Endesha Ida Mae Holland was an activist, educator, and playwright. Ida Mae Holland (she added Endesha as an adult) was born on 29 August 1944 in Greenwood to midwife Ida Mae Holland and grew up with three older siblings, Simon Jr., Bud, and Jean. Holland’s childhood reflected the prevailing racism encountered by African Americans living in the South. She and her family worked seasonally in the cotton fields of Leflore County, the same county where fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was murdered on the day before Holland’s eleventh birthday. Less than a year later a white man raped her.
At age thirteen she was compelled to quit school and find employment to help provide for her mother and siblings. Over the next several years she worked as a prostitute and served time on a prison farm for shoplifting. Holland gave birth to her only child, Cedric, in 1961, only months after being released from the prison farm. She married Cedric’s father, Ike, in 1963 and divorced in 1966. Holland later married and divorced two more times.
After a chance encounter with Bob Moses in 1962, Holland gave up prostitution and devoted herself to the civil rights movement as a volunteer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Greenwood. From 1962 to 1965 Holland traveled extensively, promoting civil rights outside of the South. She was arrested on several occasions as a result of her activities and became the target of violence when her Greenwood home was firebombed in 1965. Her mother burned to death in the flames.
Five months later, Holland left Mississippi and traveled north. Through the help of activist friends, she enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where she studied playwriting and remained active in black issues. She also helped establish the school’s African American studies program and founded Women Helping Offenders, a program designed to provide aid to women in prison. Holland ultimately earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from the university and became a professor of American studies and women’s studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She later worked at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles as a playwright in residence and a professor.
In 1981 Holland’s The Second Doctor Lady won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle’s Lorraine Hansberry Award for Best Play. Holland revised the play into an autobiographical two-act drama, From the Mississippi Delta, that was produced in London and Off-Broadway in 1991. The play includes some of the more harrowing incidents from Holland’s life, including her rape, and has been acknowledged as an intense and inspirational work. Commenting on the dramatization of her life and her triumph over poverty and abuse, Holland declared that today’s “young people need to know that they can do wrong things and yet still change and grow.” In 1997 Holland published From the Mississippi Delta (1997) as a memoir.
On 18 October 1991 Greenwood declared Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland Day to celebrate her contributions to the city’s culture and history. She died in 2006 from complications of a degenerative neurological disease.
- Margalit Fox, New York Times (1 February 2006)
- Gale Group, Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 3 (1992)
- Gale Group, Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, vol. 11 (1993); Mississippi Writers and Musicians website, www.mswritersandmusicians.com/