Charlotta Bright Norby

LEEANN LANDS: Okay, so we’re on. If you’d introduce yourself and tell me your history of Emmaus House.

CHARLOTTA NORBY: All right, my name is Charlotta Bright Norby. When I was at Emmaus House, my name was Charlotta Norby. I came to Emmaus House when I was nineteen years old. I had just come from Denmark at the time. I was born and raised in Denmark. I came to the States right after I graduated from high school. I was here as an au pair, living with a Danish woman and her seven-year-old daughter. I came over because I was Danish, to take care of the little girl, who did not speak English. And she was in the first grade, and I took care of her in the afternoon. And so I had plenty of time to do other things.

And I was looking for something else to do and didn’t really know what to do. And, of course, the woman I stayed with was also Danish and new to Atlanta, and I was sort of just looking around. And it happened that one day I was looking in the phone book for something entirely different, I guess something that started with the letter E. And I saw Emmaus House. The summer before I came here, I had worked just briefly with an organization called International Emmaus, which was basically—it was started by a French priest. And it was an organization that collected scraps and—no, not scraps but thrown-off items. And they would go through a town and collect stuff from people and then have a big flea market, and the money they raised would go to poor people in foreign countries.

And so when I saw the name Emmaus, I thought, Oh, maybe this is the same or something I would be interested in. And I got the address. I wasn’t completely comfortable with the English language and particularly not on the phone, so I decided to go down to the place. And, of course, I had heard from [white] people that black neighborhoods were dangerous and so forth, so I obviously noticed when I came down here [to Peoplestown] that it was a black neighborhood. I drove around the block several times, and only when I saw a white person on the porch did I stop and get out.

That white person happened to be Ray Quinnelly, and I walked in, and I started talking to her. And she decided I could be a volunteer at the Poverty Rights Office, where I met Muriel Lokey. And I will forever be grateful to Muriel that she took the risk of taking me on as a volunteer. I think it was probably a little bit foolhardy of her, because my English was not all that good. And I am pretty sure that for the first little while that I worked there, I was not very competent, because I’m sure that people would call in, and I would not understand what they said and probably was not very helpful to them. But Muriel had a great program over there, and we learned a lot. She’d bring in different teachers, who would teach us various things, and I learned a lot over there. And I feel that at the time I was able to help a lot of people through that program, as well as learning a lot, myself, about poverty in America and about the various programs (which were not very many) that was available to poor people.

So I volunteered there for quite a while. Then I also met Columbus Ward and Gene Ferguson [I always knew Gene to spell his name Fergerson], who got me to work with a couple of evening programs with teenagers. Youth for Ourselves [editor note: Among Ourselves], I think it was called. And so I sort of became a part of the community here and really liked it a lot. And it did not take terribly long before I met a lot of the people here, including Austin Ford. And in late winter I then moved in. This was in—well, I started in the fall of ’77, and so I moved in in early ’78. I had then been an au pair for only six months, although I was supposed to stay for a year. But as kids will do, this little Danish girl had learned fluent English after we had been there for only three months, so I wasn’t as desperately needed by then, and I was really bored being an au pair.

So I moved in [Emmaus House] in early ’78. I ended up living here for about five years, although I had several breaks where I would go back to Denmark to get a new visa, because I was on a tourist visa. Before I left here, I started going to college at Georgia State [University], and I got a student visa, so I was able to stay. And I actually went to college part time the last couple of years I was here, with the support of Austin Ford.

But anyway, I was on staff for five years. My role and my responsibilities grew over time, and I was involved in a variety of programs while I was here. Some of our main activities, in addition to the Poverty Rights Office, where I continued to work, was working with the senior citizens program, which I started with Mary Ball. I also continued working with the teenagers in various programs, including Among Ourselves—and there was also a teenage program in the church. I think it was called Episcopal Young Churchmen or something like that, EYC, yes, which also included young church women, which I worked in with Johnnie Brown and also some other young staff people.

I was very young when I was here, and I was Danish, so I learned an awful lot, and it was very exciting to me to be here. Not only did I learn about Emmaus House and how Emmaus House worked, but also about America and about poverty and about race relations. And it was really exciting to me. I learned a lot, and it has had an incredible impact on my life since then. Obviously, I continued to stay in this country. I’m now a U.S. citizen.

And my experiences here is a huge part of the reason I stayed here in this country. I became very close to Austin Ford while I was here, as well as to Gene Ferguson and Columbus Ward and many, many people in the community. We spent a lot of time in the community here. Of course, at the time, it was [an] almost 100 percent African-American community. I think there was maybe one white family, and everybody always tried to joke and said that the young man in the family was my boyfriend. He was kind of an awkward kid and not very handsome. It was the regular joke that he was my boyfriend, which was not very—it wasn’t in a—well, I didn’t like it, [chuckles] because he wasn’t that handsome. We didn’t really have anything to do with that family, as I recall, but there were a lot of families in the community that were very close to Emmaus House, and their children were very close to us, and we got to know their parents, too.

One of the things we tried to do was to spend time in the community and get to know the families and not just the children that would come to us. We had a lot of programs for children. We had afternoon programs. Well, let me back up. The programs that we had would vary from time to time. We would try to do programs that responded to the need at any given time, and to the interests of the community. We would maybe start a program, and if there wasn’t really any interest in it, if the children wouldn’t come or the people for whom the program was designed wouldn’t really respond to it, then we would try to set up another program, which—we couldn’t make people come to the program.

But we would have afternoon programs for children: girls’ clubs, boys’ clubs, homework assistance—several programs for youth. Columbus in particular ran several sports programs. I wasn’t involved in that because I wasn’t very sporty or whatever. I didn’t play ball, myself, and didn’t know anything about, really, sports that Americans played: baseball, football, which are not played in Denmark, and I wasn’t interested in it. But I was a pretty good student, myself, and I could help with homework, and I enjoyed working with the girls, especially the older girls. So I had a lot of fun with that, and I got to know a whole bunch of the kids.

