LEEANN LANDS: You can go ahead and introduce yourself and tell me your history of Emmaus House.
MIMI BODELL: I’m Mimi Bodell. I’m a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur. I moved to Decatur, Georgia in 1965 and lived with other Sisters in St. Thomas More convent. I was 28 years old. I was working at St. Pius X [Catholic] High School, and was friendly with Alan Dillmann, a priest who also worked there. He was a friend of Austin Ford. I also taught Sunday school at Holy Cross parish and the pastor there was Lenny Mayhew. He was a friend of Father [Austin] Ford. At some point I met Frances Pauley who lived in Decatur—she was a real activist –at the time she worked with the Georgia Council on Human Relations. I knew some key players before the Episcopal Church purchased the property in 1967 and it became known as Emmaus House.
I got involved shortly after the church purchased the property. The house on the corner and the house next to it were the first houses that the church began to rehab—they had been vacant and they were very run down. I brought teenagers from St. Pius X [Catholic] High School to work on Saturdays to help clean out these two properties. It wasn’t that we were just cleaning them out, we were really shoveling out debris from the different rooms. This was before the professional construction people came. One memory I have is John Armstrong, a senior at St. Pius X [Catholic] High School, shoveling debris from the second floor in the main house, shoveling it over the banister down to the first floor. I heard him saying to another teenager, “I really think this is what religion is all about.” I realized that this was good. Austin Ford had been the rector at St. Bartholomew’s church in the suburbs and had left there and was now going to reside at Emmaus House. Austin chose the name “Emmaus House.” He was grateful that the students from Pius High came. The new rector at St. Bartholomew’s needed to relate and bond with his congregation. It just wouldn’t be fitting for Austin to try immediately to get volunteers from the St. Bartholomew’s church community. The house was rehabbed and it looked very nice. Austin was quite the gardener, and as you may know, he had a magnificent garden at St. Bartholomew’s. Austin with the help of a neighbor, Mr. Smith, an older gentleman who lived across the street, really beautified the property—the landscaping and the garden were beautiful. It was at this time when volunteers with Vista and conscientious objectors came to the house to live and to do volunteer work. Some of those early ones, who you would really like to interview, are Sandy Schwartz who was a Vista volunteer and Dennis Goldstein.
LANDS: Do you remember how to spell Sandy’s last name?
BODELL: S-c-h-w-a-r-t-z. Dennis Goldstein came. I believe he had finished college in Chicago. I’m not positive of that, and then there was Sue Hoffman. They were some of the early people who actually lived at Emmaus House. They were wonderful and very committed to the people and the work.
LANDS: So at this point has Emmaus or has Father Ford established a mission for the organization?
BODELL: Well, as I remember—of course you’ve talked to Austin I’m sure?
BODELL: My memory would be that Austin moved there to be a neighbor. He never brought the traditional Episcopal Church programs. The idea was to be a neighbor, to see what the spirit did, to see what evolved, and not to come with any set programs. Margaret Mead was a personal friend of Austin’s. She mentioned that France was just filled with these church houses. The people who lived in them were neighbors and were there to meet the needs of the community. She was very familiar with what Austin was doing and encouraged him.
LANDS: Now you hadn’t yet moved to the property at that time? Is that right?
BODELL: No, I never permanently moved there. I lived there often during the summer months. One of the first things—and Austin I’m sure has told you this story—he would stand on the corner or stand on the lawn and talk to the neighbors. He met Ms. Ethel Mae Matthews. He would talk about the neighborhood problems (and she was a little suspicious of this lay preacher), but eventually that was the beginning of the Welfare Rights Organization at Emmaus House. They met weekly. That was one of the first welfare rights groups in the U.S.
They were being developed throughout the rest of the country. I remember we had a meeting at Emmaus House. 20 Welfare Rights Organization presidents from different states attended.
LANDS: Now I haven’t heard that story. Were you able to sit in on those meetings?
BODELL: Ethel Mae Matthews was a powerful lady, and there were 20 equally powerful women from different states. It was really the bonding—what was happening in [their] state was happening in Georgia. It was really wonderful. They were wonderful, powerful women.
LANDS: So that emerges pretty early after you’ve established Emmaus House?
BODELL: I think that emerged pretty early and I believe fundamentally Emmaus House is there as a change agent, as an opportunity for the people in the neighborhood to empower themselves, to meet and to decide what they wanted to do together, and to talk about what was important to them. Emmaus House provided the meeting place and the staff. More and more people came—the staff would pick people up to come to the meeting.
