINE: Marc H. Morial Copley News Service

They are still the largely invisible men and women of the struggle for racial justice in America.

By that I mean those white Americans who joined the crusade not out of a sense of noblesse oblige, but out of a complete belief in the "self-evident" truth that human beings are created equal. In other words, they understood, as Martin Luther King Jr. said so powerfully in the "I Have a Dream Speech," "that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom." Ann Sunstein Kheel, who died at the age of 88 in New York City Dec. 28, was such a person.

Gentle soul that she was, she was nonetheless a freedom fighter, in the best traditions of the civil rights movement, combining compassion with a rock-ribbed determination to see to it that progress was made in expanding the boundaries of opportunity.

In this, she was not alone, neither in the larger sense nor in the personal sense; for her husband, the prominent labor lawyer and mediator, Theodore W. Kheel, who survives her, is also a longtime stalwart of the movement and a former Urban League trustee. It was the Urban League's great good fortune that the Kheels, who were married for 66 years, came as a "package deal." Within the Urban League movement over the course of five decades they forged distinct but allied distinguished records of services.

Ted Kheel served as a board chairman of both the National Urban League's New York affiliate, the New York Urban League, and the national organization itself, and was a much-called-upon adviser to my predecessors as heads of the National Urban League - Lester B. Granger, Whitney M. Young Jr., Vernon E. Jordan Jr., John E. Jacob and Hugh B. Price.

In 1997, both Kheels were awarded the Whitney M. Young Jr. Medallion, the National Urban League's highest honor for its own staff and  volunteers, and again specially honored in 2000 at our Equal Opportunity Day Dinner.

Ann Kheel focused her efforts on the New York Urban League. She joined its board of directors in 1965, was secretary of the board from 1966 to 1991 and remained on the board for most of the following decade. In 1966, she also conceived of and organized the New York affiliate's annual Frederick Douglass Awards Dinner, serving as its chairwoman for the next 25 years.

Her contributions to the expansion of opportunity across the color line didn't stop with the Urban League, either. In the 1960s, she sponsored the purchase of books for Frederick Douglass Junior High School in Harlem that had a special purpose: The books were awarded to pupils who completed research on individuals who had made a significant contribution to African-American or Puerto Rican-American history and to American life. And she was a longtime trustee of Harlem's famed Schomburg Center for Black Culture.

Self-effacing, Ann Kheel did not say a great deal about the inner conviction that inspired such outward commitment. Once, during an interview in 1965, she said firmly, "I've made it a rule for our house, never to entertain except interracially. And I don't go in committees that are not integrated"; and she liked to quote Whitney Young's charge, "Let's make this an inclusive rather than an exclusive society." Nor did Ann Kheel's contributions to the common welfare end with these activities. She was also a former chairwoman of the State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commission for the City of New York, a trustee of the nonprofit Rainforest Alliance and deeply involved with efforts to promote public education in New York City at all levels.

Ann Kheel was committed to civic engagement - to being involved in the broader society out of the conviction that, as she herself put it, "each generation has its challenges and not to be active in them seems not to be quite alive."

That certainly could not be said of her. Indeed, to my way of thinking, what could be said of her can be found in an article in last summer's issue of our Opportunity Journal magazine. That article, titled "Women With Vision" profiled four women who had played outsized roles in the history of the National Urban League. Fittingly, it was written by three young women, juniors in high school, who are beneficiaries, as we all are, of these women's work.

Ann Kheel's life was not among those examined because she was alive. But her life of civic engagement certainly corresponds to the meaning of the article's opening paragraph:

"What would the world be like if no one stood for what they believed in?" it reads. "What if no one questioned the injustices in the world, but passively accepted what was? What if no one fought for the rights of women, children or African Americans? Where would we be? Individuals with hope, courage and perseverance can make a difference, turning adversity into triumph ..."

That insight underscores one of the most important facets of the legacy of Ann Sunstein Kheel.

Marc H. Morial is president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League. Visit Copley News Service at www.copleynews.com.