Ray Quinnelly

Ray QuinnellyLEEANN LANDS: OK, we’re on, so if you will introduce yourself and talk about your relationship to Emmaus House and the Poverty Rights Office.

RAY QUINNELLY: My name is Ray Quinnelly. In January of 1977, I took a leave from the University of the South and moved to Emmaus House and lived here for a year and then went back to school and took another leave and came back and lived for another year and half or two. And then even after I left, I continued to worship here, write for the Poor Peoples’ Newspaper, and be involved with my friends. I live just a few miles east of Emmaus House now so I still see many of the children, I see people I knew as children who are now adults at the grocery store, at the library, because we share some of the same resources. It’s also been a lot of fun to run into them at PTA meetings as our children would go to the same schools, and of course, at Camp Mikell, the Diocesan church camp where all the kids go. Camp Mikell is a great equalizer because everybody loves camping. It doesn’t matter what your neighborhood is, and that’s neat.

When I was on staff, we lived here [Ezzard Hall]. The house at that time was open from eight in the morning until eleven at night, seven days a week. And the front desk was staffed so we took turns being on the desk, “on duty” as it was called. That meant you answered the phones, you dealt with walk-ins (this was after the Poverty Right’s office had closed) to get people hopefully the resources they needed. We also entertained a lot of teenagers. They would come in and have coffee and play cards and visit with us, if it wasn’t a youth group night.

We had a very, very active teenager group called “Among Ourselves” that Gene Ferguson founded and ran. He and Columbus Ward were on staff and they ran it, but a bunch of us volunteered with it. Well, and I did because I was on staff and it was just wonderful. It was a conglomeration of black history, field trips, tutorials, maybe sometimes visiting children who were in lockup, making sure they stayed caught up in school. We went to school with the kids a lot. We would go to school with children who were having trouble—and we just wanted to give the teachers a heads up and say, “Hey we’re doing tutorials here. We’re studying, we’re neighbors, we’re friends, we go to the same church, just be in touch with us.” If there were trouble at the home, we would act—with the parent’s permission—as the parents got themselves sorted out. That made a lot of difference. It made a lot of us—I didn’t do it—but a lot of the staff did go on to become teachers and that was really wonderful.

Besides the regular programs that we helped in, we did, you know, if an issue came up, like they tried to increase the sales tax which is so hard on the poor, and I mean Emmaus House was “stopped-the-sales tax central” and leafleted every single housing project in Atlanta. We picked people up to go lobby against it. We picketed. We did everything and we beat the sales tax increase that time.

LANDS: What years are we talking about now?

QUINNELLY: This was in 1979. Yes, and that was a victory. That was great.

LANDS: Tell me how you guys came up with that idea. Like, who brought that up in a meeting and how did you decide how to approach the issue?

QUINNELLY: The community organizing models that were used were already there when I got here. Now I talk to Stephanie and they think I was here in the good old days, but I was only a staff person and in the good, good old days, the real, real, good old days. There were so many staff they slept in this room [Ezzard Hall] in bunk beds everywhere, and that’s when they were really turning things out. Then when I got here, Gene and Columbus and me—in 1979, though there was Charlotta and some more people then—but I think the models, I mean—nobody ever said this to me directly, but some of it was Saul Alinsky and the whole ACORN, how that was done, but it came from the community. I mean we didn’t tell people what to do. If somebody asked us what the issue was, we talked about it, but we didn’t tell people what to do. It was like let’s get in the street, and there we went.

When I first, I actually moved here the day that Gary Gilmore was executed and the death penalty was reinstated. A group called “Team Defense” was being formed and their meetings were here. Clint Deveaux, Father Ford—Clint was a young attorney and legislator and just—you know—our hero, and Millard Farmer, Murphy Davis, and Ed Loring. It was just the whole concept that it takes a whole team to fight the death penalty. You need not only the attorneys, but the community organizers, the psychologists, you need governmental people who are sympathetic so you can get it changed. At that point, death row was still at Reidsville, and we would take our bus to Reidsville once a month so people could go visit. We were able to work with people that way. So there was a national moratorium against the death penalty. It was held in Georgia, and we did a lot of that. Again, this is one of those one-time events where the word went out, and it was, “yes that is something we need to do.” And anyway, we can just walk up the street to the state capitol– it’s so close [laughs].