More and more young people lived at Emmaus House. My guess would be, and I’ve never had these statistics, but I would think nearly a hundred young people lived at Emmaus House. One of the most powerful things I think Emmaus House did for these people was it shaped their careers. It shaped my career. It shaped Sue Taylor’s. Sue was one of the early residents. Sue studied for her doctorate or studied for her doctorate in reading. She lives in Decatur and works with Title 1 programs and trains teachers. Dennis Goldstein was a resident for years and became a legal aid lawyer in the neighborhood. He stayed with the legal aid profession his entire career. And a number of the volunteers like Tom Erdmancyk, David Morath, and Debbie Shields (who married Tom)—they all became teachers in poor neighborhoods. Alex Kotowitz of Chicago has written books about public housing in Chicago. He became an author supporting low-income housing. He lived at Emmaus House. Gene Ferguson was a worker at Emmaus House and worked there for years. He was an inspiration and leader for all of the children and teens. I know you will interview him.
BODELL: Gail Mahan, who was there around my time, lives in Philadelphia where she works for the Human Relations department in the City of Philadelphia. She did community organizing in housing projects for the City in Philadelphia. Her career was shaped there. All of these people – oh, and of course Sam Dimon. He lived for a time at Emmaus House and is married and has three beautiful children. They’re almost all through college now. He is a tax attorney in Manhattan. In his church work, he has helped many people in non-profit agencies. He and his church have supported the economic growth of some groups in Africa. He has helped support me in the House of Prayer where I worked for 22 years in Philadelphia. Margie Brown graduated from South Georgia College and worked at Emmaus House for many years. After I left in 1977, Margie continued much of my work. She later got a master’s in social work. I just can’t remember every name, but Emmaus House shaped the lives and careers of many people.
LANDS: So in the earliest years, the welfare rights organization is emerging out of Emmaus House’s work and the community’s needs. What other major programs are developed?
BODELL: One major program was Austin’s Sunday service—never as a way of starting an Episcopal Church—the idea was never to be in competition with the already existing churches in the neighborhood. I’m sure you’ve heard about this.
LANDS: Well, I know the chapel exists, but I haven’t really heard about the beginning of chapel.
BODELL: The chapel was in one room in the second house. Austin was our leader. Sister Mary Joseph, another sister of Notre Dame, was there. She made the vestments for Austin for the Sunday service. A few people from St. Bartholomew’s did start to come to church there—also people from All Saints Church, and St. Luke’s Church. Muriel Lokey was an early founder of the Poverty Rights office and Johnnie Taylor came. Johnnie played the organ and taught Sunday school for years.
BODELL: Every week there was Sunday service. Coffee and pastry were served afterwards in the main house. More and more children began to come to the service, not with parents, just by themselves. It fell to me to start having Sunday school after the service. As the parents were drinking coffee and eating pastry, we met in the little room in the main house and talked about the Sunday scriptures. Gradually adults from the neighborhood came to the service and assumed leadership roles.
BODELL: Austin probably told you this story. The children did not receive communion because they hadn’t joined the church. They were coming for the camaraderie, the community, the pastries, and the little Sunday school. One day, Silva told Austin she wanted to go to communion, and I guess he didn’t even know what to say because this was unexpected. So he said, “well first you will have to meet with Sister (I was called Sister Marie then), for some instruction.” We did this. At the end of the instruction she would meet with Austin, and then she would be baptized. So the story goes (it’s a true story), when it was time for her to meet with Austin, he told her about the different denominations and he said, “Oh you know Sister Marie is a Catholic.” Silva said, “Oh I know all about it. She’s Catholic and you’re Presbyterian, and it doesn’t make any difference to me. It’s all the same.” So, he said to her, “Well, why do you want to join?” She said, “Because of the community. I feel if I got sick or if I was in the hospital, people here would come and visit me.” Silva got the sense of community. Silva was in the eighth grade. Her Baptism was a big celebration.
LANDS: There’s a picture of the communion service, though, or maybe the baptism?
LANDS: That’s one of the Boyd Lewis photographs and it’s still in the house. She pointed that out to me.
BODELL: It was Silva’s sense of community that called her to the church. The neighborhood came from a different backgrounds and culture than the European “heresies” that founded all the different denominations in the European Christian denominations. She had no interest in them. Little by little, more children were baptized. After this the Saturday weekly program began.
