When I was nineteen I knew a woman, a stalwart of the Movement in her southern community. She was summoned to the local Board of Education and warned that if she became involved in the protest marches, she would be fired. In the high school classroom where she taught, she would announce a march into segregated downtown was forming at that moment. She would turn her face to her chalkboard and her back to her students. When she turned around, as she had wished, her students were gone. To the march. To jail.

She came from a family of community minded people. Her father was a minister who preached to those in the alleyways and back streets of their small town, a man who campaigned to register voters before the 1960s and involved his children in the work. Her mother was a teacher, one of that august and learned Black sisterhood who  taught and raised up the children of their South. My friend and her sisters became teachers, some returning to the high school they had attended. When offered a job in the newly integrated high school, my friend preferred to stay and teach the children on her side of town.

The brutality of Movement days caused her such pain. Following the federal trial waged against civil rights activists in her community, my friend could not get out of bed for a year. Then, she arose and into the 70s, 80s, and 90s, despite chronic and severe illness, like many who had been active in the 60s southern struggle, she kept on. She was involved in local Democratic Party politics, city politics, civic endeavors like the establishment of a local Civil Rights Museum.

I had come into her community at 19 and worked there for a year. Following a week in the city jail for one of those marches (above), I became so ill I could barely work. Under segregated medical care, I went undiagnosed. My friend, told me I was moving into her family’s home where I could be cared for. One evening when we were talking in her bedroom, she said there was a man in Florida who wanted to marry her.

I went home. Was diagnosed with hepatitis and confined to bed for a month. Over the next decades, I went on, organizing, marrying, moving to New Mexico where I was when the 1967 Six Day War occurred in the Middle East, had a son in New Mexico and a daughter born in Detroit, moved to West Virginia to follow the mandate that white anti-racists organize in the white community. And came out. More organizing, writing, and by then, like my friend, teaching school. At first when I taught in the public schools, each year I signed a statement affirming that I was not guilty of moral turpitude. That is to say: I was not violating community standards of behavior. I signed, knowing that according to prevailing “community standards” I was lying, because I was living as a queer. Well, in those days about as far as we could imagine and get our tongues around, was to say: lesbian.

Many decades after we had met and worked together, I returned to interview my friend. She introduced me to the younger woman with whom she lived, though I think the standard in her community was for single daughters, no matter how old, to live in the parental home.

On a whim, during the interview I asked, “What happened to that man in Florida?”

She laughed and wrinkled her nose in amusement. “Faith, there was no man in Florida.”

Only later, back home in West Virginia did I dare think: Was she telling me she was like me?

She has since died. Her legend is quite enormous, but it does not mention what we may have shared. For the youth in her community and the broader community, for all of us, there may be more we could learn from her. But it is not a light matter to question a family and a broader community’s portrait of a beloved figure.

No photos this time for obvious reasons.

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