Date: Fri, 1 Aug 97 18:17:41 CDT
From: Marpessa Kupendua <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: !*Unsung black woman pays price for challenging white supremacy
)Date: Thu, 31 Jul 1997 19:07:59 -0500
)From: Michael Novick <email@example.com>
)Subject: Unsung black woman pays price for challenging white supremacy
MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga.—A hero of the freedom movement marches still, but only across clean, quiet grounds, through hallways of vacant stares and dreamy, narcotic smiles.
In what history refers to as the Albany Movement, an 18-year-old
college freshman named Ola Mae Quarterman defied the racism that
gripped southern Georgia in 1962. When a driver ordered her to the
back of a bus, she told him,
I'll sit where I want. A judge
gave her 30 days.
Heroes are made this way. The legend of Rosa Parks, a living legend of the civil rights movement after the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, was born in such a way.
But Ms. Quarterman's story did not ring out from Albany, which was, in many ways, a testing ground for the nonviolent strategies that would prove so effective in Birmingham, Ala., and elsewhere. There was no decisive, poignant victory for Albany. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left the city in disappointment, and national attention died away.
Ms. Quarterman, like many others who took such risks, has paid a price for her moment in history. She was ostracized, she said, not only by an angry white community but also by some in the black establishment who opposed the civil rights movement. She was expelled from a black college, Albany State. Later, when she needed work, no one would hire her.
Bitter disappointment, aggravated by a difficult childbirth that left her weak and ill, was finally too much for her. Her mind drowned in its own sadness.
I had a nervous breakdown in 1965, she said recently, walking
in hot summer sunlight at Central State Hospital, the state's
I've been here ever since.
She has all but disappeared inside the long hallways of this red-brick complex, like some half-forgotten heirloom in a dusty attic trunk. Now and then, someone with a respect for history will find her, polish her legacy with a ceremony or some other honor, and then put her back.
She is 53 now, and her commitment to the hospital is voluntary. She walks its grounds with purpose, as if she is still marching.
As she recently neared a pod of tall sunflowers, she leaned in close to a visitor to share a secret.
They gave me shock treatments, she said,
till I couldn't
remember how to count.
That was a long time ago, when she first came to the hospital, which
is hidden in the deep green of rolling hills, cotton fields and pecan
groves. In time, the hospital's long-term care division became
home. Staff members -- a few of them know of her history—treat
her with warmth and respect, and she calls them
While there is no scientific link between the events of 1962 and her condition, which has been diagnosed as chronic paranoid schizophrenia, she wonders what her future would have been if her so-fleeting glory had not been snuffed out so soon, so completely.
People got results from it, Ms. Quarterman said, taking a break
from her work cleaning a bathroom.
But it didn't do me any
Even with all she has to remember, Ms. Quarterman, spiffy in a red Mickey Mouse T-shirt, is not morose or lost, like some here. Her words are faintly slurred, but her mind seems quick, direct. Her smile is almost nonstop. It slips when she remembers the worst of life, then clicks back into place, as if it is on automatic. Being near her is like standing beside a rotating sprinkler. Sooner or later, it showers you again.
I wish that hurt would just fly away, she said.
Now, in the hindsight of history, she is getting credit for what she did so long ago, honored with a few proclamations and ceremonies. It is not rewriting history, one Albany resident said, just filling in the gaps.
What America has done with the civil rights movement is to pick who
they want to represent what happened, said Jane Austin-Taylor, who
owns the Austin-Taylor Mortuary in Albany.
Those were the people on
stage. They weren't the ones bearing the brunt of retaliation
inside the community.
was the root of the civil rights movement in
Albany, said Ms. Austin-Taylor, who staged a recognition for her
two years ago.
Then ‘the names’ came in and took over.
You look in history books, you see her name nowhere. The children
down here don't even know who she is.
While Ms. Quarterman's name has been lost in the civil rights
struggle as a whole, it does appear briefly in some chapters about
Albany. In a chapter from his book
Bearing the Cross (Random
House, 1987), David J. Garrow wrote:
On Friday, Jan. 12, an 18-year-old black student, Ola Mae
Quarterman, was arrested for refusing to move to the back of an Albany
city bus and for allegedly saying ‘damn.’
She knew what she was risking that day.
She had picked what seemed like a million miles of cotton to make enough money to go to college in Albany. She desperately wanted to break free of the cycle of stoop labor so many others traveled, season after season.
I just wanted to better myself, she said.
She wanted to major in sociology and counsel people with troubles. She wanted to dress nice and have fellowship at the Baptist church on Sundays—and sometimes on Wednesdays.
She wanted to have her hair done once a week.