LANDS: What did you do there?
BODELL: We had fun. I had no specific training in any of this because I was a high school teacher, and college librarian. The need that became very apparent was that the children were way behind in reading. Mary Slade, who lived in the neighborhood, came and helped with the Saturday program. Marilyn Dornbush, a volunteer from the suburbs, came. Then we began to have a six-week summer program that we held at Pryor Street School. Marilyn came to that. She tested the children. We really began to have an accurate idea of where the children were with the reading, and so they could be grouped with people who were on their level. Gene Ferguson was there teaching black history. Have you talked to Peter Bryg?
BODELL: B-r-y-g, Bryg. Peter has worked for the U.S. Dept of Labor for 37 years. He is in the office of Federal Contract Compliance Program. For years he has been a senior advisor in the area of Equal Opportunity. He lived for a summer in the Poverty Rights’ office. There were bedrooms there. He was able to get the children writing poetry in the summer program. In addition to the church program, there was a surplus food program that Muriel Lokey coordinated. Eventually she had a hundred women going to the warehouse to pick up surplus food and deliver it to the families. Certainly you should give her credit for starting and coordinating the People’s Rights office for years and years, if not decades. The other woman who did so much in the Poverty Rights Office was Dee Weems.
LANDS: Now you mentioned Ethel Mae Mathews.
BODELL: She was all Welfare Rights. At the same time, Frances Pauley worked and helped with Welfare Rights. Then she got involved in the Georgia Poverty Rights office creating a state-wide group that related to the Emmaus House Poverty Rights. Who have you interviewed in the Poverty Rights Office?
LANDS: Dee Weems.
BODELL: Oh Dee. Dee was there and she knows a lot about Muriel. Be sure to ask her about what Muriel did.
LANDS: Yes, I’ve heard about this surplus food program. I feel like I’m not getting some of the earliest people in the Poverty Rights office, because of course, I can’t get Frances Pauley and Muriel Lokey at this point.
BODELL: In the food program was Jane Pollock. Her husband, John, worked for the government in civil rights, and that’s how Peter Bryg got his job. Peter is still working in the civil rights office. So his career was shaped by the summer he lived at Emmaus House.
LANDS: So all of these things are really emerging at one time in the very early days, 1969 to the early 1970s.
BODELL: Yes, and here you have Peter—who comes to live there and work with the children—over coffee in the dining room table, meeting Jane Pollock (she was a surplus food driver) whose husband worked for the government in civil rights. Everyone sort of bumped into each other because the house was like a central gathering place for like-minded people. The house was open from eight in the morning to eleven at night, seven days a week, and staffed by volunteers for years and years and years.
LANDS: So, tell what all this felt like. If you can imagine that somebody reading your transcript here won’t know what Peoplestown looks like. What was it like to be on the site in this time? What did it look like? What did it feel like?
BODELL: It was a very, very friendly neighborhood. The majority of people were African American. Some people lived in apartments on Washington Street. People were poor. Middle-class people did not live in Peoplestown. On Primrose Circle, the houses were one-story with maybe two and a half rooms, they formed a semi circle—it was called Primrose Circle. There were about forty houses. Dennis Goldstein eventually worked to get better housing for those people. He began working with housing on Primrose Circle, and Dennis has moved to Oregon. He has a website about low-income housing. He recently retired.
LANDS: I’m looking forward to talking to him.
BODELL: Yes. He would be very good about the early days. Emmaus House was always open. Luesta Knox was an elderly woman who came regularly every morning just to answer the phone, to take messages, to welcome people who came to the door to invite them in for coffee. Sometimes there were problems. There was a neighborhood teenager who stole Luesta’s purse. She went running after him to get it. I think she may have gotten it. It wasn’t all peaceful. We even had volunteers who lived there who would lose the keys to the house. We were always changing the locks. We had a van and the volunteers who lived there would drive the people wherever people were going. And Ginny Tuttle—her father was Judge Tuttle in Atlanta—was a volunteer who collected 3,000 books of green stamps so we could buy a bus. We bought one of those big Bluebird yellow new buses. One of the first trips the bus took was to Reidsville Prison. Austin and Roche Heriot took turns taking the 12 hour round trip journey once a month. The bus often broke down. You could only visit the prisoners for two hours. Another marvelous worker at Emmaus House was Anne Ruth Magby. She was the housekeeper at St. Bartholomew’s church when Austin was there as it’s rector. When Austin was preparing to move to Emmaus House he asked her to come with him. She said “yes”. It couldn’t have been an easy decision to make such a radical move. I shall never forget Anne Ruth’s marvelous meals, served every weekday night around 6:00 PM. Her fried chicken was to die for and life hasn’t been the same without her hot biscuits. She also cooked many casserole dinners for us. She knew many of the children and gave them much needed advice. She died when I was at Emmaus House. She was terribly missed.
