BIGGS, IONE KENNY (6 May 1916 – 16 Dec. 2005) was an outspoken advocate for peace and human rights, locally and around the globe. She was born in Cleveland to William and Gladys (Smith) Kenny. She took classes at nearby KARAMU HOUSE and graduated from CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL. She married Keith D. Biggs in 1952.
She worked for the City of Cleveland for 52 years. She joined the Recreation Department as a swimming instructor in 1934, and in 1943, she became one of the first African American female police officers, aiding in a successful 1951 drug raid. From 1956 until her retirement in 1986, Biggs served as a deputy clerk to Cleveland Municipal Court. She won a settlement against the court for racial and sexual discrimination.
Biggs’ vocation was working for a peaceful, just world: leading, organizing, writing, speaking, marching, petitioning, demonstrating, and standing vigil for controversial causes for almost four decades.
In the 1960s, Briggs supported CARL B. STOKES’ successful campaign to become the first African-American mayor of a major American city. She challenged racial bigotry and discrimination in all its forms, from the CLEVELAND INDIANS’ Chief Wahoo mascot to apartheid and violence against Blacks in South Africa. She was chosen to meet Nelson Mandela when he spoke in Detroit in 1990.
Biggs opposed the VIETNAM WAR, and in 1970, she joined WOMEN SPEAK OUT FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE, the local chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and dating to the World War I era. She served as president of Women Speak Out from 1988-1992, when its main goal was nuclear disarmament. In October 1990, she led the Cleveland March for Jobs, Peace, and Justice, sponsored by a coalition of groups including SANE/FREEZE and Physicians for Social Responsibility. In 1990 and 1991, she organized protests against the Gulf War with Iraq.
Biggs was a lifetime advocate of equality for women. She helped to organize INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S YEAR, GREATER CLEVELAND CONGRESS in 1975 and the Cleveland chapter of 9to5, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF WORKING WOMEN; she even served as an adviser to the popular film “9 to 5.” In her eighties, Biggs pursued local endorsements for the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which had been endorsed by 163 countries, but not the United States. She organized a local delegation to the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, China, but illness prevented her from attending herself.
Biggs’ activism took her around the globe. She attended the United Nations International Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1985, and went to Volgograd, Russia, as part of the sister cities program. Her work for international peace took her to Sweden, Holland, Denmark, and the Soviet Union.
Known for her gracious, genteel manner, Biggs never went to jail during her decades of peaceful protest. She received honors. Mayor GEORGE VOINOVICH declared May 19, 1989, “Ione Biggs Day.” She was elected to the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1983 and in 2002, to the CITY CLUB OF CLEVELAND’s Hall of Fame. She was named a Greater Cleveland Woman of Achievement by the Cleveland YOUNG WOMEN’S CHRISTIAN ASSOCIATION in 1996 and won the Nelson Mandela World Leader Medal in 2002. In 2006, Cleveland’s Labor Day Peace Show was dedicated to her memory. The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless annually presents its Ione Biggs Social Justice Award to Clevelanders distinguished for their service to the community. Biggs died in Cleveland and was cremated; she was preceded by her husband who died in 2003, and was survived by their two children.