Barbara Dickerman, known as “Babs” to most, had boundless energy and a vivacious personality. She was a crusader for social justice causes in Springfield. Whether it was fighting for fair and equitable housing or speaking at a city council meeting, Babs wanted justice for all people of all races and all religions. She could be feisty, and she was always passionate about her work.
If there was an issue that needed pursuing, she did it. She founded Move Inc., a precursor to Habitat for Humanity. In the 1980s, she uncovered discrimination in housing costs for low-income and minority residents and helped to gain access for all. The evidence she gathered was part of the voting rights lawsuit that changed Springfield’s form of government in 1987. In 1998, she helped secure the Lincoln Colored Home’s listing in the National Register of Historic Places. She was instrumental in establishing the African American History Museum in Springfield. Longtime colleague Cullom Davis says Babs “had a keen interest in serving the African-American community. That was truly genuine and out of her heart.”
She was an activist in so many groups and organizations that it is almost impossible to name them all. The King’s Daughters, the Junior League, Girl Scouts of America, Springfield Art Association, YWCA, League of Women Voters, the NAACP. If there was a community event, Babs would be there. Job fairs, voter registration drives, candidate forums, fundraisers – she was involved. She was a regular at city council meetings, often speaking and addressing issues that some didn’t want to confront.
All of the work led to the honor of her being named the State Journal-Register’s 2006 Copley Citizen of the Year.
Born Barbara Drake, she attended Ursuline Academy and then graduated from Springfield High School. She attended Springfield College in Illinois. She married Robert “Boomer” Dickerman on June 27, 1953. They had four children: Jim, Henry, Bob and Chris. Marriage and children delayed her pursuit of a degree.
Longtime friend and next-door neighbor Evelyn Grummon, now 102, remembers her dear friend kindly. “I would look up and see Babs at my sliding glass door, carrying a pot of coffee. We would go out on the patio and catch up. Or sometimes she would call and say, ‘I have news’ and we would meet on the little hill between our houses to talk. Mostly it was about the kids and what everyone was up to.”
Although family kept her busy, she continued to be active in many issues: the Equal Rights Amendment marches and lobbying, voting rights, equal rights, social justice. In the 1970s, she saw a brochure about a class at Sangamon State University called Community Organizing. As she said, “That’s what I was trying to do and had no idea how to do it.” She enrolled.
More activism followed.
A program at the university, first called the Youth Honors Program and later the Abraham Lincoln Institute, offered summer programs for gifted high school students. Barbara helped recruit students and raise funds for the programs. Linda Cozzolino, one of the teachers in the summer program, says, “Babs was always interested in learning and knew that the program offered something unique for our students. She was passionate about the work she pursued and always cared about others.”
From 1983-1989 Babs worked at Sangamon State University in admissions. In 1983, when her youngest son left for college, she pursued her degree, earning it in 1986. And she never stopped working for the rights of others.
Anyone who knew Babs will no doubt remember the many notes and cards she would send as thanks or encouragement, sometimes with just a message of “Good job! Keep up the good work!” If you were mentioned in the newspaper, or if she saw you at an event and exchanged updates on what you both were doing, a few days later a cheery note would arrive in the mail.
To all, Babs was a crusader for social justice, a progressive pioneer for equality, but most of all a dear friend who always had a beaming smile that lit up her face and made everyone feel special.
Cinda Klickna of Rochester is a retired educator. She writes: “I knew Babs well. I taught in the Youth Honors Program and her son was in it plus she recruited and did fundraising. She sent me a lot of cards with the keep it up message.”