LANDS: I had not heard that story.
BODELL: But if you went on your own and took a local bus, you would take a local bus to Reidsville and then there was only a local bus out to the prison twice a day. If you missed it, you walked to the prison. It was quite a walk. Then we had Ralph Johnson. Oh, I loved Ralph. He lived in the community. He would sometimes drive the bus to Reidsville. So it was really Emmaus House providing an opportunity for people of different races, different religions, and different family incomes to come together to work together on projects—to have fun together—to relate.
LANDS: So I guess what is it about Emmaus House that’s transformational? What was it for yourself? You mentioned that there were so many people who were influenced by working at Emmaus House.
BODELL: While you were there, you weren’t aware of transformation. The needs were great. It was kind of crazy. We were all alike—there was no place you could go and get professional training nor did we necessarily want it. In the meantime, I was running over to Atlanta University to get my Masters in Social Work so I could get out of teaching middle class white kids at St. Pius X High School, and I did. I was able to redirect my life. A lot was going on, and the needs were great. The needs were great and the laborers were few. Although there were many laborers, compared with the needs, it was overwhelming.
LANDS: So what are those challenges?
BODELL: I always saw Austin’s main role—he had to raise all the money and he did it single handedly. There was no development committee. He raised the money to keep us going, and he never talked about how much money it cost or anything. Lights just went on and new programs got started. It was his role to keep the focus on change. We were not there primarily doing service. We were there hoping to change attitudes, to change laws. We worked and succeeded in changing welfare laws. Protesting was a big part of the Emmaus House work. We protested Model Cities. We had a sit-in at Model Cities. One of things I could do, because by then we had a lot of children in the program, if we ever needed a protest, we would just also round up a hundred kids, and they loved it. And we would sing songs on the protest line, “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” “Nobody is going to turn us around.” My work there—it was so meaningful. It was so needed. It was so counter culture to the work I was doing at the middle-class high school way out in the suburbs. I forget even where it was. It was way out there.
LANDS: Now do you remember some of the specific things you were protesting about? what issues?
BODELL: Well, the use of Model Cities money and, of course, wanting it to go, I believe, (Dennis would better than I about this) into housing for the people. Because there was also around that time an opportunity to get Section 8 housing in different neighborhoods.
LANDS: There was or there wasn’t?
BODELL: There was, and I can remember some housing that eventually was built was Section 8, and it was nice housing. Also, we did a lot with housing (and Dennis is the one to talk to you), and Austin worked hard organizing tenants associations in the housing projects. When there was a protest, they would all come together from the different housing projects in the city. We were TUFF- Tenants United for Fairness.
Another main social change action that we wanted to happen—to integrate the schools, and I’m sure Austin talked to you about the majority to minority program that we got involved in.
LANDS: He did give me kind of an overview, but if you remember some of that, I would love to hear it.
BODELL: The children came from 10 housing projects, and we had a bus (not our bus) — we got buses that would take the children to these schools in the suburbs, and parents would be paid to ride the bus with the children. And I remember children who went to E. Rivers were coming back and saying, “Mother, we could live out near there. You know nobody lives out there.” All of those houses on that street, which would be Peachtree Battle, are empty. I went to ten PTA meetings a month at these different schools and took parents in our van to these PTA meetings. I remember E. Rivers. They had a white principal. He gathered his teachers together who were black and white and said, “We are going to make this work and everyone has to have the right attitude.” He set a leadership tone.
LANDS: Do you remember who it was?
BODELL: Oh, what was his name?
LANDS: I may be able to find out.
BODELL: I can’t remember. When he died, many, many black parents were at his funeral.
LANDS: So, the public schools are not providing buses for transportation, even though the courts have ordered the desegregation? Do I have that right?