We also had a very active summer school program, which we started, I believe, while I was here. I seem to remember the first couple of years we had it. I don’t think we had it the first summer I was here. I think it started while I was here. I may be wrong about that. I do remember the first year, we were in a school that did not have air conditioning, which was pretty tough. Of course, at the time, Emmaus House was not air conditioned. The only part that was air conditioned was the chapel. Well, I think maybe Austin had air conditioning upstairs, but we definitely didn’t have it downstairs here or any of the places where we worked with the kids or in the cottage, where we lived.

I understand that [the Poverty Rights Office] building has now been torn down, but it was a building behind the main house here, which was in very poor repair. It was a really old building. We called it the cottage. I think it was officially known as St. Anne’s Cottage. It was an old house that had been converted into—well, I guess it was an old cottage that had been converted into where the Poverty Rights Office was located. And then there were about—let’s see, one—well, there was at one point four bedrooms, and then there were three because two of them were put together. There was one little bathroom and a long hallway. And that’s where most of the staff lived at the time.

Most of the time, we would have roommates, sometimes more than one, and it was pretty much of a—it was not in good repair, and it was not air conditioned. Actually, the Poverty Rights Office was air conditioned, so when it was really, really hot, we would hang out in the Poverty Rights Office in the evenings. We wouldn’t sleep in there, but we would sit in there and visit with each other. But, like I said, the school was not air conditioned the first summer, and that was pretty rough.

In the summer programs, we had usually a hundred children, and we would have them divided up in classes according to age. We had a wonderful woman, Diana Anderson, who was a teacher at, I think, Walter White School out on the west side of Atlanta. I don’t know how she was identified. I’m sure Austin Ford was friends with somebody who found her. She was director of the summer school program for several years, and she was a wonderful person, obviously a very experienced teacher, and she was great to work with.

In the years I was here, the staff pretty much were the teachers in the summer school. That was exciting but very difficult. We were not professional teachers. I had never learned how to teach. Nobody had ever taught me how to teach—knew nothing about discipline or teaching. And, of course, the children—many of them were children with learning disabilities—they were not doing well in school. Plus, we would get these fourteen, fifteen kids, who were on various levels of knowledge and ability. We did not have a curriculum. We had to make that up ourselves. And we would have them for four hours every morning, with no direction whatsoever about what to do for those four hours.

And so it was pretty hard. We were totally in charge of the discipline and totally in charge of the lesson plans. There were books available, and there were various other things available, but we had no guidance as to what to do, so it was somewhat chaotic. I’m not sure we accomplished very much. [Chuckles softly.] I generally felt like I was able to have discipline in the room. I didn’t have a whole lot of trouble with discipline with the children. I was generally able to accomplish that, I think primarily because I knew the children and knew their families. That helped a lot. I think they knew that I cared about them. That helped a lot. I wasn’t scared of them. That helped. I did yell some. I didn’t hurt them. I don’t know what else. But it definitely helped that I knew them and knew their—that I was a part of the community.

We would sometimes use teenagers as aides in the class, but if they were not good students, they weren’t much help. It helped that they were also from the community. They were sometimes older sisters and brothers.

And then we would serve breakfast when they first came and served lunch, and then we would go to a park in the afternoons, where we’d play games with them and they would play in the pool, and that was completely unstructured as well. But that usually was very nice. You know, they enjoyed that, especially the pool. It was at times a little bit hard to sort of make sure we had all of them.

And occasionally we’d go on field trips, or part of the group would go on field trips. You know, we’d take one class on field trips. One thing I remember in particular was when we took the kids to Six Flags. I only remember that happening one time. And I believe we took all one hundred of them, but we didn’t have very many chaperones, clearly not enough. And that was a disaster because—I don’t know why we didn’t have more control of the situation, but we didn’t. They just ran. You know, the way it was you pay to get in, and then all the rides and everything is free. And they were just out there. There was no way we could keep up with them, and we didn’t try.

By the time we got ready to go, a good handful of them had been picked up shoplifting [chuckles.] But somehow we were able to sort of talk [the staff at Six Flags] out of that, even though there was a little bit of that. And several of [the kids] had gotten sick from the rides. On the way back, a group of the girls just worked each other or themselves into a state of hysteria, where they sort of thought that they were sick, had gotten something, something wrong with them. They were just screaming and hollering on the bus all the way back and thought that they were deadly sick. And somehow we were able to call home. I guess we must have stopped somewhere. It was definitely before cell phones.

And Johnnie Brown’s ex-husband, Louis Brown, was a physician, and somebody arranged for him to be here when we got here, to examine the girls, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with them. They were hyperventilating by then because they had, you know, totally worked themselves into hysteria. But anyway, it all worked out in the end, but it was ridiculous.

At the time, we had this big school bus, which I think somebody had bought on Green Stamps or something like that I think was the story, which Gene Ferguson would drive, and Austin Ford drove it. There were not very many people who had the license to drive. Oliver Brown, who lived here at the time, also drove the bus. He was a wonderful person. He was sort of one of Austin’s, I don’t know, favorites or whatever. He was a wonderful young man who was illiterate. He lived here on the premises for a long time. He was subsequently, tragically killed when a car that he was working on fell on him. He was paralyzed then, I’m sure brain damaged and for quite a while in a home, and then he died, and we had his funeral here. But he drove the bus quite a bit, if he knew where he was going. He couldn’t read street signs and so forth. He never talked about being unable to read, but he couldn’t.