LANDS: So at that time the Lorings already have started the Open Door Community?

QUINNELLY: No, no, no. They were the pastors at Clifton Presbyterian. They hadn’t even started Clifton Night Hospitality then. The food bank wasn’t open then.

So that’s what I mean by those one-time things. If something highly egregious occurred, if there were say a police shooting—I’m just giving hypotheticals—then that was the kind of thing that we would help mobilize around. When then President Carter increased food stamps— bear with me because I’m going back a long way—he changed the formula for women, infants and children, a really wonderful feeding program, and he did it right around Mother’s Day. So we dropped everything and had a protest against President Carter. Again, you had to be open to what was going on in the times and keep the regular programs running. We worked. I worked one or two days a week in the Poverty Right’s Office, the after-school program, the teenage-youth program, worked with the seniors, taught Sunday school. We drove a lot. We picked up, did the transporting to get the people to meetings and from meetings and children safely here and safely home.

LANDS: You’re primarily serving the neighborhood, Peoplestown, or are you driving further out to different neighborhoods?

QUINNELLY: As the neighborhood shifted and the people who had been here initially moved, perhaps to a better place or their house fell in, you know, whatever, then we would still go pick up. Or if somebody’s momma died and they had to go live with an aunt or grandmomma who lived some more neighborhoods away. So on Sunday mornings, we drove. The three of us would take off to pick up for Sunday school. Herman, I used to pick up Herman.

LANDS: Mr. Shackleford?

QUINNELLY: Yes, baby Herman. He lived in Kirkwood what was considered a very poor neighborhood. The houses are $500,000 now. Columbus’s momma’s house on Georgia Avenue, I just saw it’s for sell for $450,000. I mean it’s insane.

So yes, we went around to pick up anybody who wanted to come to Sunday school. In the meantime, whoever was still here scrambled some eggs and cooked some grits and fed everybody breakfast. Then we had church and Sunday school and took them home and saw what else we could do, you know.

We managed to, when we got off work, whatever time we got off, go out and see the town. I don’t know if you’re going to talk to Susan Taylor or not, you really should, she grew up in Dalton, Georgia and came here when she was 17 years old straight out of high school and is still involved in wonderful ways, but she now has a Ph.D. in reading and is a reading specialist. I mean she went to Duke and then came back and got her Ph.D. and has taught for years. But Susan and I were talking about, because we are small-town girls, that when we took the kids, the teenagers, on a field trip, it was fun for us too. When we grew up, it was exciting to go to the big city and ride on the escalators, you know [laughs], so riding on public transportation was just oh, that was something.

I grew up in Mississippi, so when I came here, it wasn’t that long after the children were killed—murdered—and so I heard that story early on. So when people asked me where I was from, I said Tennessee because I had come from University of the South—and that’s not a lie. I just was appalled that my state had done something—. And Gene and Columbus said, “You need to start telling people where you are really from. We’re not going to change anything until we’re all on the same page here. Tell the truth.” I started doing it, and they were right so that’s part of the learning.

LANDS: So let’s go back, before I lose this thought, that your early periodization here, so you were at the University of the South in school or working?

QUINNELLY: In school. I was a junior in college.

LANDS: About what time period are we talking about? What year was this?

QUINNELLY: 1977.

LANDS: OK. Then you come down to Emmaus for the first time, was that just for the summer?

QUINNELLY: No, I came in January 1977 and left January 1978.

LANDS: OK, so it’s a one-year placement or just volunteer work, or what did you do?

QUINNELLY: I was on staff. I lived here. Actually, because I was the only staff person when I first came, I lived with Ms. Martin, a dear old lady who lived in the house that May Helen Johnson later bought. So I’ve lived in May Helen’s house and Ms. Martin was very dear. She taught me how to make chicken and dumplings, really good chicken and dumplings. And her husband had been a porter with the Crescent old railroad and she would tell me stories about that and she was faithful to, oh Lord, Dr. Border’s church, the big church on Auburn Avenue?

LANDS: It’s not Big Bethel?

QUINNELLY: No. At any rate, it’s on the other side, south, it’s on that one. She sang in one of their choirs and went over there quite faithfully. She died that fall. By then, that summer, some college interns came so I moved into the cottage because there were other people to live there. When they went back to college, a couple of kids, teenagers in the neighborhood, needed to get out of their homes so they lived in the cottage with me. Girls. We definitely took care of each other. I’m not going to say any names. And we are still close.

