Times Past

Woman who co-founded MLK scholarship recalls her experience in an immigrant family

Two of the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship BBQ co-founders, Jennie Hiltel and Dale Federer, in 1995.
Two of the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship BBQ co-founders, Jennie Hiltel and Dale Federer, in 1995.

Jennie Hiltel, the daughter of Italian immigrants, was severely shaken by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

The Martin Luther King Jr. High School Memorial Scholarship Fund, which Jennie had helped start the year after King’s death, and its annual barbecue fundraiser were as important as ever in 1992. Jennie, then in her late 80s, continued to be active when our longtime friend, editor and co-author Stan Harth wrote “A Message from Jennie” for this column.

These excerpts from that “message” have a special resonance for us in 2017.

Jennie’s sense of urgency in 1968 “may be found, in part, in the experiences of her own family and in her reading of works by and about the civil rights leaders.

“She said that her father, Achille Banchieri, ‘could save enough money from working in the Sacramento Valley so that he could return to northern Italy and marry Carolina Nieri.

 ‘Achille was very persuasive about the dreams of success and good fortune that awaited them in America, so trunks were packed and about a year after their wedding, they sailed for New York. The voyage was rough. The Statue of Liberty was a welcome sight.

 ‘But when they got on the train headed west, some street toughs ran along the tracks yelling ugly names at the immigrants. Mama was one who did not understand this conduct. It made her cry.’

“The couple bought a small farm near Calistoga. They were the only farmers there of Italian descent, but all the families helped each other the best they could. They had four children.”

Jennie said “the oldest child, Yolanda, ‘brought English to our household’ after she was enrolled as a first-grader in a one-room school about two miles from the farm.”

Looking back over the years, Jennie observed, “ ‘Being short of money never altered my parents’ goal that we would work our way up to the way of life we wanted. They never doubted that we kids would grow up to be good citizens and lead useful lives.’

 ‘Mama taught us many lessons along with a love and trust in God. If there is work to be done, do it. Reading is a joy in any language. Being different can mean being special. Neighbors and friends respect each others’ privacy but observe when there is need for help and offer it freely. Education is precious. The language of the heart translates foreign words.’

“Reading strengthened her belief in these precepts taught by her mother, and Jennie felt they were directly linked to the fledgling civil rights movement.

 ‘I had read some of Richard Wright’s books, and I had been moved by Harper Lee’s novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ The civil rights movement was in the news every day. In December of 1964, I read and kept a copy of the excerpts from the Rev. King’s speech when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize at Oslo University. I have read that speech many times, and his eloquent plea for non-violence has stayed with me.’ 

Over the years, almost anyone who entered Jennie’s home on Murray Street was treated to the sight of Jennie lovingly fingering through her dog-eared, paper slip-filled, marked-up copies of King’s speeches and writing.

She smiled when she spoke about the benefit barbecue being held at the Elks Club. From her reading, she knew “that King planned to be a physician until he won an Elks Club speaking contest while in high school and began to change his career plans.”

For many years, the MLK Barbecue has been held at the Elks Club. It’s on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 5, from 12 to 3 p.m. at 222 Elks Lane in San Luis Obispo. The full-course chicken barbecue includes a beverage. Homemade desserts are available. Takeout is ideal for the Super Bowl game.

Don’t miss enjoying this San Luis Obispo institution.

Stan Harth and Liz Krieger contributed to this column.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com