Riverside Saddened by Loss of Two Icons
By Dianne Anderson
Most doors were shut tight when Dr. Lulamae Clemons and Jennifer Vaughn-Blakely first started their activism, but it never stopped the two iconic leaders from many decades of paving the way for social change.
Dr. Lulamae Clemons and Ms. Vaughn Blakely, will be remembered – if not unmatched – in future generations.
Rose Mayes, a longtime colleague and close friend to both, said they had given so much of themselves, their time and commitment despite tremendous obstacles decades along the way.
“Two community heroes [passing] within a couple of weeks apart has really left a void in our lives personally and in the community as a whole. We’ll miss them terribly,” said Mayes, president of the Riverside African American Historical Society.
Up until relatively recently, they never stopped working and never slowed down.
“Now with them leaving us, it’s going to be very difficult for us to pick up the pieces from here and to carry on because knowing that they’re no longer with us, not in person — but in spirit they are,” she said.
She met Dr. Clemons about 30 years ago, of which 20 of those years Dr. Clemons served on the Fair Housing Board of Directors and wrote two journals for the Society, among numerous other contributions. Dr. Clemons, also a lifetime member of the NAACP, worked tirelessly to push the movement for the Dr. King statue, the naming of the street, and forming the Eleanor Jean Grier Leadership Academy.
“The African American female legacy, she was an extraordinary African American woman during the 1930s and 40s. She was tearing down barriers, very quietly, but she made a difference in our community,” Mayes said.
In pursuing her nursing degree, Dr. Clemons had to leave her hometown and Pueblo Junior College because they only trained white nurses there.
Once relocated, she passed the Missouri Board of Registered Nurse Examiners in 1942 with flying colors, and went on to earn her Bachelors of Science Cum Laude from Lincoln University. She also earned her Master of Arts in Public Health Administration from Columbia University, followed by a Doctorate of Education from the University of Southern California. Her post-graduate certificate was in Pupil Personnel Services Administration from Harvard University.
Locally, she pioneered some of the earliest movements to spur the Inland Empire in line with equal rights in education. In the 1960s, she led the Title IV School Desegregation Project at UCR.
Ms. Mayes said Dr. Clemons was tireless. She recalls thinking about going home early one day to relax after their big event, but Dr. Clemons, then in her 90s, was still ready to roll. She was always brimming with energy.
“I was so tired at around 7:00 p.m. and she would say, ‘Oh no we’ve got to clean up now,” Mayes laughs. “I said aren’t you tired? She said we got a lot to do.”
Once she asked Dr. Clemons what kept her going. “She said just eat a bag of Fritos a day. That’s the secret to longevity,” Ms. Mayes said.
Dr. Clemons was 105 years old.
Mary D. Welch, president of both The Group and the local branch NCNW, said just hearing about the passing of two of the community’s greatest women in the span of a few weeks has been a lot to emotionally process.
“When I heard about Dr. Clemons and Jennifer, it’s almost like too much to imagine,” she said. “They’ve dedicated their lives for the Inland Empire to make it a better place for everyone. That’s the pain for the loss of these two giants.”
Jennifer Vaughn-Blakely, also one of the founders of The Group, had a huge heart to organize the community around the local and national elections, and keep democracy at the forefront.
Through The Group, Ms. Welch said she created a voice for the community, and taught others how to navigate the political systems. She is credited with helping many people of all backgrounds through the Eleanor Jean Grier Leadership Academy, which is a partnership between the Riverside African-American Historical Society and The Group.
Over 150 have graduated from the Academy, including Ms. Welch.
“You learned all the aspects, the roles and responsibilities of the political figures. With all of the Riverside African American Historical Society, and The Group, she was definitely part of something that she contributed to it,” she said.
The Group held forums and was on a mission to address issues that impacted the Black community in Riverside.
Ms. Vaugn-Blakely earned her Masters in Education, and worked with the Cultural Competition Division of Riverside University Health Systems Behavioral Health, where she also created the African American Family Wellness Advisory Group. During the 1980s, she served as Assistant City Manager in Fontana and later, the Assistant to the City Manager of Riverside. She also served on Riverside Ethics Ad-Hoc Committee to make code recommendations to the City Council and Mayor
In all, she served 25 years as a public administrator for The Sundance Company, which she started, that provided grant writing, community engagement and other strategic services for public agencies and nonprofits.
Rev. Dr. Monrow Mabon has known both Dr. Clemons and Ms. Vaughn Blakely very well for many years, and said both ladies were outstanding pillars in the community.
He describes Dr. Clemons as phenomenal, and so many things were accomplished in the community because of her.
“The work she has done with every segment, the list goes on and on and on. I don’t know of anyone that hasn’t held her in the highest esteem for the contributions she has made to mankind as a whole, truly a humanitarian,” he said.
Of Ms. Vaughn-Blakely’s effort with The Group, he said that she was all about addressing roadblocks and bumps that surround the political structure, even today as the Voting Rights debate rages on.
He said she contributed so much to give individuals access to the right to vote by creating forums for years. Only until the past few years during her illness, he said she continued to be a driving force. She never missed an opportunity to bring together notables in the community, frequently those who were running for office.
“ There was a casual saying that if you’re running for office, and have not been before The Group, you might as well as throw in the towel. That’s how influential she was,” he said.
To learn more about the Riverside African American Historical Society, see https://raahsinc.org/leadership-academy/