By Heidi Osselaer, Ph.D
In 1953, Phoenix was a segregated city. When Eleanor Ragsdale, a light-skinned African American real estate agent, went looking for a home for her family, she found one she liked in north Phoenix near Encanto Park. The neighborhood had restrictive real estate covenants, prohibiting the sale of property to "those having perceptible strains of Mexican, Spanish, Asiatic, Negro or Indian blood."
A white friend purchased the house. Then, Eleanor and her husband Lincoln bought it while it was still in escrow. After they moved in, the Ragsdale's received threatening phone calls and found racial epithets painted on their home. Despite the harassment from neighbors, they chose to remain in the neighborhood and raised their four children in that home.
Eleanor Dickey grew up in a middle class black family just outside of Philadelphia. In 1947, she received her bachelor's degree in education at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. Her first teaching position was in Phoenix, where she taught first grade in the racially segregated Dunbar Elementary School. She joined the Greater Phoenix Council for Civic Unity, working to desegregate the school system.
Family members introduced her to Lincoln Ragsdale, a former Tuskegee Airman who built a mortuary business in Phoenix after World War II. The couple married in 1949. Together, Eleanor and Lincoln became a powerful force for civil rights in Phoenix.
As a licensed real estate agent, Eleanor was acutely aware of how difficult it was for blacks to purchase property in Phoenix. She helped desegregate the area around the state capitol by selling homes to black clients. In 1962, she called for the introduction of legislation that would outlaw segregation in public accommodations.
Working through numerous civil rights groups, church organizations and women's clubs, she met with key lawmakers and marched in demonstrations, including picketing at the state capitol, where she recalled she was "spat upon and called ugly names."
Success came in 1964 when the Phoenix City Council passed civil rights legislation, as did the federal government. The Arizona State Legislature followed suit one year later. When Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Phoenix in 1964, she entertained him in her home and later worked to establish the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in Arizona.
Although she is largely remembered for her civil rights work, she also endeavored to combat gender discrimination through her numerous associations with women's organizations.
Photo: Eleanor Dickey Ragsdale
Courtesy of the Ragsdale family
Heidi J. Osselaer, Ph.D., is on the Scholars' Committee for the Arizona Women's Heritage Trail. She is also a Faculty Associate at ASU and author of Winning Their Place: Arizona Women in Politics, 1883-1950.