No More Counting Soap Bubbles – a Tribute to Edwina Stephens

In 2006, the Tallahassee Democrat did a special edition titled “The Ride to Equality,” subtitled “Fifty Years After the Tallahassee Bus Boycott.” As they developed this publication, the editors sought stories from local students who had encountered people who remembered the boycott. With the assistance of Al Lawson’s phenomenal staff, I was referred to Edwina Stephens as the perfect person for my fifth grader to talk to about that time in Tallahassee’s history.

This woman, who selflessly gave an hour and a half of her time, in her home, discussing topics that undoubtedly brought up personal pain, surprised me.

For instance, she clearly knew that it is possible to have the “last laugh” when others trivialize you. Check out a piece of her home decor:

Much more importantly, you would never have known she was meeting with a fifth grader whose mother had essentially dictated that the meeting would take place and who was probably a little antsy about being late for gymnastics. She gave Tenley her full attention, describing historic events in a way that no book ever could.

I wish I had the recording of the interview (which ended up deep in some abyss at the Democrat) – the facts and details all run together in my mind. I do recall Ms. Stephens talking about the separate hospitals in Tallahassee – the “white” hospital and the “black” hospital (which existed until 1971); about the courage of local white business people who stood up for their fellow African American Tallahasseeans in the face of peer pressure to do otherwise; about the lack of decent textbooks and school supplies for black children; and about the dehumanizing “tests” given to black people in order to “qualify” them to vote. One example was “count the number of bubbles on this bar of soap” and another was “do this math problem” (the problem being impossibly complex).

Edwina Stephens died last Tuesday, June 8, at the age of 86. I only spent an hour and a half with her, but in that hour and a half she, Tenley, and I were transported back to 1956, when three black women paid ten cents each in bus fare and took seats at the front of the bus. The unfolding of civil rights events after that day would take a lot longer than I have in this blog and a lot more expertise. But Edwina Stephens made it real, without drama or pathos, patiently explaining to a very young woman who had never been in a minority the important lessons learned by an older woman who had led efforts to give black children and adults a chance …. to get an education, to be gainfully employed, to vote, to be.

And for the gift of that hour and a half, I will revere her memory forever.

The best seats on the bus are open and they are hers for the taking.

RIP Edwina Stephens.

Edwina Stephens, Tenley Kiger 2006

Your Home is My Home (A Mama Kat Writing Workshop Prompt)

For tonight’s post, the random number generator handed me prompt #2: If you could witness (or take part in) any event in history, what would it be? Why?  This sounded deceptively easy until I tried to decide what historic event I would write about.  My decision coalesced when I was commenting on Dan Rockwell’s Leadership Freak post “Pressure to Be Invisible.” 

In my response to Dan’s post, I was answering the question: Can you think of people who changed the world by standing out?  Here is a modified version of what I said, utilizing information from the Tallahassee Democrat’s 2006 Special Edition on the 50th anniversary of our town’s Bus Boycott: 

There was a (white) family here in Tallahassee (George and Clifton Lewis) who, in the mid 50′s, opened their home to black people; George (a prominent banker) made loans to black homeowners and those who were jailed. Believe me when I say that there are times even in 2010 when this town struggles with civic equality (it is exponentially better, of course); for a family like this to take such a step in the 50′s really boggles my mind and makes me humbly respectful. They changed the world and stood out by opening their doors, literally and figuratively.

I learned about the Lewis family from Edwina Stephens.  Tenley and I visited Edwina several years ago; she had been recommended to me as someone who Tenley could interview in order to learn about the history of race relations in Tallahassee (the Democrat was compiling information gathered by schoolchildren).  I am pretty sure I learned at least as much and maybe more than Tenley.  Mrs. Stephens talked to us for well over an hour.  I really wish I could have the tape recording back, but it seems to have disappeared into a black hole at the Democrat’s offices.  I don’t need the recording, though, to conjure up in my mind the parts of our conversation that have stuck with me: how lynchings occurred at the tree that still stands on the grounds of our Old Capitol, how impossible it was for an African American person in Tallahassee to prove “competence” to vote (how many soap bubbles on the bar of soap? having to solve complicated mathematical equations); how dangerous it was to treat a white child at the black hospital, even if the child’s health were in serious jeopardy; the separate education systems.  I don’t recall the specific details she shared about the Lewis family, but I remember her talking about how, to the shock and disdain of their fellow Tallahasseeans, they supported the town’s black citizens through financial assistance and emotional support.

Edwina Stephens and Tenley (2005)

George Lewis provided financial support to Tallahassee’s black citizens, and Clifton Lewis opened their home to blacks and marched in civil rights demonstrations.  I always wonder if I would have the courage to do what’s right in the face of disdain and outright hostility from my peers.   For example, several years ago I was at a family gathering and a cousin who I only see every few years, but with whom I have always considered myself fairly close, told a joke that was anti-semitic and racist.  I froze.  What to do?  I ended up saying, “Oh, so that’s a [name of small town he lives in] joke, huh?”  My response, in belittling his town, may not have been any better than his original attempt at humor. 

To get back to the prompt’s original question, I would like to have been a witness to the turning of the civil rights tides here in Tallahassee, and I would like to have been at Clifton Lewis’s side when she said, “come on in – your home is my home.”

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