BODELL: Well, I’m not sure about that. I think nothing was being done to integrate the schools. There could have been an individual family that crossed town with their own car and went to E. Rivers, but there was really nothing being done. It wasn’t just a question of buses. There was no way that they were even trying to interest black families to go to these schools. And they could go there because when they got there, they would be the minority race. Burney School was another school, and I liked Burney’s because some of those teachers at Burney came in the summertime and did volunteer work in our Emmaus House summer program. The children went to 5 suburban elementary schools and one high school.
Good things did happen. One of the things that the children learned is that you went to school on Mondays. Many of our children didn’t go to school on Mondays because they had to get themselves up to go. They also learned to go to school when it rained. Other kids went to school when it rained. So they began to live up to the expectations that the suburban school had. They came to school on Mondays, they came when it rained. They brought their homework in, to do better. I don’t know if they ever challenged them to be scholars, but that’s what I was hoping.
LANDS: So why were you actually targeting the PTA meetings? What was that about?
BODELL: Oh, to bring the parents so they could participate. I didn’t do anything except drive the van or drive a car.
LANDS: But it was a concerted effort, I mean, y’all decided—
BODELL: Oh, it was a concerted effort to get the parents to go to the suburban PTA meetings to be represented.
LANDS: And they wanted to go, but didn’t have transportation?
BODELL: There was no way they could get there, because I don’t remember any of our families having cars.
LANDS: My sense from talking to Gene Ferguson and Austin Ford and some others was that there was a real philosophy of empowerment.
BODELL: Yes, that was the purpose of the house.
LANDS: What were some other ways that you helped empower families?
BODELL: The summer program still goes on today. We went to Camp Mikell for a week. The children loved Camp Mikell. One of the things that the staff told us was different in our camp—when the suburban kids came to Camp Mikell, nobody at night wanted to go up to their cabins. Our kids could hardly wait at night to get to their cabins, because it was like a pajama party. They loved it. And one of the things they had to learn was—in the dining hall the food was served family style, and of course, they had staff, but our kids would go up to the counter and bring the dishes of meat and peas and potatoes. Our [serving dishes] usually emptied just half way around the table. The children had to learn that when it ran out, there would be more. Then they would go up to the counter and get refills. Gradually, they [learned that they] didn’t have to fill their plate to the tippy top. Often they couldn’t eat all that they put on their plate. Eventually, Austin got many scholarships for the children to go to summer camps outside of Georgia.
There was a great community-building opportunity. Gene, of course, helped lay out black history, and we had Sister Mary Joseph who made a beautiful sign that was in the front entrance for decades that said, “black is beautiful”. “Black power” and “I’m black and I’m beautiful” were chants that the kids would say all the time, and we would teach the children the freedom songs.
Oh, I’ll never forget years later—I left Georgia in 1977—when I would come back to visit, I met Pat Morgan on the subway. I was taking the subway from the plane into the terminal, and I knew her. She became a teacher in the public school system. Many of the children did go to the integrated Northside School after grade school, and a number of them became professionals.
I remember this story—oh, with our bus, my God. I was fool because I had no training in this. One day we took 300 children to the circus, all to the same performance. And I met a friend, Cherry Thun, who was a volunteer at Emmaus House, a surplus food driver. She was with a neighbor and together they had four children. They were so worried about losing their children, and they were so happy to see me. I said, “Oh, well we have 300. Just don’t worry about it.”
Reginald Williams worked for the city. He worked for the city’s events program, and was in charge of the Omni at that time. He would give me free tickets to anything I wanted in the city. We got a hundred free tickets to Ice Capades. We got free tickets to the theatre in Atlanta. We got free tickets to the circus. We got free tickets and we took all the children on buses, or we rented buses. Gene Ferguson ran into the Huntley children, three boys—he ran into Edward once and he and Henry years later—I guess they were in the eighth grade, and they got themselves to the circus. As you know, one of the ideas of exposing children to these opportunities is that they could get their parents to take them or someday they would take themselves and their children. So that’s an empowerment within all the works with the children. Then after I left, they hired more professional teachers and they had a professional principal and things got better and more academic.
LANDS: Going back to your reference earlier to the “black power” chants. This is an era of black power and cultural nationalism and it seems like y’all—
BODELL: Yes, and the Panthers, the Panthers.
LANDS: Yes, and it sounds like y’all embraced that. So, you’re teaching freedom songs. You’re teaching the chants. I’ve seen the photographs where it appears that some of the boys are using the black power fist.