I remember he would come to me when he got something in the mail, and he would say, “Check this out,” which meant, “Would you read it for me and tell me what it says?” But he would never say, “Can you read it for me?” But he was a really sweet guy. I remember at one point his driver’s license was suspended or something, and he usually picked the kids up for church. We had sort of a regular route. We would go pick kids up for church and take them home afterwards. And so I had to do it, and he had to ride with me to show me where he would go, because he couldn’t tell me where they lived; he just knew how to drive and do it. But, you know, it was great. He was able to do very well in society without being able to read. I don’t think he was not smart; he just had never learned how to read.

LANDS: You said it was important for y’all to have relationships in the community, and you got to know community members. How did you go about doing that?

NORBY: Well, I remember when I first came—because somehow we were doing a community survey, and we walked around with these forms somebody had created and asked every household these questions, which, in retrospect, I’m not sure was a really great idea. I mean, it was maybe a good idea to get information, although I don’t recall anybody ever tabulating the information afterwards. But in retrospect, I don’t think it’s a good idea to come in and sit with a form and ask people questions. I think it’s somewhat alienating.

LANDS: Mm-hm.

NORBY: But we would just go and knock on people’s doors and say, “I’m Charlotta. I work up at Emmaus House.” If people didn’t know you or know, they thought you said, “the mayor’s house.” And they were, like, “Whoa!” you know? And you said, “We’re up there with Austin Ford” or “where Columbus works” or something, you know, because they would know about Austin Ford or Father Ford, as they used to call him, what we used to call him. (Some of the kids called him Forty-Four.)

And so, you know, “Your kid, William, is going up there, and I just thought I’d get to know you, you know, if you have anything or if he gets in trouble so I can come talk to you.” So they would usually be open to that. Then once you knew them, you’d come by and see what was going on. You knew the rest of the family. And some of them I got to know really well, and I’d come by and hang out, maybe sometimes eat a meal with them or—it depends on what they were like and how we sort of—but some of them I knew quite well, and I would stop by a lot.

LANDS: Mm-hm. And some of these people you were visiting out in the community weren’t necessarily coming into the Poverty Rights Office or coming into Emmaus House or going to the chapel?

NORBY: No. Most of them had kids that were involved in the programs.

LANDS: So there was some connection.

NORBY: Yes, some connection.

LANDS: Yes.

NORBY: Not very many adults were involved.

LANDS: Right. It was mostly through the kids.

NORBY: Mostly kids, and very, very few adults came to church here. Very few. Certainly, May Helen’s Johnson family was totally involved, and there were a few others, but mostly kids. The senior citizens—a lot of them didn’t live in the immediate community here.

LANDS: They were coming in from—

NORBY: Yes, from Thomasville, even.

LANDS: Did you pick them up on the bus as well?

NORBY: Yes.

LANDS: Okay.

NORBY: Well, Gene Ferguson used to do it, but they didn’t like the way he drove very much. They thought he drove too fast.

LANDS: [Chuckles.]

NORBY: And I used to do that a lot, and Columbus would do it also.

LANDS: When you were working at the Poverty Rights Office, volunteering there, what kinds of problems did you see? What did clients ask for? What were they coming for?

NORBY: Oh, they weren’t getting their checks, they weren’t getting their food stamps, or they thought they weren’t getting enough.

LANDS: Checks for—disability?

NORBY: SSI or Social Security or welfare [AFDC].

Or they didn’t have enough food. They didn’t have money for the rent. Those were mainly the things. Occasionally, there would be—those are the things that people called about and that we would help with. Or they wanted to get into public housing and they weren’t getting in. Those were mainly the things and the things we could help with. There would be people calling about criminal justice issues and needed a lawyer. They had been arrested and needed a lawyer. And then we could just refer them to private lawyers who agreed that they might help us out.

LANDS: How did you help with the checks issue, though?

NORBY: We could call the offices. We had manuals that told us what the rules were, and we could try to walk—we had sort of a guidance sheet where you could work out what people were entitled to, given their incomes and so forth.

LANDS: Gotcha.

NORBY: And if things weren’t right, we could call the offices, and nine times out of ten, if it was a person with knowledge who could speak—you know, a white person who could speak with some knowledge and say, “This is what it’s supposed to be. I’m calling from the Poverty Rights Office”—I’m not sure how well it worked with me because clearly I had an accent, but it seemed to work.

LANDS: You were able to get—

NORBY: You were able to get the answers and able to work it through. And we were also able to, you know, get through to the Legal Aid offices. Unfortunately—no, not Legal Aid, Legal Services. Well, it’s called Legal Aid here in Georgia.

LANDS: Yes.

NORBY: Yes. They also weren’t always as responsive to poor people as they should be, but we had contacts there. You know, we knew Dennis [Goldstein, a former staff member at Emmaus House], and we could call Dennis, and he would work wonders for us. And we knew people who were experts in the Social Security area and could answer questions, or they could call somebody they knew. I suppose they were also overworked, you know, as everybody is. And so sometimes they could pull a string for us.

LANDS: Gotcha.

NORBY: We also for a while had this man, Alan Harris, who was retired from Social Security, who was a volunteer over there. And he knew—you know, he knew it all. And just being able to really work it out, and he could do appeals for people. He actually still works in Atlanta, on a volunteer basis. I’m not sure what his base is, but he primarily works for the mentally ill homeless now, I think.

LANDS: Really?

NORBY: Yes, and helps them with appeals.

LANDS: You mentioned that working here helped you learn a lot or understand more about poverty in the U.S.. Can you characterize what poverty looked like in central Atlanta in the late 1970s?

NORBY: Well, I’m not sure it looks terribly different from the way it looks now, really. People were just very poor. I assume I saw it very much through the lens of a Danish person, where—in Denmark, people just aren’t that poor. You know, in Denmark there’s a safety net, and people don’t fall through the cracks.

LANDS: Mm-hm.

NORBY: Denmark doesn’t allow it.

LANDS: Yes.

NORBY: But the housing situation here was terrible. People lived in dumps, with—I mean, they were just horrible. I didn’t know as much about homelessness then as I do now, I suppose because I worked in a community here, where people lived here, and the homeless people were not as much right here; they were in other places.

