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Ora Higgins

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1910, Ora Higgins was a pioneer in integrating businesses. After moving to Chicago to earn her B.A. degree in personnel administration and her M.A. degree in business law from Northwestern University, Higgins set out on a career that would open doors for countless African Americans.

Higgins went to work for Spiegel, one of the largest mail order retail businesses in the world, after earning her degrees. In 1945, Spiegel began a comprehensive integration of its facilities, and Higgins was placed in charge of the program. In this position, Higgins became the first African American woman to engineer a major industrial integration program. Higgins began her work by initiating an education program for executives and supervisors, helping to break down stereotypes and assuage any fears they might have. From there, she began to manage the personnel, numbering in the hundreds, covering hiring, training, and any problems employees might experience. Spiegel's integration program was complete in every way, paying the same wages to all employees, regardless of race, utilizing the same facilities; she would remain with the company for thirty-one years. In 1950, Higgins was brought in to consult and engineer an integration program for various department stores in the Chicago Loop, the financial and business center of the city. During President Lyndon Johnson's administration, Higgins spoke before the United States Department of Labor on race, poverty, and the need for peace.

In addition to her years of service to Spiegel and her work with integration programs, Higgins was active on a number of organizations and committees. Higgins was a member of the Women's Division of the National Conference of Christians and Jews; the National Chairman of Women in Industry; and a member of the Executive Board of the Metropolitan YWCA. Higgins was also a member of the faculty of Dunbar Vocational Evening School. Clark Atlanta University named a scholarship on Higgins's behalf, and the state of Illinois declared October 27, 2002, Ora Higgins's Youth Foundation Day. In September of 2009, Ora Higgins was honored upon the occasion of her ninety-ninth birthday; at that time she counted a daughter, eighteen grandchildren, and one great-grandchild, among her descendants.

Ora Higgins was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on August 29, 2003.

Ora Higgins passed away on July 25, 2012.

Accession Number




Interview Date


Last Name


Maker Category

Benjamin W. Raymond Elementary School

Herman Felsenthal Elementary School

Wendell Phillips Academy High School

Chicago State University

Malcolm X College

Northwestern University

First Name


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Favorite Season




Favorite Vacation Destination

Washington, D.C.

Favorite Quote

The Lord is my shepherd, and I shall not want.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State


Interview Description
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Speakers Bureau Region City




Favorite Food


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Short Description

Personnel manager Ora Higgins (1910 - 2012 ) is the first African American woman to engineer a corporate integration plan as a personnel manager.


Urban League

Spiegel, Inc.

Dunbar Vocational High School

Favorite Color


Timing Pairs

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Ora Higgins interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Ora Higgins's favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Ora Higgins talks about her mother's background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Ora Higgins talks about her father's background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Ora Higgins lists her siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Ora Higgins remembers her childhood neighborhood

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Ora Higgins discusses her elementary school experiences

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Ora Higgins recalls an influential trip with a teacher to Washington, D.C.

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Ora Higgins names motivational speakers she heard in Chicago

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Ora Higgins discusses her high school career

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Ora Higgins lists colleges she attended

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Ora Higgins explains her late night study habits in high school

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Ora Higgins discusses her college education

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Ora Higgins remembers when blacks could not get jobs in downtown Chicago stores

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Ora Higgins talks about volunteering with the Urban League to convince business leaders to integrate

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Ora Higgins details how she organized the racial integration of Spiegel

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Ora Higgins recalls working as national integration organizer for Spiegel and as an integration consultant for other companies

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Ora Higgins talks about recruiting black students for Spiegel Inc.

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Ora Higgins talks about the social climate at Spiegel, Inc.

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Ora Higgins explains her strategy for recruiting employees

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Ora Higgins recalls her experineces at Northwestern University

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Ora Higgins discusses working twenty-six years as a night school teacher

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Ora Higgins talks about the Ora Higgins Youth Foundation and her other volunteer work since retirement

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Ora Higgins shares her hopes and concerns for the black community

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Ora Higgins remembers highlights from her political activism work in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Ora Higgins recites her poetry

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Ora Higgins considers her legacy

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Photo - Ora Higgins, Miss Woods, and an unidentified woman, ca. 1980s.

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Photo - Ora Higgins and Mrs. Spiegel, 1980s

Tape: 3 Story: 12 - Photo - Ora Higgins, ca. 1980s

Tape: 3 Story: 13 - Photo - Ora Higgins with Ora Higgins Youth Foundation scholarship recipients, late 1970s

Tape: 3 Story: 14 - Photo - Ora Higgins's former employer M.J Spiegel, Aaron Payne and Henry McGee, ca. 1980s

Tape: 3 Story: 15 - Photo - Ora Higgins and an Ora Higgins Youth Foundation scholarship award recipient, not dated

Tape: 3 Story: 16 - Photo - Ora Higgins with Father George Clements and Marion Hall (ph.), ca. 1980s

Tape: 3 Story: 17 - Photo - U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush, Ora Higgins's son and an unidentified woman, not dated

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Photo - Crowd shot at an Ora Higgins Youth Foundation event, Lexington House, Hickory Hills, Illinois, ca. 1990

