Ernece Kelly (NYC Department of Aging photo)

Dr. Ernece Kelly vividly remembers where she was on April 4, 1968—exactly 55 years ago from this past Tuesday.

“The day that Dr. [Martin Luther] King was assassinated, I was at a conference of English teachers—college and university professors—and needless to say, most of them were white,” said Kelly. “It was clear to me that they didn't know what to do—hundreds of people: teachers, professors, lecturers gathered at this conference. Here, this pivotal Black man had been assassinated and they didn’t know what to do.”

She responded to the assassination by delivering a presentation titled “Murder of the American Dream.” It not only mourned King, but called out the racist, exclusionary practices of the white educators attending. To them, the conference must go on. To her, the assassination was like a death in the family.

King wasn’t just a mythical figure for Kelly: He was once her employer. A lifelong educator, Kelly took a leave of absence from teaching to manage his office when King arrived in her hometown of Chicago during the mid-’60s. Her work largely mobilized prospective volunteers to match their skills with the needs of the Civil Rights Movement. She proved to be a real asset, thanks to her thorough understanding of the ins and outs of the “Windy City.”

But how did King’s expert on all things Chicago end up as this week’s “Black New Yorker”? Kelly is one of the many underappreciated Black lesbians who contributed to the Civil Rights Movement. She later ended up involved with a woman who wanted to live closer to her uncle in the Big Apple. That was all the motivation Kelly needed to make the move.

“I had always wanted to live in New York City. I fell for the stereotype—the happy stories of New York being the most exciting, the most multicultural, the most diverse city in this country,” she said. “And I wanted to be here. And so we came together.”

Three decades later, she’s still here, and still making a difference.

After moving to New York City, Kelly got involved with eldercare. These days, she volunteers for seniors in the Bronx, at both the Marble Hill NYCHA houses and the NYC Department of Aging-funded Riverdale Senior Services (RSS). She’s a proponent of working with her hands and said making minor repairs for older New Yorkers gives her a “big charge.”

“We are proud and pleased that Ernece has found an opportunity to continue her commitment to community service at RSS,” said Department of Aging Commissioner Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez over email. “Our network of hundreds of older adult centers and naturally occurring retirement communities are filled with individuals just like Ernece, who continue to give back for the betterment of others.”

At the RSS, Kelly assists the senior center’s chef, who she called the most innovative cook she’s met. That’s huge praise, given the lofty benchmark of her mom’s cooking.

“My mother would make a meal with meatballs one week; another week, she’s making a Chinese dish with crispy noodles,” said Kelly. “She was cooking all over the map. My sister and I grew up [where] we were willing to try anything. I learned to cook my mother’s knee, and [volunteering] in the kitchen at RSS in many ways reminded me of working with my mother when I was a little girl.”

Like many Black Chicagoans from her generation, Kelly directly traces her family history to the Great Migration. Her mother was a homemaker and her father was a postal worker. They were the progeny of the southern Black upper-middle class, her family boasting a long line of doctors and entrepreneurs.

Beyond volunteering and working in the Civil Rights Movement, Kelly is, as mentioned, a lifelong educator. She was a professor at Chicago City College’s Loop Campus, the University of Maryland, and her alma mater Northwestern University, as well as here in New York City at Brooklyn’s Kingsborough Community College.

While Kelly has come a long way, though, the United States still has some catching up to do. Even today, “Murder of the American Dream” remains relevant.

“I produced some materials to help these teachers and I challenged educational publishers to include more material from people of color, and it did have an effect,” said Kelly. “What’s ironic is now people like Gov. [Ron] DeSantis in Florida going backward and saying ‘let’s take [away] literature [talking] about slavery, lynchings or ways in which Black and brown people—particularly Black people—had been exploited.’

“I'm afraid he’s going to be setting a template [encouraging] other states to go backward also and—for a lack of a better word—whitewash American literature.”

Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Aficionperu. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting

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