LANDS: Right.

NORBY: But the houses were falling apart. Some of them lacked windows. Some of them didn’t have utilities, either because they’d been turned off or they were dirty or—you know, there were cracks in the walls. There were water stains all over, and sometimes water leaking in here and there. The furniture was old and moldy and—I mean, it just was terrible living conditions. You know, it was just places that looked like they had been abandoned or should be abandoned. People had no proper clothing.

In particular I remember this family—I guess they moved into some little cinderblock duplex down on Haygood Avenue. It was a mother with three children. Gay was their last name. And she was clearly mentally ill. She was practically catatonic, and the two little boys immediately started coming up here all the time. They wanted to eat. Whenever they got a chance to eat, they ate like they couldn’t eat anywhere else. And they were filthy. And so we started giving them baths and washing their clothes. They were just little kids. I don’t know what they were—you know, seven and five or something like that.

And they had a little sister, and [Patricia Ann] “Trish” Nuckles, whom I’m sure you’ve heard about, sort of took the little sister under her wing, and they became very close. She basically raised the little girl. Phyllis was her name. She went to college and did quite well. Trish made her wedding dress.

And I think—actually, I think the younger of the little boys also I think did very well. I remember at one point, long after, seeing a wedding announcement for him in the paper, where—I forget what he was doing. They were illiterate. The older boy particularly was quite a troublemaker. He was big and strong, and he was always—as he grew older, always a troublemaker. But quite charming, in his own way.

LANDS: So those guys lived down in the duplexes that were part of Primrose Circle at one point?

NORBY: No, not way down there.

LANDS: Not? Okay.

NORBY: No. No, no. They were on Haygood, which is a street—I guess it’s still Haygood, just a few blocks down, on the left. I don’t know if they’re still there.

No, I don’t think I ever knew anybody who lived on Primrose Circle. The only sort of recollection I ever have with that was that there was a slumlord down there that I remember hearing about, and then there was a little boy who was killed, who was found down there, who—there was some talk about whether he was part of the missing and murdered children [in Atlanta from 1979 to 1981], but I think he was white. And I think Oliver, who I was talking about—his sister was somehow a witness in that case or something like that.

LANDS: Wow. Hmm.

NORBY: Now, this is really interesting. What happened there was actually a man, a black man was convicted and sentenced to death for that murder. And my husband now, was a death penalty lawyer, ended up representing him. That was before we knew each other.

LANDS: Interesting.

NORBY: We met each other later. But I’m also—I was also a death penalty lawyer. I’m retired now. But that’s how we met each other.

LANDS: So let’s go with that. You had mentioned that this place, Emmaus House and Poverty Rights Office, had this big impact on your life. Tell me how that impact manifested.

NORBY: I think I had always wanted to do public interest type work. And one of the things that really attracted me to this country was the diversity in this country, which you don’t find in Denmark. And also perhaps the greater need. I used to sometimes joke about that—and I’ll come back to this later—that myself and the other Danes who came here was the Danish Peace Corps to America, that there’s a much greater need here for people to do poverty work or public interest work than there certainly is in Denmark. And subsequently, when I became a death penalty lawyer, like my husband is, people would always say, “Why do you want to work in the South? Why don’t you come work in D.C. or in the Bay Area?” Because that’s where the need is. There’s no need for public interest lawyers in D.C. There are way too many already, you know? There’s nothing but lawyers in D.C. And the same with the Bay Area or in New York City. That’s where all the lawyers are, and that’s where they want to work. The need is in the Deep South. And that’s what I felt about this country: Here’s where the need is. So that’s how I ended up staying here, really.

Being here, I just learned so much about what it’s like to be poor, even though I’ve never been poor. But living in the community, being friends with people who are desperately poor, I learned a lot about the criminal justice system that I probably could never have learned otherwise. I knew a lot of people who had been to prison. I knew a lot of people who had loved ones in prison. I knew a lot of kids who were just about to go to prison or subsequently went to prison.

I had a really close friend here, who came out of prison while I was here. He subsequently was killed by some other drug dealers, I think. But that was actually after I left. While I was in law school, it happened. But I got to be really close with him, and he was, you know, a criminal. He had committed a lot of burglaries. I’m not sure when he started, got involved with the drug stuff. I’m not sure if he was doing drugs when I knew him and was close to him.

But at some point, after I knew him, he went back to prison, probably for another burglary. And I would visit him. He was, you know, in prison here in Atlanta. Of course, he would tell me what it was like to be in prison, something that I never really known. And I started reading a lot of stuff about that. There were some very publicized cases about the death penalty, and I got interested in that and started reading about it. I actually got my undergraduate degree from Georgia State in criminal justice.

And I learned so much about welfare rights, how impossible it was to survive on welfare, about housing and how—you know, if you’re poor, the kind of housing you get. We did a lot of community activism with people here. I spent a lot of time in the housing projects in Atlanta, a lot of time passing out fliers, and got to know some of the leadership of the housing projects, and saw what the housing projects were like, something a lot of—and it was primarily black people who lived there—a lot of white people wouldn’t have seen because it was “dangerous” to go there.

I mean, one of the things I learned, of course, was it wasn’t dangerous to be here, you know? I mean, it was just one of these prejudices that was passed on to me by other people. It’s dangerous. It’s dangerous. So I just accepted it because I didn’t know better. I lived here for five years, and nobody ever hurt me. One time, somebody snatched my wallet when I was walking down the street. And we were burglarized, many times at the cottage and here. My stuff was stolen many times, but I was never hurt personally. A lot of it may have to do with the fact that I knew people here. They were my friends. Of course, they weren’t all my friends, but a lot of them were my friends. But, of course, I mean, there probably were some bad guys around here, but they certainly weren’t all bad guys. And I never felt scared being here, or in danger.