LANDS: So how did you even hear about this job at Emmaus House? How did you know to come down?

QUINNELLY: I grew up in Mississippi on a college campus with—for that time—very liberal parents, and I grew up in a world that was defined by integration. Then I went to Sewanee where it was a wonderful education, but there were seven black students. And the faculty was all white and all male. I liked school, but I was lonely, and I just decided I would take a leave for a semester. And I pulled out the red book—the Episcopal red book—to see what kind of social service agencies—, and I was talking to Ms. Chitty, the Director of Financial Aid, and she said, “Oh Ray, you must call Austin Ford,” and I said, “Who?” She said, “Oh yes, this is what you want to do.” So I wrote Father Ford a letter and he said come talk to me, and then I came. It’s been home, you know, it really has. It still is.

LANDS: So you were here the first time for a year and then you went back to school?

QUINNELLY: Went back to school. Then I came back and was here for another year and a half or two, pretty much living here, and battin’ back and forth up to Sewanee to finish up. Just like, “Ray, you’ve got to finish school.” And I did.

LANDS: So was your university training directly related to the work you were doing?

QUINNELLY: Not at all. Not at all. I don’t want to get off on a jag about Sewanee, but at that point, I got no credit. It wasn’t like I was writing a paper or getting any official academic credit. No, I was just on leave. That’s fine because the gift of having been here—and anybody will tell you this, any middle-class kid who has landed here—has given me entrée to places that I never would have had in my whole life, and it’s just phenomenal. Again, Susan and I talked, little small town white girls be afforded the opportunity to do and be with so many fantastic people. The Johnson family that we’ve been close for so long. I got to be Ethel May Matthews’ secretary. I used to put that on my resume — job experience: Ethel May Matthew’s secretary.

LANDS: So tell me about the Poverty Rights Office at that time. Can you describe sort of everything that it encompassed and who it served and what you all did?

QUINNELLY: Are you going to talk to Gracie Stone?

LANDS: I have.

QUINNELLY: The Poverty Rights Office was in-your-face advocacy done by upper-middle class white ladies who did not have any patience—they did not suffer fools kindly, let’s say—with anybody that was going to yank the poor around. They would get on the phone and be advocates. And that was what the Poverty Rights office did—call the electric company and say [bangs on table] “You know we’ve got to keep this electricity turned on. They’ve got a kid with asthma who has to have electricity to make the machine work that gives them their medicine. What are you doing? What is your name and your supervisor’s name?” And document, document, document. But a lot of the volunteers learned how to work a food stamp budget, a welfare budget to determine eligibility, and then became better at doing it—and even I did too and I’m not very good at math—than caseworkers. So in the sense, volunteers were doing the jobs for people who were getting paid. However, since nobody raised any cane about it, because that wasn’t what we were about. It was about making sure the poor got the services to which they were entitled, and with dignity. We helped people. Now there was the advocacy, but yes we did connect people to a food pantry or a clothes closet, you know, or whatever that immediate need was. As far as the direct thing, we didn’t have a food pantry like there is now. We did more of the linkage. And through that, people who came to the Poverty Rights’ office seeking help, several came back to become volunteers. That’s wonderful. That’s just great.

LANDS: So how did you guys learn to do these things, like working the food stamps budget or learning how to do the welfare budget?

QUINNELLY: Well, Gracie [Stone] and Dennis Goldstein, who had been a conscientious objector here during the Vietnam War and went on to become a legal aid lawyer, learned how to do those budgets. Some people with better math skills than I and they created a form so that when somebody called, you just did it—it was an easy form. It wasn’t complicated like the governmental form, but you got the same answer. And you filled it out and calculated how much they were supposed to be getting. And the important thing about AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) was even if you got a dollar in your check, it meant you got Medicaid for your family, for your kids, which is vital. It meant you got put up a little bit in the hierarchy in waiting for public housing. It meant it was easier for you to qualify for food stamps because you already had jumped through those hurdles. So it wasn’t the amount of the check—which wasn’t diddly squat—but it was what it took care of so that was very important. That was why when the governor changed the level of need—it would have cut a great number of women, who were working a bit, off of the welfare rolls so they would have lost health insurance for their children, the food stamps, the qualifications for public housing. I mean that’s no incentive to work. And that’s when we got locked up. We went down to the state capitol and they locked us up.

