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Sister of Malcolm X dies at 73

Wednesday, July 23, 2003
By Steven Harmon
©The Grand Rapids Press

Yvonne Woodward, sister of the late black activist Malcolm X, died Monday of complications from lung cancer, relatives said.

Ms. Woodward, who took up the mantle of speaking out against racism later in her life, was 73.

Woodward was believed to be the first black telephone operator for Michigan Bell Co. in Grand Rapids. She lived in the city from 1950 to 1971 before spending her final 32 years in Woodland Park in Newaygo County, where she owned a convenience store and resort property.

Ms. Woodward, like her seven siblings, spent a lifetime overcoming tragedy, beginning with the death of her father, the Rev. Earl Little. Later, her mother was put in the state mental facility in Kalamazoo.

The eight children were split apart and sent to various foster families in the Lansing area.

"It had a big impact on her life," said her son, Steve Jones, 50. "Even though she ended up in a good foster home, she remembers every night she had to sleep in the orphanage prior to that. She came from (an established) family, the first black family to own cars, own property, and here she had to go and become a ward of the state. Everything was taken from them."

While her brother quickly rose to fame -- and then just as suddenly was slain by assassins' bullets in 1965 -- Ms. Woodward laid out her own pioneering footsteps.

In 1948, she became the first black telephone operator in Grand Rapids. She previously was the first black operator in Lansing.

"She knew if she didn't do the right thing, it would take years for them to take a chance to hire another black operator," Jones said. "In Grand Rapids, the operators took a vote to see if the girls were willing to have a 'Negro' work with them. The vote was unanimous except one vote ... and my mother found out who she was and won her over."

Another brother, Reginald Little, died in Grand Rapids in 2001. Two siblings remain: Wesley Little, 75, of Detroit, and Hilda Little, 80, of Woodland Park.

Ms. Woodward also is survived by her three children, Deborah Jones, 52, of Grand Rapids, Steve Jones, of Woodland Park, and Shawn Durr, 37, of Grand Rapids.

Ms. Woodward spent years trying to set the record straight about Malcom X. For instance, she bridled at the notion that Malcolm X was a pimp before going to prison, as portrayed in Spike Lee's movie, "X."

And she said she told Lee she was disappointed in him for portraying Malcolm X's fellow inmate, Shorty, as the one who introduced him to the Nation of Islam. Reginald Little did, she said.

In a speaking event at East Grand Rapids High School eight years ago, she spoke about how her parents instilled the crusading spirit that later emerged in her brother, Malcolm X. She said her parents were independent and taught self-respect and dignity, advocating blacks establish their own economic base through self-owned businesses.

"You see where he (Malcolm) got an early start crusading and fighting for the rights of people," she said. "Malcolm had a lot of heart and insight into the future, present and past problems."

Her children saw that same quality in Yvonne Woodward.

"She was always a very strong influence in my life -- she taught me independence," said Deborah Jones. "She gave me my strength. She raised her children so we could carry on what she brought to us."

A memorial service will be held Aug. 9 at the Merrill Township Community building in Woodland Park on 11 Mile Road. The service will begin at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, the family asks people to donate to a Yvonne Woodward endowment to continue a community park in Woodland Park. Donations can be made through the Independent Bank in Woodland Park.