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Photo - Ora Higgins at an Ora Higgins Youth Foundation event held at the Lexington House, Hickory Hills, Illinois, 1999

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Photo - Ora Higgins with Ora Higgins Youth Foundation scholarship award recipients and board members, ca. 1990s

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Photo - Ora Higgins with an Ora Higgins Youth Foundation scholarship recipient, Hickory Hills, Illinois, 2001

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Photo - Ora Higgins with Ora Higgins Youth Foundation's treasurer and a scholarship winner, not dated

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Photo - Ora Higgins with Ora Higgins Youth Foundation's treasurer, ca. 1990s

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Photo - Silas Parnell speaking at an Ora Higgins Youth Foundation event, not dated

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Photo - Ora Higgins's father, ca. 1950s

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Photo - Ora Higgins's husband, ca. 1950s

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Photo - Ora Higgins, ca. 1926

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Photo - Ora Higgins and her husband's wedding photo, not dated

Tape: 4 Story: 12 - Photo - Ora Higgins with Muriel Duster (ph.), William Higgins, Jr., and unidentified man, ca. 1990s

Tape: 4 Story: 13 - Photo - Ora Higgins with her nephew, not dated

Tape: 4 Story: 14 - Photo - Painting of Ora Higgins shaking hands with Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, painted 1981







Ora Higgins talks about volunteering with the Urban League to convince business leaders to integrate
Ora Higgins talks about the social climate at Spiegel, Inc.
How did you get involved with the Urban League?$$The Urban League was conducting a campaign to solicit memberships. And I volunteered to work with this particular group. And we were conducting businesses within the area. And I was one of the persons that was able to get more memberships from the businesses in the area. And that's how I became familiar with the Urban League work.$$Okay. Now, you were part of a special project of the Urban League, right?$$(Simultaneously) Yes.$$How did they select you for that?$$Well, I was recommended by someone on their board. And this was Aaron Payne. He knew me.$$Now he was an attorney, right?$$He was an attorney. And he was on their board. And that's how I was selected. I mean, he knew of my capabilities.$$Now what was that project? Can you describe the project for us that you were selected for?$$Well, this project--we were trained at the University of Chicago [Chicago, Illinois]--was dealing with advertising and how to make contact with businesses throughout. They had a regular procedure that we were trained in. And we followed their procedure.$$Okay. Now, the procedure was designed to do what?$$The procedure was designed to make contacts with the businesses within the area to get memberships for the Urban League.$$Okay. So it was like a--?$$It was a training session that we went through for six weeks. They had a regular outline of what you would be covering and all the problems that you would run into.$$Okay. So they would try to train you as--? I mean it must have been tough for a black person to see the head of a major corporation in those days.$$Well, it was--the main thing was how to approach people and how to discuss the work of the Urban League with them.$$Okay. This was for everybody.$$Yeah.$$Okay. What did they tell you to do? I mean what was the procedure?$$Well, the procedure was the (unclear)--the Urban League was, at that particular time, an integrated organization. And they worked in various areas trying to get businesses to accept Negro people. And they worked in the communities, in all of the communities.$$Okay. So what happened when you started trying to recruit members?$$Well, we were well-trained. And we didn't have any--. There were some people, some businesses that turned us down, but there weren't many. Many of the businesses, after we got through talking with the presidents, we only made contact with the presidents of the company. And we didn't have any problems because of the fact that the Board of the Urban League had sent out letters concerning our introduction into that particular area of contact.$When I was hired at Spiegel [Inc.], Mr. [Modie Joseph] Spiegel laid out a plan for me to follow. And I was--worked in every department in the business for two weeks, in order to learn operations of the jobs within all these departments. And that was part of my training to go into the business to the selection of the employees. And this was very interesting. At that time they thought I was a Mexican; (chuckling) they didn't think I was a Negro. So I worked in each section of the department throughout the building and there was more than two hundred departments.$$(simultaneously) That's a lot.$$That you had to learn their jobs.$$Yeah. Now, since you were sort of in there undercover and they thought you were a Mexican, did you ever hear people discussing black people in the workplace? Did they discuss black people?$$(Simultaneously) Not around me they didn't. They, as I said, they accepted me as a Mexican, not a Negro.$$Right. So I just wondered if one time you might walk up and they were all talking about Negroes.$$(Chuckling) No.$$Because they'd probably shut up if they were talking about Mexicans and you walked up, because they would think you were one.$$(chuckling) Well, they thought I was a Mexican.$$But you never heard any derogatory racial stuff about black people?$$(Simultaneously) No. They didn't make any statements. And then they had so much respect for Mr. Spiegel.$$What was he like? What was M. J. Spiegel like?$$He was a very fine attitude towards black people. And the National Brotherhood Organization [?], he was a member of it. And they were really interested in the integration of black people. So he would be on their board. He wanted to comply with their wishes. And these things were discussed in their meetings. So he was very favorable towards black people.$$Now, he's the grandson of the founder of Spiegel [Joseph Spiegel], I think. Right?$$(Simultaneously) Of (unclear), of the owner, of the people that originally started the business.$$Spiegel was founded after the Civil War by a German man who fought in the Civil War. Spiegel stores are still doing good business, still thriving today.$$(Simultaneously) Yeah.