LANDS: Why did they lock you up?

QUINNELLY: Because we stood up in the visitors’ gallery and held up signs while the general assembly was in session. Bless their hearts.

LANDS: Now was the idea there that you were supposed to keep protests outside? Certainly protests occur outside the building, was it the fact that y’all were inside?

QUINNELLY: Right. We disrupted the general assembly. We were just singing hymns. [Laughs.] But it wasn’t a “let’s go to jail” thing, it was, “how can we get their attention?” But Governor Busbee lied to us. He said I will not change the level of need, and then he and some high-powered white boys went in a room late one night and made these rules. Because of what happened then, that’s how we got Sunshine laws. That’s how we got a lot of things that give people better access to their government. But you can’t be making rules like that in the men’s bathroom at the Hyatt, or wherever they were, you know.

LANDS: Now was the Poverty Rights Office open the whole time you were working here?

QUINNELLY: Oh yes. I wrote for the Poor Peoples’ Newspaper.

LANDS: Tell me about that. I haven’t seen a copy of the newspaper yet.

QUINNELLY: It was, I mean, I thought it was an amazing newspaper. It was just a little, you know this was back in the days of Xerox, mimeograph machines almost Ms. Matthews always had a column in it and then the writers, we got our ideas from what clients were coming in about. I used to get a lot of ideas from the little Marta riders digest because it would tell about seminars or free things—anything free that was coming up or help with utility bills or flu shots. We did a lot with Section 8. Man, we got them all. I think the Atlanta Historical Society has all of the Poor Peoples’ newspapers. Mary may have some.

LANDS: I think Rev. Claiborne has them in her office somewhere, but she mentioned that they might be scattered around.

QUINNELLY: I need to get in there and work on that for her. I’m sorry.

LANDS: I’ll be glad to help out. We can go rummage around her office sometime if she’ll let us.

QUINNELLY: Oh good. Yes, I’ve been, I’m still trying to sort out—:

LANDS: So you wrote articles, how long did the paper operate?

QUINNELLY: It did not stop until let’s see, Eleanor was born in 1991, I want to say we didn’t stop until the 1990s. I went back to work fulltime. Now wait, I spent my fortieth birthday so I know it was still going in 1996. I think it was right around then that we just—none of us were working in the Poverty Rights’ office, the people who were writing the paper. While my husband used to tease me about going to Buckhead to write the Poor Peoples’ Newspaper, it did become an issue. And everybody was smart enough to know that we were too far removed so it ceased. Ms. Matthews got older and sicker and she just wasn’t up to doing it. Her column was like “Pow!” But we put it in the Grady waiting room, the Grady clinics, after the Open Door opened, we always sent a big batch there. All the legal aid offices had a big batch in their waiting room. It was a service. I was proud of it. It was good. Of course, everybody is glued to the internet now.

LANDS: Do you remember—and I don’t remember the periodization here so you’ll have to help me out—at some point in this period in the 70s, the public housing tenants are organizing and Poverty Rights is part of that. Do you remember any of that?

QUINNELLY: Hmm. I think that was before my time, but out of that the Welfare Rights Organization which had been this huge thing that Ms. Matthews was head of. It was based on— that wonderful man George [A. Wiley], A Passion for Equality—the man that wrote A Passion Free Quality founded the Welfare Rights Organization. By the time I got here, it was getting harder to energize everybody and pull it together so Ms. Matthews went to Father Ford and said, what if we just have a representative from each public housing project, you know, from Capital Homes, John Hope Homes, Techwood homes, East Lake Meadows, and maybe the head of the tenants’ association, and we’ll call it the Welfare Rights Council. And they’ll meet once a month and see what the issues are, and then they can bring the issues from the community. Everybody agreed to that, so it wasn’t like some, “this is what we are doing. That was when I came on board and was secretary. Lord, Ms. Copeland from Capital Homes, Ms. Eva Davis from East Lake Meadows, Mandy Griggs from University Homes, I want to say, Ms. Arnold who came from out of Thomasville, that’s when Thomasville was first, yeah, see I can remember. Oh, Mr. and Ms. Green from Techwood homes—they were the most wonderful people and worked so hard for everybody.

LANDS: Do you have any sense of whether these people are still around?

QUINNELLY: I know Ms. Copeland died not long ago.

