Daily Local News
May 12, 1979
By JEAN GRABOWSKI (Of the Local News Staff)
She protested nuclear testing in the '50s, she gave up her job rather than cowtow to McCarthyism. Her dedicated efforts on behalf of human rights spanned nearly a century.
But that career of social service ended late yesterday afternoon. Helen M. Corson, one of Chester County's most prominent activists, died yesterday in Friends Home, West Chester. She was 94.
Daughter of the late Henry H. and Sarah Abraham Corson, Miss Corson was born in Richland, Minn., and moved to the Avondale area as a child.
“Avondale in those days was a very lively little place,” she recalled shortly before her 90th birthday in an interview with the Local News. “It had a library, a dramatics club, a choral society – it was not a dull life.” But then Helen Corson never was one to lead a dull life anyway. And her life story is the story of social change.
The Chester County part of Miss Corson's life began near the turn of the century; when her family purchased a farm in Avondale. Young Helen lived at home, helping her ailing mother keep house. But she was active in a small women's suffrage group in the town and her interest in women's rights continued into her 90s.
Around 1913 she became involved in the pacifist movement and, with the outbreak of World War I, began devoting her considerable energy around work against wars --- war among people, among nations and among races.
In 1926 she joined the London Grove Friends Meeting, an affiliation that remained deep in her heart the rest of her life. During the 1930s, long before there was much nationwide concern about the problems of race relations and poverty, she worked with the NAACP (then considered a radical move) and the Friends Race Relations Committee of Philadelphia, directing her efforts toward open and low-cost housing, non-discriminatory hiring and fair wages.
During the Great Depression, she went to Kentucky and West Virginia to work on emergency relief and child feeding programs among poverty stricken miners. “We weren't making much,” she recalled years later, “but we had enough to live on , which is all anybody ought to want anyway, I guess.”
“There are many liberal minded, well-intentioned people who say they are on the side of equality for blacks and who talk well, but who stop short of action.”
“Helen has been willing to take clear, unequivocal stands on issues as they are in such matters as housing, jobs and education,” he said. “And her sharp analyses of situations have always been helpful.”
In recent years, her age dimmed her activity only slightly and her spirit not at all. She moved from the Kennett area, where she spent most of her life to the Friends Home in West Chester. Her death yesterday afternoon was attributed simply to old age.
But her life-long commitment to the betterment of all mankind continues even after her death, with the donations of her body to the Humanities Gifts Registry. Arrangements for a memorial service are still pending.
But in 1952 came the first of many days of decision that would affect her personal life. McCarthyism was in full force and as part of her job with the assistance programs in Chester County, Miss Corson was required to sign a Loyalty Oath.
She felt she had to take her stand.
“I could not in good conscience sign the newly instituted Loyalty Oath, which I felt was the illegal result of a communist scare,” she said later. “The Oath was an insult to free thought, speech and action at a time when even advocacy of better child labor laws or better religious practices was considered communist leaning.”
And she lost her job.
In the years since, she continued to stand by her conscience. At age 73, she demonstrated against atmospheric nuclear testing: at 75 she participated in a vigil against germ warfare. In 1962, her participation in a peaceful protest against hydrogen bomb testing earned her a police arrest record.
And still her work went on. She protested U.S. Involvement in Southeast Asia during the '60s , and during the 1971 bombing in Cambodia, helped organize People for Peace in Chester County.
In 1975, at the age of 91, she was awarded an honorary degree from Lincoln University. The years had done little to dim her energy or enthusiasm and she attended the ceremonies in person.
In awarding her the Doctor of Humane Letters degree, Lincoln professor Dr. W.T.M. Johnson recalled her life-long dedication.
“Black people in Chester County have long known Helen Corson for her strong, unwavering and never tentative support of equal rights. “ he said.