LANDS: Did you go away to law school?

NORBY: Yes. Like I said, I spent about two years going to college while I lived here, and then I moved out and went to work for the Legal Aid Society as a receptionist for a year, while I finished college. And then I went to NYU [New York University] to law school.

LANDS: So you worked in the south side Legal Aid office?

NORBY: No.

LANDS: Or is that the only Legal Aid office?

NORBY: No, it isn’t. The south side Legal Aid office is not there anymore, but there was one there, and there was one in downtown Atlanta; there was one in Decatur and one in Gwinnett [County]. I’m not sure if there were more. But I worked in the DeKalb [County office] when I worked as a receptionist. And then I went away to NYU, and I lived in D.C. for two years, and then I came back to Atlanta.

LANDS: Okay.

NORBY: Anyway, but going back to the day-to-day life, when there wasn’t summer school, what we would do is—as I said, we lived in the cottage, and on a daily basis we would have a staff meeting in the morning, which sometimes was as early as seven o’clock. It would sort of vary. Generally, we would have I think we called it a chief of staff. I’m not sure. It may have been called something else. And it would sort of rotate. And that person would be in charge of the agenda, and we would talk about what we were supposed to do that day, any responsibilities a certain person had, and if there was any old business, any new business, what was coming up in the coming days: things that had to be repaired, cars that had to go in the shop, things like that.

And then we would go about our business. We had a cleaning schedule that was also sort of rotated around. Oh, the place never seemed particularly clean at the time. It was probably too much, you know? We managed to keep the floors swept. You know, it needed an overhaul. The places were really old, and they were sort of falling apart, and we weren’t able to do that. The furniture was kind of old. Like I said, when I walked in here, it looks a million times better. I remember one time Austin Ford accused us of kicking the furniture, because things were falling apart, you know? He was sort of prone to, I don’t know. And he would [say], “If you’re gonna kick the furniture, if the staff is gonna kick the furniture, we’re gonna have to close this place down.”

LANDS: [Chuckles.]

NORBY: Well, we weren’t kicking the furniture; it was just—you know, it was old and it was being overused, you know. So, you know, we didn’t close the place down. In fact, it was open from eight o’clock in the morning to eleven o’clock at night. The door was open. Every day. And so we had to do house duty, as it was called. So somebody had to sit at that front desk from eight o’clock in the morning to eleven o’clock at night, and so we had a schedule. Usually, Gene Ferguson was in charge of filling that schedule. Either we had to do it or volunteers had to do it. And so we had some regular volunteers who would come in at various times. We ended up sitting out there a lot.

LANDS: Literally the space that’s right out here?

NORBY: Yes, where—there was a desk.

LANDS: Okay.

NORBY: And so what you did was answer the phone and greet people who came in. And then you had—you know, if you were the last one during the day, you had to clean up and close up, take out the trash and whatever else.

LANDS: So what was Emmaus House doing differently at that point from Poverty Rights Office?

NORBY: You basically take calls from—a lot of the calls came in for Austin, and then you would transfer them up to him if he was here, or you would take messages, written messages. There weasn’t any voice mail, anything like that.

LANDS: Right.

NORBY: Or people would call in to the rest of the staff, or they would call and ask questions about Emmaus House. If they called in with issues, like poverty rights issues, you’d give them to Muriel.

LANDS: Okay.

NORBY: The mail would come in. You’d sort the mail. Kids would come in, and sometimes you’d talk to them or whatever, or you’d tell them when to come back for programs. It was up to you to decide whether you would allow kids to sit around and visit.

LANDS: Now, earlier, you jokingly said something about the Danish Peace Corps—

NORBY: Oh, right, right, right, yes.

LANDS: Tell me about that.

NORBY: Yes. I came here and sort of found the place accidentally, and of course I was in touch with my family and told them about it. Then my sister’s boyfriend at the time, who I didn’t know, contacted me and said he thought it sounded really interesting, could he come over? So, sure, so he came over and spent probably a year as a volunteer. Then somebody he had gone to school with wanted to come, so she came over and spent two years.

LANDS: Wow.

NORBY: And then, you know, I don’t know, somebody who her mother taught in school wanted—it just continued like that. I don’t know how many Danes ended up coming, but it was a lot. And so there constantly was, like, myself and another Dane. And even after I left, they kept coming. So that’s what I talk about, the Danish Peace Corps. It was really funny how it just sort of snowballed. And I never knew any of them before they came, even my sister’s boyfriend. You know, she had started dating him after I left, because she’s four years younger than I am, so when I left—yes, well, I guess she was fifteen. It just sort of happened. It was really funny. And it was kind of fun for me, you know. I got to speak some Danish—

LANDS: Right.

NORBY: —and it was I guess probably helpful for them because they had me to sort of mentor them and help them along.

LANDS: Yes. So at the time, do you remember any other neighborhood-based agencies like Emmaus House? And I realize Emmaus House is a chapel, too.

NORBY: No.

LANDS: Vine City, any of the other neighborhoods?

NORBY: I didn’t really know much about Vine City.

LANDS: You really knew Peoplestown and Summerhill and—

NORBY: Yes.

LANDS: Okay.

NORBY: And like I said, we worked some with the various housing projects because there were sort of identified community leaders, you know.

LANDS: Yes. Tell me about that. Are you handing out pamphlets about the Welfare Rights Organization or about—

NORBY: No, mostly about particular issues we were working on. The welfare rights organization, quite frankly, was on its last legs. Miss [Ethel Mae] Matthews held these meetings once a month, but—now I can say it because she’s no longer with us; she would kill me if she was—they weren’t very effective, and nothing much was going on. It usually was sort of a handful of old people and the staff, because we had to attend. Nothing much was really going on anymore. It was sort of just because she had this organization that once had done something, she wasn’t willing to let go. So that wasn’t really an effective force at that time. She was still a leader, and whenever something was going on, she was a part of that, and she was a spokesperson, and she was certainly a force in her own right, but her organization was not much of an organization anymore.

