I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend Johnnie Mae Coleman this month. Here in Birmingham we are celebrating 50 years since the cataclysmic events of the 60’s – marches, police dogs, fire hoses, culminating in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. I think of my friend because she lived through those events as a forty year-old woman, too old to be one of those child marchers yet profoundly affected by their actions. Born and raised in Bessemer, Alabama, she managed to study at Miles College and then to teach for years, doing her own important part in the work to achieve freedom. Like many people in the South, she adjusted and readjusted to change as it came. The stories she told were not of public demonstrations and violent responses, but of small steps taken and sometimes vicious reactions. She was one of the many who solidified the gains of the Movement, making them part of everyday life.
When I met Mrs. Coleman she was in the later stages of her life, retired from teaching and taking up a new focus. She was spending more time working for her church, St. Francis of Assissi in Bessemer, visiting the sick, playing the organ for daily Mass, and attending lay ministry classes sponsored by the Diocese of Birmingham. She was the oldest person in the class, and took delight in being a sort of mascot for the rest of us. She had long since put aside “Johnnie Mae” and adopted “Johnneye”, soft J, emphasis on the ending, pronounced “ay” – a kind of French elegance that fit her careful dress and stylish persona.
Johnneye was one of the oldest members of St. Francis; she remembered when the friars first arrived in Bessemer. Her childhood home was near the original store-front church, where she went with her mother. She told stories of going to early Mass as a girl, wearing her coat over her pajamas. I could believe it! In Johnneye’s stories, the prejudice she undoubtedly met – against Catholics, as well as against African Americans – was the backdrop, not the story itself. Her stories were about triumph over adversity, about fun and laughter, and about her own foibles.
In her time as a teacher, Johnneye taught all the grades. She was trained in English, but she taught math too. She said that one year she was told she would teach Algebra, and when she said that she couldn’t do algebra, she was asked, “Do you want to teach?” She found a friend who taught her algebra, lesson by lesson, one step ahead of her students. She taught. When desegregation came around, it was necessary for some black teachers to move to white schools. Johnneye was given that assignment. One of her stories was about the young man who was unfailingly hostile to her in class – until through her work with him he began to understand the subject. She said that all the students “came around”, but she never mentioned the staff. I can only imagine the fortitude it took to go to that school every day, teach those children, and put up with the attitudes of the other teachers. My friend knew a lot about forgiveness.
She also knew a lot about fun. All her life she was a card shark, playing all kinds of games from bridge to poker, and winning most of them. As a young teacher she had a group of friends who played cards all night (and weren’t averse to a drink or two) and then taught all day. When we asked her how she had enough energy, she just laughed. She loved to sing and was a self-taught pianist who never learned to read music. After one or two hearings she could play any song, and accompanied worship on Sundays at several churches, moving from one to the next as the day progressed. She had an eye for cars, too – when I knew her she drove a leased one, and changed it every year for the new model. They were usually in pearlized shades of lavender. She was known for speed – she drove her pastor wherever he went, and however late they left, they always arrived on time. I don’t think Johnneye ever got a ticket although she was certainly stopped often enough. Usually the officers who pulled her over were her former students, and would let her go with a warning. When they weren’t, she would apologize prettily and explain that she was late to play for church. Then she would drive sedately away.
Johnneye died about a year and a half ago. Almost to the last we played a weekly card game. I would walk into her room at the assisted living facility, she would look up – she might not remember my name – but she would say, “Deal!” And we would spend a couple of hours playing her favorite game. Until the last six month of her life, I would drive her to doctor’s appointments. We always took the cards with us, and we’d play in the waiting room. Once we made it into the examining room we would switch to singing – lots and lots of hymns while we waited. No one ever forgot that we were there!
Spending time with Johnneye was a lesson in how to overcome. Born poor, a black woman in a racist and sexist system, she gained an education, taught generations of students, was respected and revered by people throughout her community. She was well aware of the evil that still remained; until her dying day there were women at her retirement home who would wheel themselves away from the table rather than sit with her. She knew when she went into white churches that she wasn’t always welcome. She faced injustice in many venues, and it hurt. It made her angry. Sometimes it made her discouraged. When I think of her as someone who could overcome, it’s not because she made great changes in the world – although sometimes she did. It’s because somehow, through her worship and her hymns, her fun and her friends, she remained a sweet and loving spirit, open to the world and those around her. She was a grace-filled presence in many lives, including my own.
I think this year I’ll spend some time remembering and meditating on Johnnie Mae Coleman, asking her intercession as we continue the struggle she lived.
Shelley Douglass is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. She is the hospitaller at Mary’s House Catholic Worker in Birmingham, a member of Holy Family Parish, and active especially against war and the death penalty.