LANDS: Gene Ferguson mentioned Mandy Griggs.

QUINNELLY: Well, I can show you her picture. It’s up there on the wall.

LANDS: Ms. Davis?

QUINNELLY: Eva Davis was head of East Lake Meadows. Of course, it’s gone.
LANDS: But she may be around?

QUINNELLY: She might live out there. Actually I think I did read an interview with her in the newspaper not long ago. She got a nice place.

LANDS: Good. Tell me about Ms. Matthews.

QUINNELLY: You know when Ms. Matthews was on, she could give a speech—I mean, she could mobilize everybody to do anything. She really knew how to move a crowd. You just spent a little bit of time with her and you learned how to listen and how to hear what she was saying. And she was tough. Don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t going to take anything off of any smart-mouthed little girl. “But Ms. Matthews, you don’t want to say that.” “Excuse me, yes I do!” She cared about other people. What I always saw with Ms. Matthews was here she was, having coming out of the welfare experience and being a single mother and overcoming her various trials and tribulations—she always thought of other people, always, you know just lifting up their problems, rather than her own. She was without college training, without fancy high school, without speaker training. She could stand up and speak to the presiding bishop, to the governor, to anything. I’m trying to remember what David Webster said at her funeral. She was able to get something changed that made it easier for poor people to run for office, I want to say, some kind of residency requirement. That was Ms. Matthews’ doing. She said, is that fair? She and Father loved each other and respected each other so very much—Ms. Matthews and Father Ford. I remember she was diabetic and so whenever there was a party Father always had diet soda so she would have something to drink. If we had a party and invited her, Father never forgot, but if the wild teenagers, the staff had a party and Ms. Matthews came and we didn’t have her soda, ummm…we got her soda. Maybe Gene talked about this when he was telling you for awhile we became like a mini-UN. We had the Danish Peace Corp here almost because Charlotta Norby came here to be an au pair for someone out at Emory and was looking for something to do while the kids were in school, and looked in the phone book and saw Emmaus House and thought it was Emmaus International. She called and I happened to be on the desk, and I was like “Yeah, come on.” She came over and got involved. Then she lived here, and she and I were in the cottage together. That was really wonderful. She’s my son’s godmother. My son was baptized here. I don’t know how much you want to know about the chapel.

LANDS: I would love to hear about it.

QUINNELLY: I mean I was reared in the Episcopal Church and growing up in the Episcopal Church in Mississippi is very much like being a Unitarian or a Catholic—you know, we were very suspect. And also, for its time, again, we were not segregationists. We had bumper stickers that said, “The Episcopal church welcomes everybody” and it was black on white and white on black. That was a big deal. Then I went to the Episcopal university [University of the South] at Sewanee, and then I came here, and the first, maybe the only time in my life, where everything we did and said on Sunday, we lived through the week. And that was such a gift, such a gift. The chapel—it was basically an Episcopal liturgy from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. But because we didn’t really have prayer books and a lot of the congregation, either didn’t know how to read or with children the prayers became songs, replaced by songs and spirituals, and protests shows, the songs of the civil rights movement. And it was just very wonderful.

LANDS: How many people do you think attended chapel when you were first here?

QUINNELLY: We had a huge Sunday school because you know the chapel was just in here [gesturing to indicate Ezzard Hall]. Did somebody show you?

LANDS: I’ve seen that room.

QUINNELLY: Yes, that was the chapel and the stain glass and the altar was there. So I mean, it could fill up (I’m awful with numbers), but 65 or 70 people when it was full. If you had some active children, it seemed full a lot of times. We had a big Sunday school and always a hot breakfast and then Sunday school. Ms. Johnnie Brown was our Sunday school superintendent, and choir mistress, and did the music. Johnnie is probably, you know, she’s just such a proper lady that the children behaved when Johnnie just gave them a look. She was wonderful. Her then-husband was a doctor, and her daughter is Jeanne Brown, the soprano. One time I walked into the house, and Father used to play opera a lot, and I heard just this beautiful aria, and I thought, “Man, he’s really blasting it out today.” And I walked into the back and this beautiful young woman was there—and it was Jeanne singing. I was like, “Oh my God, the angels really have come.” She’s great. Later on my son and her son were in middle school together and high school so we continued to see each other and then we see each other here, too. We would see each other at Camp Mikell, so you know, the church keeps us running into each other in different ways, and that’s very good.