She was smart and sweet. Everybody said that. But she was also full of the fire of the moment. On the matter of civil rights, she was outspoken, a dangerous thing in the South in 1962.
Like other cities where the realities of living sometimes overcame ideals, Albany had a black community that was divided.
The people here, and the power structure, had devised a method of
controlling blacks, said Walter Johnson, the 49-year-old publisher
of The Community Examiner, a newspaper that serves black readers in
They used a divide and conquer plan.
The Albany Movement relied heavily on young people for sit-ins, voter registration drives and marches. Ms. Quarterman joined that nonviolent army, even though the president of Albany State had threatened to expel any student who was arrested.
Ms. Quarterman ignored the dangers. She traveled around the southern part of the state, registering people to vote. She was captivated by Dr. King's speeches and the words of other less famous men and women who spoke from pulpits and picket lines about a world on the brink of momentous change.
She was always outspoken, what we used to call a fighter, said
Arthur Seales Sr., the retired editor and publisher of The Albany
Southwest Georgian and a leader of that movement.
Asking her not to
attend a demonstration was like asking a bull not to fight in the
Her moment in history happened, oddly enough, almost by accident. The Albany Movement had not even planned a boycott or sit-in on city buses on Jan. 12.
It was not even so much that she wanted to sit in the front of the bus, or that she disliked the back.
I just wanted to see the scenery, Ms. Quarterman said, and the
only window seat, on that day she stepped on board from East Society
Street, was in the front. She took it.
Some drivers did not mind, but this one did. He ordered her to the back.
I said, ‘I paid my damn 10 cents and I'll sit where I
want, she said.
Then he stuck his finger in my face. I
don't like nobody to stick their finger in my face. I said,
‘Get your damn finger out of my face.’ Just like that.
The driver, apparently, had never been talked to that way by a black person.
He said I cussed him out, she said.
But I didn't.
The driver stopped the bus and found a police officer.
The policeman said, ‘Come on, Ola Mae,’ and locked me
up, she said.
She was charged with disorderly conduct but was also chastised for being disrespectful to the driver and for cursing. She refused to pay a $102 fine and served her 30 days in a jail.
Her arrest moved the leaders of the movement to boycott the city's bus lines, which largely served black people. Bus service came almost to a halt as Ms. Quarterman became the boycott's figurehead.
That was the beginning of it, said Mr. Seales, who handled
public relations for the movement.
But it was also, in many ways, the end of everything.
'Too Hot to Handle' And a Swift Descent
Instead of being embraced, even exalted, the young Ms. Quarterman's fame was brief and brittle.
The college president expelled Ms. Quarterman because she had disobeyed him. Four other students who were ousted for the same reason got scholarships to other colleges, in part because of that involvement. But Ms. Quarterman was somehow passed over, although her grades were excellent.
She was too hot to handle, Mr. Seales said.
As the civil rights movement waned in Albany, Ms. Quarterman found that she was unwelcome, and not only in white circles.
She said her mother, who worked in a white-owned laundry, was mistreated by a boss because of what happened. That was expected.
But black folks didn't do me no better, she said. She could
not find work, any work.
They had it in for me, she said.
Looking for something to belong to, she married and had a baby, a healthy boy. But complications with the birth left her bedridden. It was, she said, the last bit of pain she could absorb.
Around Milledgeville, some people still call it the lunatic asylum. When Ms. Quarterman first arrived, the hospital was infamous for its treatment, or lack of it.
Ms. Quarterman offers no details of that time. It is over, dead.
She can leave here if she wants, and she talks about going back to Albany someday. But she is comfortable in her routine here. She works. She prays. She plays hooky from work some days, a friend said, tattling on her, to get her hair done.
She needs to look good. After so long, she is getting attention.
Two years ago, Ms. Austin-Taylor, trying to set right what she saw as a great wrong, held the reception for Ms. Quarterman. A limousine picked her up at Milledgeville and drove her to Albany. People there shook her hand and gave her plaques and roses. She loved the attention.
Last year, the Georgia Legislature honored Ms. Quarterman with
Resolution No. 1195, which declared her
a leader in the quest for
civil rights and justice. It is official now.
A great sadness, Ms. Taylor-Austin said, is in wondering how many others there are like her, some who are not even a paragraph in history. Maybe, like Ms. Quarterman, they would blossom in that attention.
No one knows them, she said.
Ms. Quarterman knows what she did and who she is. Most days, that is enough.
This is Albany's Rosa Parks, said Kerwin Terry, the current
director of the Albany Transit System, the same bus system that
Ms. Quarterman went to jail to change. He is a black man.