Helen Gordon Quigless Biography
Poet, librarian, community leader
Known as an energetic, imaginative individual, Helen Quigless's passion for writing poetry was equalled by her dedication to community projects, including the Partners in Art program, which provides guidance in the arts for disadvantaged children. She was a respected community leader in her home town of Tarboro, North Carolina, where her involvement in the Phoenix Historical Society of Edgecombe County helped develop the town as a major historical site. In her professional life as a librarian Quigless was no less driven. Despite struggling with rheumatoid arthritis and progressive blindness she was responsible for developing the library holdings at the University of the District of Columbia from its inception in 1974. Quigless is most widely known as a poet; her work appeared in several prestigious anthologies, including Black Southern Voices (1968) and Today's Negro Voices (1970).
Helen Gordon Quigless was born in Washington, D.C., on July 16, 1944, the daughter of Milton D. Quigless and Helen McAlpine Gordon Quigless. Quigless grew up with her brother Milton and her sister Carol in Tarboro, North Carolina. Her father was a noted physician and general surgeon; he was one of the first black doctors in Edgecombe County. In 1946 he opened a clinic on Main Street, in Tarboro, to provide medical care for blacks who were prevented from seeking treatment at "white" health centers and hospitals; he died in 1997. Her father's position in the community may well have inspired Quigless in her own community work. She attended Putney School in Putney, Vermont, before earning a bachelor's degree in English at Fisk University (1966); in 1969 she was awarded a master's degree in library and information science at Atlanta University. From the age of 19, she suffered with rheumatoid arthritis, a painful illness that left her blind and bedridden in the final months of her life.
Quigless began working at Federal City College, later to become part of the District of Columbia University, in 1968 and remained there until illness forced her retirement. She began as a media specialist, but was eventually responsible for developing the library and information holdings at the university. Despite her time-consuming and demanding job, Quigless also found time to write poetry. She was linked with the Black Arts Movement, a group of black writers, musicians, poets, and artists whose work provided cultural and intellectual weight to the civil rights movement. In 1967 her poetry appeared in For Malcolm, an anthology to commemorate civil rights leader Malcolm X, and for the next few years she could be listed alongside Marvin X, Etheridge Knight, and Gwendolyn Brooks, as one of those who provided a poetic voice for the black community. She published poems in two other anthologies, The New Black Poetry (1968), and Today's Negro Voices (1970), as well as the 1970 edition of New Negro Poets.
Quigless was well known as a poet for a relatively short period, but the direct approach she took in her poetry also made her a dedicated community leader in her home town of Tarboro. Struggling with illness, Quigless nevertheless worked hard on community projects, using her connections in the literary and art worlds in fundraising and publicity. She founded Partners in Art, an award for middle and high school students in Edgecombe County. The annual award, funded by a coalition of local businesses, is presented each spring. It provides access to art materials, and professional tuition, as well as allowing students to display their work for the public. Meade Horne, former executive director of Edgecombe ARTS, who worked with Quigless on the Partners in Art program, told The Daily Southerner that "She had a great spirit and great determination. I never met someone more determined in my life." Besides her involvement with Edgecombe County Cultural Arts Council, Quigless was also a leading light in Edgecombe County NAACP, and the American Association of University Women. She served as president of the Phoenix Historical Society of Edgecombe County, using her position to promote genealogical research in and around Tarboro, one of the United States' oldest towns. She was also influential in the development of Tarboro's historic district, which is one of the largest in the South-Eastern United States.
Quigless's life was overshadowed by the illness that finally took her life at the age of 59. Yet her dynamic personality, determination, and creativity brought her influence that went far beyond the small town where she was raised; as a poet she was part of a literary movement that helped define American literature in the late twentieth century. Yet it was for the culture, history, and the people of Tarboro that Quigless reserved her greatest dedication and effort. Sister Mary Ann Czaja told The Daily Southerner "Her creativity was the gift she gave to society."
Helen Gordon Quigless' poetry has been published in anthologies, including For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X, Broadside Press, 1967; The New Black Poetry, International Publishers, 1968; Today's Negro Voices: An Anthology by Young Negro Poets, Messner, 1970; New Negro Poets (1970).
Jet, February 23, 2004.
"County at a Loss for Words," The Daily Southerner, http://dailysoutherner.com/articles/2004/01/20/news/news3.txt (November 22, 2004).
"Helen Gordon Quigless," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (November 18, 2004).
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