LANDS: Could you remember which public housing projects you were working with?

NORBY: Yes. Capitol Homes, Techwood, Perry Homes, Bankhead, Thomasville, Harris Homes.

LANDS: And did they have people organized within the public housing to work on different issues?

NORBY: A lot of them had at least—I forget—tenants organization presidents or leaders. I remember the Greens were in Techwood. I think maybe Cary Thomas was in Capitol Homes. I can’t remember all their names now, but there were—what was the one down here, down the street here? I can’t remember what it was called. Oh, Grady Homes. They tore a lot of them down. One of them became the Olympic City. I don’t know where poor people live now.

LANDS: So when you guys were there, you were pamphleting. Who was organizing that sort of thing at Emmaus House?

NORBY: Oh, we did—just various people here. You know, a lot of it would be that either Ms. Matthews or us, Columbus, or together we’d get an idea about “Let’s do something” about something or another. The one thing I remember clearly was the—I’m sort of blanking on the word right now, the sales tax increase. There were at least two of those. They wanted to increase the sales tax by, like, one percent. The local option sales tax. And, of course, sales tax is a very regressive tax, because it hits poor people much more harshly than it hits rich people. And so we were trying to stop that. And we organized very much against that, and we passed out—it was up for an election, you know, to vote on.

And so we organized against that and passed out pamphlets. We had an old duplicating machine. It was a little more fancy than just the old ink thing, but we had to make our own stencil, which I did a lot, very painstakingly creating these stencils and running it on this machine. And I made thousands of copies of those things. It was pretty hard to do, and you sort of did the letters one by one and then copied—: “Stop the Sales Tax” and “Vote on Such-and-such a Date.”

LANDS: Did you work on the Poor People’s Newspaper, too, as part of your work?

NORBY: I would occasionally write an article, but I wasn’t really on the staff of the paper, so to speak. I think maybe once or twice I helped—like, maybe put addresses on there or something like that. I remember going up to Connie Boston’s house once or twice to do that.

LANDS: Do you have a sense of how successful y’all were in energizing people around rights issues?

NORBY: No, it’s hard to say. I mean, I think we would be successful in energizing people, but by and large, the forces we were up against were bigger than—you know, it’s hard to fight City Hall, as they say.

LANDS: Yes.

NORBY: I remember one other thing we organized against was when they were widening the expressway up here, there was a swath of houses that were going to be torn down, where basically elderly people, poor people lived, who owned their own houses, and they were all going to be torn down, and I think they were torn down. But that was something we worked really hard on. That just seemed so unfair. And wrong.

I know there were a lot of other things. Right now, I just for some reason don’t remember them.

LANDS: Do you think there’s still a need for places like the Poverty Rights Office and Emmaus House?

NORBY: Oh, absolutely. The last couple of years I lived in Atlanta—I moved to Kentucky a year and a half ago [July of 2008]—I was very involved with the Open Door Community, which is up in midtown and basically ministers to the homeless and also people on death row. There are so many homeless people in Atlanta still, and so often—they knew I was a lawyer, the homeless people did, and they would come and ask me for help with various problems. And a lot of them were problems that the Poverty Rights Office could help them with, but they were too far away.

LANDS: Right.

NORBY: And the Poverty Rights Offices at various times were very thinly staffed and probably didn’t need any more clients than they already had. So, yes, absolutely.

LANDS: And more across the city.

NORBY: It’s not very centrally located.

LANDS: No.

NORBY: I mean, it’s very much a community office here, and there are poor communities in very many different places in Atlanta. And certainly, whenever I have known of the Poverty Rights Office—and, granted, I have been out of touch with Emmaus House for many years, for all practical purposes—they had more to do than they could possibly handle, or we had. Always.

LANDS: Was Dee Weems working here when you were here?

NORBY: She had worked in the Poverty Rights Office. I don’t think she was here when I was here. I know her, but I think mostly I know her from sort of reunions and stuff.

LANDS: OK.

NORBY: Because I stayed in touch after I moved out, and I would be invited back to—because I lived in Atlanta from ’77 to—I went to law school in ’84, and I came back in ’89 and lived here till I moved to Kentucky in the summer of 2008. And I was very involved here at Emmaus House until I had this falling out with Austin Ford, when he decided he couldn’t stand me anymore.

LANDS: Do you want to talk about that?

NORBY: Sure, I will.

LANDS: Yes. What was that about?

NORBY: Well, it’s sort of an unfortunate history with him. It’s happened with several people, so, although it was extremely hard for me at the time, I was very sad and hurt, in retrospect it’s a little easier to handle because I know it probably wasn’t personal, because I’m sort of in good company. The same thing happened with Frances Pauley, and I know Harriet Heriot, who was a very active volunteer with the Poverty Rights Office and strong supporter of Emmaus House for many years.

But I had been very, very close to him, and he had supported me tremendously over the years. And, like I said, I had learned a lot from him. At the time, I was senior warden of the vestry and still attended church here, and I was sort of in charge of making the church bulletins every week. And he would call me and tell me what hymns and so forth to put in the bulletin.

And so one week he called me that, and he started out saying, “Could it be true that you told”—Nancy Harris was also a member of the congregation—“that I could be difficult to work with”? And I said, “Yes, I did.” Because Nancy had said to me she was very upset because she had some difficulty working with him, and he had said something to hurt her feelings. So I said, “Don’t take it personally because he can sometimes be difficult to work with,” which was true; he could. He had a short temper and so forth and sometimes said things that would hurt your feelings.

And then he just went into this tirade about—well, I don’t remember what all he said, but one of the things he said was that I didn’t have one human feeling in my body, one decent human feeling in my body, and just all kinds of other things: how I had been lying in wait for him and—I mean, it just went on and on and on, and how when I first came, nobody liked me, and he was the only person who stood up for me. And it just went on. And I have no idea where it came from.

