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Meet Alice Upshaw Hawkins, first Black leader of League of Women Voters of Corpus Christi

This profile was originally published in the Corpus Christi Caller Times.

Resting on Alice Upshaw Hawkins' coffee table is a gavel, signifying she has taken on the responsibilities of president of the League of Women Voters of Corpus Christi.

"I really have invested my life in our community and I believe in it and I really want to see it thrive and be an area where people come and want to stay," Upshaw Hawkins said.

Upshaw Hawkins is the first Black president of the Corpus Christi chapter of the nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to advocating for voting rights across the country, founded more than 100 years ago by the suffragists who helped win women the right to vote.

This isn't the first time the retired educator has been a trailblazer. In 2016, Upshaw Hawkins became the first Black female member of the Corpus Christi ISD board of trustees. Additionally, Upshaw Hawkins has been on the leadership team of the local NAACP chapter and a member of the city of Corpus Christi library board.

"Leadership will come through if you take every opportunity that you have in life to get out there, to start digging deep and drilling down on whatever it is that moves you," Upshaw Hawkins said.

Kathryn Oler, former president of the League of Women Voters of Corpus Christi, said Upshaw Hawkins is a "remarkable" and knowledgeable woman who knows people across the community.

"This opens the door for other individuals in this community to speak more loudly," Oler said.

What is the League of Women Voters of Corpus Christi?

The main goal of the group is to register and educate voters. The organization publishes a voting guide ahead of elections informing readers about where, when and how to vote, and what is included on the ballot.

The group also visits local schools and community events to register people to vote and hosts events such as an annual march commemorating the efforts of previous generations of women who fought for the right to vote.

At the state level, the organization has engaged with legislators on redistricting and voting rights.

"Our mission is to empower voters and defend democracy," Oler said. "It's a very heavy task we have, and we do all of that through advocacy, education and litigation at the local, state and national levels. We are a local League, so we address local issues. We are working for and with the people who live here."

Through the years, the League has advocated for issues beyond voting, including a study on the impact of lead poisoning in Nueces County and efforts to improve biking opportunities in Corpus Christi.

Who is Alice Upshaw Hawkins?

Upshaw Hawkins was born in Robstown, but moved to Corpus Christi as a child. She attended CCISD schools and continued her education at Texas A&I University, now known as Texas A&M University-Kingsville. Later, she earned a master's degree from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

As a teacher, she worked in West Oso ISD, CCISD, Victoria ISD and Flour Bluff ISD. Her experience as an educator helped her develop leadership skills, Upshaw Hawkins said.

"As a teacher, it is your job to teach (students), but more specifically to inspire them to want to do something, to pump life into them," Upshaw Hawkins said.

Upshaw Hawkins joined the League eight years ago. She said that she has always been an active voter, a priority she and her sister Goldie Wooten learned from their mother, Lillie Mae Hall. Wooten has also worked to support elections.

"My mother was a stalwart person," Upshaw Hawkins said. "My mother was one of the most awesome persons I have ever in my life met. She was strong, she was resilient, she was smart and she got her high school diploma when she was 60 years old."

Hall, who died in 2009, was committed to exercising her right to vote, even paying poll taxes to do so. Poll taxes were a tool of discrimination against Black people and were struck down by the 24th Amendment in 1964.

"My mother voted without fail in every major election that I can remember, and she was voting before I was born," Upshaw Hawkins said. "I saw this activism by my mom and the people around my neighborhood. ... That was something that was instilled in my sister and me, that voting was a right. People actually died for us to have the right to vote."

Goals for the League

Upshaw Hawkins said one of her goals is to increase the participation of young people in the organization and in elections.

"We used to think of the League as just old white women, and that's the persona that we recognize we need to shake off," Upshaw Hawkins said. "We need to increase the tent."

Part of increasing the tent, Upshaw Hawkins said, is engaging with members of all sorts, regardless of age, gender or background.

She added that though schools give seniors the opportunity to register to vote in government classes, those students don't always turn out to vote.

"That's something I would like, to see that gap closed, and to get young people excited about voting because voting is your voice," Upshaw Hawkins said. "I tell people all the time, if you don't vote, don't complain because you have taken your voice out of the process."