BODELL: Oh sure. But it was also non-violence instruction. We said no fighting. Now let me tell you. Children were raised—and it is still true everywhere in the city—children were beaten at home. They were hit, and we had a policy that no one could ever strike a child. And we had Harold Smith—who was seminarian who came and lived at Emmaus House—he went up and taught at Carver High School, I think he did it a year. He couldn’t continue because he was the odd person out. He refused to hit a child. Hitting—even in high school—kids being beaten was acceptable.
LANDS: The end of the 1970s?
BODELL: Yes. So this was a radical thing that we would not hit children.
And the children got violent. We had Henry Huntley. We had kids who were a terror. We had kids with emotional problems. We had Willie Pitts who would go around and bite people. Once we had the summer program—before we got Pryor Street School, we went to St. Bartholomew’s school for the summer program—and Sue Taylor (that was her first year) was in charge of Willie Pitts. She lived at Emmaus House that summer. She was from Dalton, Georgia. I can remember her saying to me with tears, “I don’t know if I can do this.” So I said to her, “Well Susan, do you want to go home? If you want to go home, it’s okay. I understand. Just think about it.” Well, of course she did not go home. She stayed, and she’s the one who is a specialist in reading now. Willie Pitts we learned recently has died. Michael Hardy was a child with a lot of problems. And then we had Maury and her husband. Oh, I forget her husband’s name. We had volunteers come in and be big brother and big sister to some of the children. And Maury and her husband eventually moved to Hilton Head and they invited Michael Hardy and Wayne Johnson to visit them. And I drove them to Hilton Head and they had a week there, and they drove them home.
We had young people having babies. Austin buried Edith Johnson’s little baby in the cemetery. The child may have been born dead, but Edith insisted on a funeral and a gravestone, and Austin did it. And then we also had some of these teenagers in the neighborhood who then became helpers. I remember Columbus Ward was a senior when he first joined the program. And you’ve interviewed Columbus of course?
LANDS: I’ve actually not been able to get him to sit down with me yet. He’s very busy.
BODELL: Oh, you have to just go follow him around. You can’t do something without Columbus’ viewpoint. He is the neighborhood viewpoint, and he was a senior in high school in the Liberator program that Gene was running. We encouraged him. Then there was Tony Pace who went to Carver High School and he wanted to go to college. I believe Austin told him that if he wanted to go to college, he had to leave Carver, [otherwise] he would never get to college, and he did it. He went up to Concord, Massachusetts in the ABC program as a junior, and I believe he had to repeat his junior year. He knew ahead of time he would have to, but he did it. He met another girl from Mississippi or Alabama in the program. Years, years later they got married. He finished the ABC high school program. He went on and graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Around that time Bobby Kennedy had a child there. Then Trinity College hired him in their Admissions Office. I met Tony years later, and was so proud of him.
Now have you met Tyrone Crawford?
LANDS: No, I have not.
BODELL: Oh, I loved Tyrone. I saw him when I returned for Emmaus House’s 40th reunion. I will never forget that day. I went to Emmaus House—I saw boys and girls who are now middle aged. Betty Eubanks was there. She was a kid in the program who lived on Capitol Avenue. The last time I saw Betty she was working for the city. She was riding a trash sanitation truck—loving it. Now she is a supervisor. She is getting ready to retire. She was there with her husband. Tyrone Crawford was there, Dexter Favors—I’m sure Austin told you how we drove children to Galloway school. We got eight scholarships.
BODELL: Dexter Favors was at that reunion, and he was at the dinner that evening.
LANDS: Now did Dexter go to Galloway?
BODELL: Yes, he went to Galloway and so did his sister. Herman Shackleford was also at the reunion dinner. He grew up through the Emmaus House program. As a young adult he began working at Emmaus House and he still works there.
BODELL: Herman’s three sisters, whom I knew as children, were at that reunion. It was the joy of my life to see so many boys and girls come back so happy, living lives that were so meaningful.
LANDS: Ms. Eubanks’ first name is Peggy or Becky?
BODELL: Sarah is the mother. Betty Eubanks is her daughter.
LANDS: Betty Eubanks, OK. So what kind of things did you do at the anniversary? Tell me about that. What did you celebrate and how did you remember Emmaus House?
