Helen Lemme Bio
Frances Helen Renfrow Lemme, known as Helen Lemme, a civil rights and community leader in Iowa City, Iowa, was born on February 25, 1905 in Grinnell, Iowa. She was a research technician in the Department of Internal Medicine at the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa) and was active in many organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Johnson County and the Iowa City Area Council of Churches.
During the 1930s and 1940s, she and husband Allyn Lemme, opened their home to African-American students when they were not allowed to live in the University of Iowa dormitories. Her service to the student community began in the 1920s when African-Americans could not obtain housing in the University of Iowa dormitories or elsewhere in Iowa City because of their race. She and her husband opened their home and allowed a number of students to live with her family during this time. Even after World War II, when African-Americans were allowed to live on campus, Lemme’s home remained the social nucleus that kept the student community together. Her sons, Lawrence and Paul, remember people such as Duke Ellington coming to the Lemme home to play and entertain at all-night parties.
Lemme was active in a number of forums combating racism and discrimination. She helped to create the Negro Forum, was a member of the Democratic Party’s Black Caucus, and in 1946 was elected president of the Iowa City League of Women Voters. She was also an active member of the first Iowa City Human Relations Commission. Lemme was the first woman to be honored as Best Citizen in Iowa City, and the first person to receive the honor of Iowa City Woman of the Year. The Helen Lemme elementary school in Iowa City is named in her honor.
Helen Lemme died as a result of smoke inhalation at a fire in her home in 1968.