LANDS: So you’re here working 20 years?

QUINNELLY: That’s 1977, and I’m on the Board now. I’ve been on the Board. So I wrote the Poor Peoples’ Newspaper until it quit, and then I was uninvolved other than seeing my neighbors or running in to each other at PTA. My life, because of where I live geographically, stayed intertwined with individuals in the community, if not but through the House. What a gift! What a blessing. So, Father retired, and it was after Debbie became the vicar, and I was talking to Muriel Lokey, because Muriel and I stayed really good friends, and she said, “You know we need. . . ” —I was mad about something—“Why don’t you all do blah blah?” And she said, “Why don’t you come be on the Board?” Muriel and her wonderful way, and I said, “OK,” so I’ve been on the Board ever since.

LANDS: What changes have you seen in Emmaus and in Poverty Rights, now the Lokey Center, over that period?

QUINNELLY: Not the community, you just mean—

LANDS: Just our institution here.

QUINNELLY: Fewer live-in staff or no live-in staff. The Poverty Rights Office still does some advocacy but there is much more of the direct services. I think they even have money now to help people with utility bills—something we never did. We just kept things on and then got Christian Council to give people money. They’ve cut out that, you know, they quit being the middle man and started doing it. The lobbying—we lobbied our brains out. The Poverty Rights Organization had all the tax numbers so that it was legal to go lobby. Again, what are the needs and the education, and we would make pamphlets and we would go and put on as nice of clothes as we could and we would lobby at the capital for the rights of poor people. And we’re not doing that now. Letter writing campaigns. Again this was pre-computers so this meant everybody sat down with notebook paper and pens and pencils. We talked about it and said, “Here’s Mr. Talmadge’s address, and Mr. Nunn’s address and here we go,” and we would write letters. With our youth group one time we did a whole thing after Mr. Carter reinstated registration for the draft. We did a seminar about what that would mean, and helped the kids write some letters to their senators and to Mr. Carter saying what they felt about that.

LANDS: So when do you see that drop off from lobbying, that move from lobbying to service delivery? Or was that after you—

QUINNELLY: It was after—. I mean, even with the Poor Peoples’ Newspaper—. It was in the 1990s. Yes. The 1990s. Mr. Reagan just beat it out of us I guess.

LANDS: Really you were active in a time that a lot of other groups had declined already in their lobbying campaigns. So I think it is amazing that you seem so strong in this period.

QUINNELLY: And we weren’t just full of ourselves. I know that no one ran for office without coming by here and checking in, speaking either in Chapel—coming to worship and then standing up, because you know you can’t do that, or coming to Welfare Rights. I mean Senator Talmadge was down here—I walked in again and I thought the Sons of the Confederacy were having a meeting. It was just, “Hello my dear” [mimics high southern drawl]. Maynard was my first mayor. And he was the new south. He was the hope. And when he would come to speak, all of his people would be, “We’ve got to go, we’ve got to go.” He would be like, “I’m not leaving,” and he would answer everybody’s questions. I would have followed that man anywhere. He put the people before his campaign. He wanted to help people. I really believe that.

LANDS: So tell me about the community. Tell me about Peoplestown. What did you think when you first got here from the University of the South?

QUINNELLY: I’d never seen urban poverty. So it was Sister Marie who was the nun here took me walking to meet the children the first day. And it had snowed—it was icy and the kids were out of school. We went to some apartments up on Washington Street and they were the darkest, scariest-looking places I had ever seen in my life and those dear children came running out to say, “Hi, how long you going to be here? Will you go to camp?” Here there’s snow on the ground. “Are you going to camp?” I said, “What’s camp?” “Camp Mikell.” “What do you do there?” “Everybody is real nice and you can eat as much as you want to.” It was just, “welcome, welcome.” No matter how little anybody had, they offered to share. Vincent Johnson, May Helen [Johnson]’s son, was a little fellow then, and when I first met him, he had a tootsie pop in his mouth and he pulled it out and gave me this great big smile and he said, “Have some?” I licked it because it was just so beautiful, you know this is all I have but have some.
Where the apartments are across the street now, that looked like a mud hole in 1977 because Atlanta Interfaith Housing was starting on these apartments that everybody was very excited about, same way about Capitol Vanira. And so the big thing was please don’t move, please hang in, please stay here. We’ll see what these people are doing. Maybe you can get one of these apartments and then not everybody could get one. Thomasville Heights was just opening and that seemed to be fairly decent housing, but then it was so poorly managed that it’s not a good place either. And then we saw what happened to the houses people moved out of are now worth half a million dollars sometimes. So the change in property values is huge. I mean, there’s a half million dollar houses around here. I mean who can afford it and who that can afford it is going to buy where there are shootings on the corner? The other thing that has changed, another way that it has changed is just the number of young people who have died. The children who died violently.

