The documentary that Ace Media is creating, “Changing Hearts and Minds: The Ruby Sutton Story,” centers around one woman: Ruby Laverne Sutton. Ruby Sutton is known as “The Mother Theresa of Dubuque,” and she was a dedicated advocate for human rights and inclusion.
Ruby Laverne Sutton was born on November 16, 1932, in Lexington, Mississippi. Louisiana was home to Ruby for most of her childhood for her and her mom, Catherine Henderson. On May 31, 1952, Ruby married James Sutton and together they had eight children. James had been employed with the Illinois Central Railroad as a repairman and moved his family to Chicago in the early 1950s.
Due to his transfer for work, Ruby and James moved their family to Dubuque, Iowa in 1959. Their family became one of only five African American families living in Dubuque at that time. In the early 1970s, Ruby began her work in the community as a volunteer for the River Valley Inc., an agency involved with the war on poverty.
According to the Dubuque Multicultural Family Center, Ruby Sutton kickstarted the Dubuque Human Rights Commission after she was refused public accommodation at a restaurant in 1969. The Dubuque Human Rights Commission is still very much active today, and they are currently working on race in the Heartland conference, as well as unemployment in Dubuque.
Sutton also helped organize Dubuque’s NAACP chapter, and she served as the president from 1973-2009. The Dubuque NAACP chapter has continued to make a meaningful impact on the community. In addition to the organizations that she started or helped start, Sutton was trained for and served as a mediator for the city and helped design the first Diversity Training for the City.
Not only did she start these organizations, but she also served on the Education Committee for Affirmative Action, volunteered with the Dubuque Community Food Pantry, and worked at Operation: New View Community Action Agency from 1973-2009. Operation: New View is a local non-profit Community Action Agency with locations in Dubuque, Delaware and Jackson counties. Community Action comes out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and from the advocacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 created the network of locally funded agencies serving low-income populations.
Ruby Sutton won numerous awards for activism, including the “Telegraph Herald First Citizen Award,” the “NAACP First Humanitarian Award,” the “YMCA Women of Achievement Award,” the “NAACP Peacemaker Award,” the “Friends of Iowa Civil Rights Award,” and the City of Dubuque’s declaration of Ruby Sutton Day on the 15th of November.
Sutton’s legacy lives on in the lasting organizations, as well as the dedication of the Ruby Sutton Building in Dubuque, IA, and The Ruby Sutton Award. In 2015, the Dubuque NAACP chapter petitioned to name the Multicultural Family Center after Ruby Sutton. Sutton’s name was added to the Multicultural Family Center logo and she was recognized in a permanent display with a bronze plaque.