And I said, “What? What?” And he said, “You know what it is. You know what it is.” “I don’t know. What have I done?” “You know what it is.” I had no idea what I had done. The only thing he ever said was I had said that to Nancy Harris, which I don’t think was that bad.

LANDS: Right.

NORBY: I mean, it may have hurt his feelings, but it couldn’t have been that bad. And he just wouldn’t stop. I tried to sort of talk—every time I tried to talk about it, he would yell. And so he said something about, you know, from now on I could not talk to anybody about him. I said, “You can’t prevent me from doing that.” “Yes, don’t mention me to anybody!” I said, “I have a right to talk.” Then he said, “I hope you don’t ever become a judge.” I said, “I don’t want to be a judge.” And finally I said, “You know, I don’t think there’s any point in us talking about this anymore because you’re not listening.” And then he hung up on me.

And, you know, I was in tears when it was over. And so after, I sort of collected myself and talked to my husband about it, who—you know, he had been coming to church with me. I wrote him a letter and said, “Given the way you feel about me now”—and I quoted a couple of things he had said, you know—“I don’t think there’s any point in us trying to work together anymore.” And I wrote some other things and said, “Until and unless you feel differently, I’m going to resign from the vestry.” And I said, “I’ll continue to do the bulletins for a couple of other weeks until you can find somebody else to do it, but I can’t see continuing to work with you. I don’t think that it would be to anybody’s benefit.”

And so I sent the letter, and then I wrote to the other members of the vestry and said the same thing. I don’t think I quoted everything he said, but I said something—you know, so many other times when that had happened, people had just disappeared, and I didn’t want that. I wanted to say it was not me, that he had run me out of there. I was angry and I was hurt. And I just didn’t want him to get away with that, so to speak. I didn’t want people to think that I had just left for no reason.

So I sent letters to the other members of the vestry and a couple of the people who were really close to me. I sent back the keys to the house and to the chapel. Oh, and there was this Emmaus House Foundation, where I was also—I don’t know if I was chairman of the board, something like that. I wrote to the other members of the board, and that was it. I got one really angry letter back from him, with the information for the next bulletin, where he said something about—you know, responded to my letter and said that, of course, I was the evil one, whatever.

LANDS: Wow.

NORBY: And I never heard from him again. I saw him a couple of times. One time, it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Emmaus House or something like that. It was shortly thereafter. And I went to it with my husband, and Austin came up at one point and talked to my husband. And I was standing right there. He never looked at me, never said a word to me. And, you know, I never heard from him again, never talked to him again.

LANDS: Wow.

NORBY: The most amazing thing, I thought, was a couple of years later, I had a ruptured brain aneurism and was in the hospital. You know, that’s a life-threatening situation. Thank God I survived. But I never heard a word from him, and I thought, you know, If he’s ever gonna contact me, this would be it. And it’s not like he didn’t know about it. Lots of people here knew about it, and people from here came to see me. And I said, Well, that’s it. And I have always felt like I’m not going to get in touch with him. He owes me an apology. It’s up to him. You know, that’s it. That’s the story.

LANDS: That’s pretty amazing.

NORBY: It is.

LANDS: That’s a long time.

NORBY: I was very, very sad and hurt at the time, and I guess I have moved on and just decided I can’t be a part of that, for my own health.

LANDS: So that’s late 1980s? You’re back from school.

NORBY: I came back in ’89, so it must be early nineties, I think.

LANDS: Wow.

NORBY: My aneurism was in ’95, so it was—I can’t remember the exact date.

LANDS: Yes. But still.

NORBY: Yes.

LANDS: Ten years.

NORBY: It’s very, very, very strange. But, like I said, it’s happened to others. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s some kind of issue with him. I’m not sure what it is. And I was thinking at first, you know—I was doing what I thought he would want me to do. You know, he was very much against the death penalty, so it would seem like he would be proud of me. That couldn’t be it.

LANDS: Right.

NORBY: I don’t know. I don’t think he would be terribly upset that I was living in sin at the time.

LANDS: [Chuckles.]

NORBY: I mean, I just don’t think that was so important to him.

LANDS: Right.

NORBY: And if it was, he should have talked to me about it. You know, he was my priest.

LANDS: Hmm.

NORBY: I don’t know.

LANDS: Yes.

NORBY: It’s water under the bridge, so to speak.

LANDS: Yes.

What have we missed about Emmaus House that you think I should know or you think other people should know?

NORBY: Mmm, that’s really hard to know. Well, I mean, this is probably a little bit on the critical side: It was a very disorganized place. There was really no training for new people here, and records were not kept, which was—except to the extent that we, as staff, kept records, but there was nobody in charge, and it was very haphazard. I was or am sort of an organized person, and I was here for five years, so I would keep my own records, but nobody asked me to keep records, and I just happened to like to keep records, you know? [Chuckles.]

LANDS: Yes.

NORBY: So I did. And so I had records. You know, we had all these big activities at Christmastime, which was a lot of fun. There were several regular activities every Christmas for the kids and some for adults, as well. And to prepare for them, we had to do a lot. We had to buy various things and had to do various things, and so I would sort of keep records of what we had to do for each event and what we had to buy. It was very helpful the next year. But if I hadn’t kept [them], nobody would have kept them, and so we’d have to reinvent the wheel every year. It would have been a lot more—I guess there just wasn’t anybody here who—I mean, there wasn’t anybody here all the time. Austin could have done it, but that wasn’t really—he really didn’t have time or he didn’t really take it upon himself to do that. Columbus was the other sort of main person, but that wasn’t really his style. He wasn’t that organized. That’s not something that fell easy to him.

LANDS: Now, you mentioned having given some of your papers over to, I think it was, Grace Stone.

