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