BODELL: We arrived at Emmaus House and saw all kinds of activities on the property. One of the things that touched me deeply was that Herman Shackleford came up to me and took me aside—we were with others, but he took me aside so others couldn’t hear him. He said, “I want you to know, Sister, that I always considered you my mother—you and Nancy Beishline.” I was deeply touched.
LANDS: That was nice.
BODELL: I had no, no inkling he felt that way. Children were getting their faces painted. There was music. There was all kinds of food. People milling around, and of course, a lot of Boyd’s pictures were on exhibit, loads of photography was there in the second house. Emmaus House seniors were there. It was just a happy time.
LANDS: What have we missed about Emmaus House that you think I should know about?
BODELL: I feel if something is of the spirit, it lasts. If something doesn’t last, it’s not meant to, and, of course, everything has its time even in the spirit. The fact that Emmaus House continues today, 40 some years later, truly says it was all the work of the spirit and we were all instruments. The spirit worked through all of us. We didn’t know what we were doing. A good, great thing happened. It was all God. People didn’t necessarily talk about God or the spirit, but you felt it. You felt this was different. It’s like John Armstrong saying this is really what religion is about, and he wasn’t talking about doctrine. He was talking about spirituality. I was led there. I never thought I would end up doing anything like that. I worked there full time for five years, and before that, even though I worked at the high school, I was down there every night and every weekend. And I’m sure Austin told you about the three children who drowned in Gulfport, Mississippi.
LANDS: I have heard about that, but he wasn’t the person who talked about it.
BODELL: That was a tragedy. That was a great pain in my life. There were three children—two from one family, the Spratlings. I don’t know if you’ve heard this story. Dave Morath actually went back recently to newspaper reports. He’s the one you should talk to for the exact details of this. The story is that a white man in a motorboat created those waves. There were two motorboats and our children were between the motorboats. We should not really have been swimming there. An older man, a minister I believe who was the director of the camp, never told us that it was a dangerous place to swim. The children were caught in a whirlpool and one of the boys, Willie Kemp, was a teenage helper from the neighborhood, he tried to save Teresa Williams and couldn’t do it because he would have gone down in this whirlpool. It was a horrible experience for all of us.
BODELL: Willie was so distraught. I can still see him crying. It was terrible. And Teresa Williams’, who drowned, blood sister Connie was there. I remember going to see the Spratlings with Austin. We immediately sent everybody home on the bus so the parents could see their children. We hired a man to drive who apparently couldn’t. Either he drank or fell asleep. Tom Erdmanczyk drove straight through to Atlanta. We were [in New Orleans], because the sixth district court was hearing the school integration case that we brought. It was named after one of our kids. It was Armour versus [Nix]. It was named after Cocoa Armour. Austin and I stayed in Mississippi. It was a tragic story with the undertaker. I’ll never forget this. I’ll probably still cry. In the town, only black undertakers would have black children and adults and white undertakers would have the white folks. Now, when the children’s bodies were found, they went to a morgue, and then they were given to the black undertaker. Did you hear this story?
BODELL: Austin and I drove out to where this man had his funeral parlor. He lived with his sister in a cottage, and the children were being embalmed in something like a garage, and he took Austin in to see the children. Austin told me not to go in—so I didn’t. I was in shock. Well, to make a long story short, we could never get the bodies from that man. He was seriously disturbed as a person. He kept saying it would take weeks to make the coffins and he’d have to go to New Orleans to get them. We didn’t know what to do but someone tipped us off. I think we went back to the white undertaker who initially got the children from the hospital. He gave us the name of a Mr. Lockett, an African American minister. On Sunday, or maybe it was Saturday, we drove to his funeral parlor. He had a service going on. We waited for it to end. Until I die, I will never forget that man. We know it is a work of mercy to bury the dead. For Mr. Lockett, it was his vocation. The love and respect for the families were incredible. Austin told him our problem. He told us that the undertaker who had the children was disturbed. We were staying at the camp. He said, “you go back to the camp. You are to do nothing more. I will get the children from him.” I don’t know how he ever did it. It was almost like he had to take over. We may have notified him when there would be a plane, and when the coffins could go on the plane. Mr. Lockett did it. He met us at the airport. I can still see us standing with that man at the airport window. Outside you could see the three coffins being loaded onto the cargo of the plane. Mr. Lockett stayed with us from the moment we met him until the moment we got on that plane. He was a holy man. I will never forget him and he did not even know us. I was so grateful for him.
LANDS: What town was this in?
