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A Connection to History

breanna, Isiah and charles

Breanna Toney with her brother Isiah and great-great grandfather Charles Toney, Sr.

View Breanna's Grad Stories Facebook photo album

May 2017 | by Craig DeVrieze


Breanna Toney didn't come to St. Ambrose to learn about her family history.

That was a very pleasant bonus.

Now, she has piece of family history all her own.

When Breanna received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Marketing on May 13, at the i Wireless Center in Moline, she accomplished something her great-great grandfather, the revered Charles W. Toney Sr. did not.

The senior Toney certainly has an indelible place in St. Ambrose history. He is believed to have been the first black student to enroll at St. Ambrose and he became a local civil rights icon with the strong support of St. Ambrose teachers like the Rev. William O'Connor '29 and his brother Msgr. Edward O'Connor '21.

Charles Toney Sr. was a very deserving recipient of an honorary St. Ambrose degree in 1965, but he did not complete his pursuit of an undergraduate degree after enrolling here in 1932, leaving after a year to find work.

Toney Sr. went on to forge a long history as a social leader in the Quad Cities and in Iowa, ultimately serving as commissioner of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and as president of the Davenport Chapter of the NAACP. He emerged from a job on the factory floor at John Deere to become the company's first black executive. In that capacity, he created one of the first voluntary affirmative action plans in the United States.

Toney made local history in the 1940s, winning the first civil rights discrimination suit after he and Breanna's great-great grandmother Anne were denied the opportunity to buy ice cream based on the color of their skin.

Breanna knew some of Charles Toney's impressive story when she enrolled at St. Ambrose, but she didn't know all of it, particularly his close connection to her school of choice.

Mostly, she remembered an aging and infirm gentleman she sometimes visited at his home in Coal Valley, Ill., which was just a two-minute drive from her own childhood home. She definitely remembers Anne Toney chasing her around the room to grab hugs a young Breanna was stingy about sharing.

There was little talk in the family then about the senior Toney's role in advancing social justice. "He was very modest," Breanna remembered. "I didn't find out until later the things that he did.''

She learned more when she was interviewed for this 2015 Scene article. "I had no idea he was so involved with people from the St. Ambrose community," she said recently. "That was really cool."

She's learned even more in the past couple of years, driven to quiz her aunt and other family members about Charles' accomplishments and connections to St. Ambrose.

"I'm kind of upset that I can't talk to him now that I understand everything," she said. "He makes me want to achieve more and live up to what I think his expectations would be."

She will work to do that now with an SAU marketing degree in hand. She originally came to study accounting but found that marketing provided more of an outlet for creativity and expression.

The change in major preceded two major life events last summer - the first the death of her mother, later followed by a proposal from her longtime boyfriend. They are scheduled to be married on July 7.

Breanna said she returned to St. Ambrose changed by those two experiences, and began to make new friends, many who now will be bridesmaids in her wedding. "This year especially, my friends have become family," she said.

MORE LIKE THIS:AmbroseZine, Diversity, Institutional-Campus

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