NORBY: Yes. I think I may have given some records also to—I keep blocking on her name. Metzgar Shew?

LANDS: Debbie Metzgar Shew?

NORBY: Yes.

LANDS: Yes.

NORBY: She wasn’t the most organized person, herself, though.

LANDS: So I wound up with the Emmaus House News that was years, so somehow a subset of your stuff wound up with—

NORBY: The newsletter?

LANDS: Yes.

NORBY: Yes, that’s something I wrote for a while.

LANDS: Yes, and it was the Emmaus House newsletter.

NORBY: Yes.

LANDS: And it was—

NORBY: As opposed to the Poverty Rights newsletter.

LANDS: —your set, with your address label on it.

NORBY: Okay.

LANDS: So Mary Stuart Hall, who works at the cathedral and is a friend of Debbie Shew’s, had those, and I was able to scan those. But I’m still looking for whoever has wound up with your other papers.

NORBY: I may have thrown some of them away along the way, too. I don’t know.

LANDS: Mm-hm. I’ll ask Debbie about it, too. I hadn’t asked her. I interviewed her, but we didn’t talk about any kind of records. And then even—I don’t know where Columbus lived, if he lived here in the back house, but they dredged up some of his stuff.

NORBY: He never lived here, really.

LANDS: He didn’t?

NORBY: He had his own home.

LANDS: Oh, maybe it was his office.

NORBY: He had an office in there.

LANDS: Okay

NORBY: But he never lived here. He lived with his mother a lot and—I forget where he lived before that, but he bought a house out in Decatur. Where is he now?

LANDS: Well, he’s still with the—I don’t know where his house is—but he’s still working with the Peoplestown Revitalization Corporation, you know, off Washington Street.

NORBY: Right.

LANDS: I didn’t think he lived in Decatur, but he might.

NORBY: Yes, yes. He had a house on Daniel Avenue. I’m not sure if it’s Atlanta or Decatur, but it’s in DeKalb County, at least.

LANDS: Right. But outside Peoplestown and Summerhill.

NORBY: And he’s a wonderful guy. He was a really good friend of mine. I spent a lot of time with him and with his family. Every holiday would be spent at his house, and they were very generous to invite all of us over for barbecue or whatever it was.

LANDS: Who were some of the other families that you guys got to know? Did you know the Thrashers?

NORBY: Oh, yes.

LANDS: I think Ray Quinnelly mentioned the Thrashers.

NORBY: Yes, everybody knew the Thrashers, I think. Gosh, I can’t remember the names now. I can sort of see the kids, you know. There was a Brooks family. Of course, the Eubanks. Oh, the Armours. Oh, the Hudsons. There were so many Hudson kids. Goodness gracious. There was a whole bunch of kids that had probably—I think their mother had died and they were adopted by their aunt or something like that. Oh, they were a mess. And the Shacklefords, Herman Shackleford. Is he still around here?

LANDS: Mm-hm, yes. In fact, he was working outside. You’ll probably see him out front when—

NORBY: Mm-hm. I can’t remember their names. I’m really sorry. There were a couple of other families I was really close to.

LANDS: Well, I really appreciate your time today, especially since you’re only here in Atlanta a little bit.


Interview with: Charlotta Bright Norby
Interviewed by: LeeAnn Lands
Interviewed at: Emmaus House
Date: 7 October 2009
Transcribed by: Mim Eisenberg/WordCraft
Edited by: LeeAnn Lands
File: WAV


This entry was posted in Case Study, Emmaus House, Historical Source, Oral History, Peoplestown: The Place. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Charlotta Bright Norby

  1. Sandee says:

    Incredible — I stumbled across this by “accident” while searching something else. It is bringing back so many memories.

    Charlotta, I remember when you came to Emmaus House, and just now I started to spell your name the way you did originally: “Charlotte”, but pronounced the same as today. If you read this, I would love it if you get my email address from LeeAnn and get in touch with me. I had heard about your brain aneurism and for some reason, didnʻt think you had survived. What a truly wonderful surprise to see that you did! And thank Goodness you did!! It sounds like you have had a very meaningful and extremely important career as a death penalty lawyer. That must have been very emotionally draining, but so very much worth while.

    You did not mention him by name, but I recognize the friend you mentioned as Dwayne. We were very close also. After I had moved back to Minnesota Iʻd heard that he died, probably due to something involving drugs, but donʻt really know much about it.

    I probably would not be alive today, or at the least would have been beaten up by his girlfriend, who did not understand that we were friends, and nothing else, if it hadnʻt been that Sarah (their mother) and his siblings Felecia, Betty and Chuck, also knew me well and understood the nature of our relationship. Sarah was not one to be crossed, and she knew my intentions had always been to help. As a matter of fact, one time she wanted me to drive to New York to bring Chuck home. I told her I was not going to drive to New York, but that I would help them to get him a bus ticket. Felecia and I were also very close, and she spent time at my house as well.

    I was also very close to the Thrashers. Mrs. Thrasher was my “Play Mama”. Her children who were in the Emmaus House programs were: Ivan, Kiki (Keith?), the twins, Little Man and Big Man, and Wanda. Mama Thrasher had at least three older children who were no longer at home: Sandra, who had children of her own, another daughter whose name I donʻt recall, and Chicken, whose real name I donʻt recall. You mentioned Primrose Circle, and I think the daughter whose name I donʻt recall, lived there.

    I think of Mama Thrasher when people say disparaging things about people on welfare. She worked at the dry cleaners near Emmaus House. It was not air conditioned and she also had to walk to and from work. And she suffered from asthma. I can only imagine how grueling the work was for her, especially in the summer, and yet she did not make enough to support her children. I donʻt know how many times I had to take her to the emergency room for treatment. As I recall, she was widowed. “Lazy” had nothing to do with it. She was a victim trying to make the best of an awful situation.

    Enough for now. Thank you LeeAnn for posting this!

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