|Chapel Hill ‘Women in the Movement’ fought for equality|
|Published Friday, November 15, 2019|
CHAPEL HILL – Several African American women were recognized last week for their role in the fight for equality during the civil rights movement in Chapel Hill. They are featured in a mini-documentary, “I Was Still Singing.”
Community historian Danita Mason-Hogans, who helped coordinate the project, shared some of Chapel Hill’s history, pointing out that the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill was built by slaves. Mason-Hogans thanked the women for their courage and leadership and for continuing the work of their ancestors.
“If the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill has been here since 1789, then we have been here since 1789, and there are a whole lot of stories that we will never get back, but I’m very, very grateful that we have begun the process where we’re starting to collect these stories, and we’re starting to hear about the women who resisted oppression, and the way with love and courage that they guided us to where we are today,” she said.
Three of the women – Jerdene Alston, 75, Betty Geer, 75, and Clementine Self, 73 – spoke at a program last week in their honor, “Women in the Movement,” presented by the Lincoln High School Alumni Association in partnership with Chapel Hill Public Library.
Tired of living in “silent oppression,” the women pushed for social change. They participated in sit-ins, marches, and protests. “We were proud to be marching. We weren’t afraid,” Geer said.
Geer recalled being arrested while a student at North Carolina Central University, which was named North Carolina College at that time. “Practically the whole student body wanted to be in the demonstration. We marched from Central on Fayetteville Street, and they arrested us. They put us in farmhouses in the country when they locked us up, and we were singing, ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and, I tell you, some of those girls were falling out like flies because it was hot it got pretty rough. I didn’t fall out, I was still singing,” she said.
Self said they were encouraged by the Chapel Hill Nine, a group of nine Lincoln High School students who held the first sit-in at Colonial Drug Store in 1960. The women were trained in nonviolent demonstration by the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
The women recalled going to restaurants but having to place their orders at side doors or in the back. They couldn’t sit down at the table or counter to eat.
“We went to this drug store, and we wanted to sit down and eat. We could go in and order, but we couldn’t sit down, and, so, we decided, if you’re going to take our money, you’re going to let us sit down, so we sat down,” Juanita Alston said in the film.
The police came and escorted the women out, and told them not to go back in. But they did. The police returned and arrested them again.
The women also participated in voter registration efforts. Calling themselves the Underground Railroad, they went door to door encouraging Chapel Hill’s black residents to vote.
Asked about economic development opportunities for blacks living in Chapel Hill today, Self said, sadly, things aren’t that much different now than they were back in the 1960s, and, in some ways, they may be worse.
“I feel that we did much better before now. We didn’t have to worry about people sending notices in our mailbox every other day telling us ‘we want to buy your house,’” she said. “As far as opportunities, we had more black businesses on Rosemary Street and Franklin Street when we were growing up than we do now. We had all kinds of businesses…. We have lost a lot. Chapel Hill has not done a lot for our black community.”
Acknowledging there is still much work to be done today, the women are proud of the role they played in the progress that has been made.
“When you see an opportunity to make things better, for not just yourself but your entire community, you don’t have a problem stepping out on faith, because that’s what we should be doing anyway,” Self said. “It was just a part of what I should be doing growing up in my community to make my community stronger, because there were other people who were coming behind us that would need to look at the future, just like I was looking at the future.”
Jerdene Alston added: “It really helped the community as a whole by us stepping out and doing the things that we did during that time. All of our parents were behind us in doing what we set out to do. And we did accomplish what we set out to do.”
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