ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The late ABC anchor Peter Jennings was a fresh face on TV news when he did a piece about African-American families in Louisiana living in run-down homes with out-houses.
The plight of those families, living in the home state of her paternal grandfather, so moved a grade-schooler from Corpus Christi, Texas, that she pledged her life to social justice causes.
“I was going to be the civil rights worker who was going to change the world,” said Pamelya Herndon.
Herndon, 65, is executive director of the Southwest Women’s Law Center, a nonprofit that works on issues that affect women such as equal pay, health care, domestic violence and pregnancy while working or attending school.
Despite her early inspiration, it was to be many years before she could pursue the dream of championing civil rights.
She graduated from Roy Miller High School in Corpus Christiï»¿ and headed to Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C. As a student, she interned for Louis Stokes, the first black congressman elected in the state of Ohio, and earned a bachelor’s in Business Administration.
While at Howard, she met fellow student and future husband Alfred Mathewson. He went on to Yale law school, she went to the University of Texas Law School in Austin.
“I think it was a good thing,” she said. “You can’t really date in law school. The law is a jealous mistress.”
The law school in Austin appealed to Herndon’s sense of social justice because of an African-American man, Heman Sweatt. Denied entry to the law school because of the “separate but equal” laws of the 1940s, Sweatt sued and won a Supreme Court decision in his favor. He was admitted to the law school in 1950.
Historians say the court decision paved the way for the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that ended legal segregation at all levels of public education.
Herndon said another major influence on her life was lawyer and educator Barbara Jordan, the first black woman elected to the Texas state senate and the first black Texan in Congress.
After law school Herndon worked for a major accounting firm for a couple of years, passed her Certified Public Accountant exam and joined what she calls “the largest tax firm in the United States – the Internal Revenue Service.”
She and Mathewson married in 1978, but she kept her maiden name. They soon moved to Denver where he worked for the Holme, Roberts & Owen law firm. They came to Albuquerque in 1983 when he joined the faculty of the University of New Mexico Law School.
Herndon transferred to an IRS position in Albuquerque, but when the office closed she had to commute to Phoenix for a couple of years. From federal work, she moved into a state position working in the litigation department under former Attorney General Patricia Madrid.
She then became general counsel for the state Regulation and Licensing Department and later Deputy Cabinet Secretary for the New Mexico General Services Department.
Working for federal and state government limited her opportunities to be a social justice advocate. Nevertheless, Herndon used her tax expertise to advise minority small business owners about pitfalls that could cost them their company. She also advised women about potential tax liabilities in the assets they received in divorce settlements.
Opportunity came calling in 2011, when a board member of the Southwest Women’s Law Center told her Jane Wishner, the woman who founded the organization in 2005, was leaving for another job. Herndon took over as executive director in 2012.
In the years since, the organization has championed the New Mexico Fair Pay for Women Act and a law that ensures pregnant teens can make up for lost credit if they are out of school. Both passed in 2013. The center is still lobbying for a law to provide protections for pregnant women in jobs where their duties may pose harm to their unborn child. The law passed in 2017 but was vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez.
Among many more initiatives Herndon is pursuing, is to start an indigenous women’s resource center in Gallup. It would focus on issues such as domestic violence, sex-trafficking and missing women on Native land and fair pay. She plans to seek support from New Mexico’s congressional delegation to obtain federal funding.
In all this busy schedule, Herndon and her husband had time for three children. A daughter Eryn Mathewson, 30, now works for ESPN; daughter Amber works for civil rights activist Al Sharpton and WBLS radio in New York; and son Justin is doing space-related research at Arizona State University.
Herndon and her husband are die-hard Lobo basketball fans, with season tickets to the games at Dreamstyle Arena-The Pit.
As a youngster, Herndon loved music and played clarinet in the high school band. Nowadays, Herndon volunteers with KUNM 89.9 FM and her rich mellow voice can be heard Sunday mornings as the “persona of the Southwest Gospel Diva” hosting “Train to Glory.”
On Sunday afternoons once a month, she introduces the NPR shows, “This American Life” and “All Things Considered.” In honor of Black History Month, she hosted KUNM’s “Women’s Focus” program on Feb. 24, featuring the first African-American women presidents of three historically black colleges, and a descendent of one of the 272 slaves that Georgetown priests sold in 1838 to help pay off university debt.