LANDS: You mean it is on the increase?

QUINNELLY: Just over the years. When I go back to my middle-class community and say where somebody I taught or knew at camp, “Well, he’s married and is a lawyer blah, blah, blah.” You know, and a lot of kids died. But a lot didn’t.

A lot of kids through Emmaus House were able to see that they had choices and to see other parts of the world—to leave this little world of down here and get into the busing program and go to school in Buckhea; to leave this little world down here and to go to Camp Mikell for a week; to leave this little world and every Friday afternoon a summer program instead of swimming at Grant Park, go swim at Chastain Park; to leave here and go to the picture show at Phipps Plaza instead of downtown at the Kong Fu picture show (I forget the name of it, but it has all these Kong Fu movies). It was those kinds of things that really made a difference in my life that you just get to see different things. And now with the kids who get to go away to these summer camps [the Summers Away program], oh my God, you know they’re getting to fly and to see a whole new world. It’s really important.

LANDS: Did you go to Camp Mikell?

QUINNELLY: Oh yes.

LANDS: Tell me about that.

QUINNELLY: When I, again, I wasn’t here in the heyday, but the kids lived for it. We had 150 kids I want to say in the summer program. All the teaching was done by summer interns—middle-class kids who would come in to do it, and we would have our class and Ms. Slade and an old teacher who is still alive. (I ran into her at the grocery store. She’s 95.) Ms. Slade was the director and she was very old school, but that was good because we were very—we’d all read The Open Classroom, you know, we were going to save the world. It wasn’t going to work quite that way, so Ms. Slade helped us with discipline and control. She got our curriculum together, and we taught. So we did summer school also in the mornings and then we went swimming or to a park or to a field trip in the afternoons.

And then we took a week at the end of the summer [for Camp Mikell], and we took all the kids shopping. We went to the old Ridgeway out on Jonesboro Road. Ridgeway was Rich’s discount store. Everybody got clothes for camp and you know shampoo, or whatever we needed like that, made sure everybody had a bathing suit. And then we called National Linen Company and we got linens for 150 for a week. And we got everybody’s little permission slip signed. And then we rented school buses, and we took the kids to camp.

When we first started, I mean, when I first started going to camp, we did not have a good relationship. Emmaus House did not have a good relationship with the Camp Mikell staff. It was adversarial. Some of the things had gone on were before my time, so I’m not going to speak to that, but some other staff could. So we got up there, Camp Mikell cooked our food for us and gave us a lifeguard. Other than that, we did our own programs. We sang and danced and walked in the woods, and went swimming, and played, and ate, ate and ate. And we just had a great time.

LANDS: Now you’re the only kids there?

QUINNELLY: Yes

LANDS: There aren’t other kids from other communities?

QUINNELLY: No, it is called Emmaus House. If you look down, it still is. That was Emmaus House camp. I went again in 1979, and I think in 1980 I just went up and said hi for a day. Columbus and I drove up last summer or the summer before last. We drove a station wagon with leftover luggage in it, up behind the buses with the children on it and we got there early. No, the buses were behind us. We got there early and all the Mikell staff came running out cheering and hugging us. And then when the busses came in, the Mikell staff was like we’re running down the road “Are they here yet? Are they here yet?” As the buses came in, names were shouted back and forth. What a difference! What a difference! So on the way home, Columbus and I were talking about it. Columbus said that’s because of Ken Struble, who is the director of Camp Mikell now, and that Ken wasn’t going to have any truck with that racism—it just wasn’t going to happen. Ken is stern. He’ s sent Emmaus House kids home—who were up at the Emmaus House session—for not minding. But he started the staffers coming down and doing a week at Emmaus House in the summer so that relationships are built.
Built to the point that after the shootings the other night, this dear child who is as much a screw up as my son is sometimes, John, came here immediately from his upper-middle class home and went to Andre’s older brothers and said, “My momma said you all come up to my house and sleep tonight.” That’s what Emmaus House is about. When we had the vigil to honor Nick the other night and to pray for Andre, a lot of those kids came and their mommas and daddies, so there’s community. There was no thought of “Well, I’m not going down there. There’s been a shooting.” It’s “I’m going down there, there’s been a shooting.” If you read, did you read James’s piece? He gets it. It gives you a lot of hope because some of us who are in our 40s and 50s like to sit around and say, “Well, there’s just nobody else doing what we were doing.” And there are. And it’s great.