BODELL: I always thought it happened in Gulfport. David Morath said that’s not the truth because he’s got the papers. Somehow he went there or somehow he’s got newspaper clippings and everything. Now let me give you his name. He’s retired now. Oh, I’m not done with the story. We get home, we’re flying into the airport. Everyone came to meet us. Everybody came. It was very, very moving, and of course I think Austin and I are still in shock because, what do you say? What do you do? We went to all of these funerals. We then went and visited the families who had lost their children. We are over at the Spratlings. We went to their house and we sat in the living room, and Mr. Spratling—they were so accepting of us and concerned about us, Austin and me. It was unbelievable. He comforted us. He told us he knew about it before he got our call. He had had a vision. Did you hear this?
BODELL: He had a vision. He saw his two children in the water and they turned and waved to him to say goodbye and to say we’re okay. Poor people live very, very close to the spirit world and God.
And then I left Emmaus House in 1977 and went to do low-income housing in Baltimore, Maryland at our Julie Community Center. I lived and worked with other Sisters, other women in my religious community. After nine years in Baltimore, I celebrated my fiftieth year of life by living in a hermitage in Kentucky. Then I went to Philadelphia and started an Urban House of Prayer in a poor African-American community, and I was there 22 years. I had a prayer group of older African American women and we sang the same songs that we did at Welfare Rights. They couldn’t understand how I knew them. I also worked an awful lot with children during those 22 years even though my training—in later years I was a social worker and a pastoral counselor and I worked with people’s dreams—but still that thread of being with children continued, and I never said I’ll do it or I want to do it. It just always has happened. I moved to Baltimore, two months ago. I’m in a low income senior high rise with mostly African American people, but no children. I think my days of having groups of children or going to Six Flags —oh, you couldn’t imagine all that we did—are over.
LANDS: Well, it sounds like it was a joy.
BODELL: It was pure joy. It was pure joy, and of course, when you think of all those young people who lived there. What held them together was the commitment to the neighborhood, but this is not always easy. They all came from very diverse backgrounds, from all over the country. It wasn’t like we were one big happy family all the time either, but the commitment helped us to always get through things.
LANDS: Well, I really appreciate you giving me so much of your time today especially when you weren’t expecting my call.
BODELL: You know what was really touching? The night during the election [of President Barack Obama], friends in Philadelphia called me. Where was I? I was at the House of Prayer. They said, “Come over we’re going to celebrate.” I wanted to be alone. I just wanted to be alone with the TV, and I was. I can’t tell you how many Emmaus House volunteers called me and then I called one or two saying, “Can you believe it? Did you ever think we would live to see this day?” We were all connected at that election, forty years later. Someone called me and said, “Well, you must feel that your work is really done now.” When you think of this, when we think—. It’s just unbelievable. I thought it was also unbelievable that all of us, like ten of us or more, were all on the phone with each other. We don’t see each other that much, but there was no time difference. It was just this moment, and there was this feeling that all our work had helped elect our first African American president. We were bursting with pride for our new president.
LANDS: Well, I appreciate all the help. You have pointed me in many directions too.
BODELL: I think [the Emmaus House-Peoplestown Project] is just wonderful. This is history. The impact on all the children and adults when Obama was elected. It’s just incredible.
Oh, you know we were talking about the Panthers and black power. We were also very involved with the SCLC. Austin went to their meetings. I went to one or two, but he went regularly. One of the most incredible things about Emmaus House, it was a black community. You have no idea how much they loved and welcomed all the white folks. The total opposite in a white neighborhood when a black family moves. Everyone was so loving. It was just beautiful. No wonder people liked to work there. Volunteers learned about the African American culture and worship service. They went to the funerals, and they were 21, 22, 23 years old. The spirituality in the African American community was wonderful.
Well, I think it’s a gift that you’re doing this because I think storytelling is so important to keep it alive.
LANDS: I agree. I agree and I appreciate everybody’s willingness to tell their story about Emmaus. It was a pleasure talking to you. It was a real joy. I appreciate it.
BODELL: OK, well thank you for doing it. It always makes me joyful. I’m filled with joy every time I think of Emmaus House. It was a gift to me.
Interview with: Mimi (Sister Marie) Bodell
Interviewed by: LeeAnn Lands
Date: 23 July 2009
Transcribed by: Nancy Hill
Sound Recordings: WAV
Edited by: Gwendelyn Ballew/LeeAnn Lands