LANDS: The summer setup was you had the summer program here for most of the summer and then you packed up and went for a week at Camp Mikell?

QUINNELLY: Yes, we did the summer program at an elementary school. One year we were at King, and one year we were at Pryor Street because, well 150 kids—the house was only this [gestures to the room we’re sitting in]. We didn’t have the chapel or the Study Hall, or I forget — they all have new names. Just this space. We didn’t have this nice kitchen here. That was the new kitchen that got built. We had a kitchen that was about the size of this. And we had this oven that only three islands worked—and they only worked on high and the oven only worked on broil. That’s what Columbus cooked Sunday school breakfast on!

This wonderful lady who worked at the Magnolia Room at Rich’s came every Tuesday and Thursday night and cooked dinner for us—Ms. Watkins. Anybody, any staff, or any volunteers who were around, we sat down and had dinner together in the dining room and she made chicken pie. And it was good.

LANDS: So you guys, the interns, the people from the middle-class neighborhoods and you guys are holding classes for people—what kind of stuff are you teaching? arts and crafts?

QUINNELLY: We wanted, you know we wanted to do black history [pounds table], black history. The first week I was here was when Roots was on TV for the first time, so it was all of that. Somebody borrowed TVs and brought them in so we could watch Roots with the teenagers. We talked about that a lot.

We would read anything that would get the kids reading. And I mean it’s still an issue today to find something interesting for a teenager and make it work. Sister Marie, a wonderful Catholic nun, said to me one day, “Now I’ve heard about this new book store. It’s call ‘Charis.’ It’s a women’s book store, but I think they have some good children’s books. Let’s go over.” So a Catholic nun took me to Charis for the first time. I loved to tell Linda Bryant that story. But it was true, because they had Ezra Jack Keats. They had good books that weren’t momma and daddy and two little children and daddy goes to work and momma stays home and they’re dead-bone white—which is what most of the books that we had. These were fun books that were easier to relate to so we would go do that.

Sometimes we wrote our own stories. I liked doing that too. When you didn’t have something, we would get some magazines, we would cut out pictures and write a story and then the child would read it back to you. Then they had a book.

We played cards. Did Gene talk about cards? We would go to the Thrashers—this wonderful, wonderful family that lived over on Hill Street—and we would go over there and we’d play cards all Saturday night until time to cook—time to pick up for Sunday school and cook breakfast for Sunday school. We were very young. I couldn’t do it now! We’d come back here, and if we went to sleep in church, we got in bad trouble so we didn’t go to sleep. I learned how to play, like, a hundred different variations of Spades, and it was fun.

LANDS: Was this Anthony Thrashers’ family?

QUINNELLY: Yes, yes, yes. Little man, big man, Ivan.

LANDS: How did the kids react to Roots? Were they bored? Were they interested?

QUINNELLY: The older kids were interested. Some who wondered in and out, I remember saying, “Fine. Don’t take this.” But then having good discussions afterwards because Gene’s whole thing was teach them about their heritage and who they were and, especially then, helping them to understand what had happened.

LANDS: Did you have any black history materials? Were there any books at that time geared to kids?

QUINNELLY: No. I remember I got Dick Gregory’s Black History lost, stolen or strayed, and that was my little textbook, you know, and you had to vary it from group to group. Again, like I said, we would write our own books, but it was hard to find pictures of black children in a magazine to make your story. We ended up doing a lot of animals. Ms. Slade would get the hand-me-down books from the Board of Education, but that wasn’t what we needed. And we made up math games. What we didn’t have in technical training, we made up for in enthusiasm and love, you know. Alright, we may not teach them anything, but we have a lot of fun and they’re going to feel good. So that’s not bad.

LANDS: No, it’s good.

QUINNELLY: There was a little boy. He was new to the program, I want to say in 1977, and I wasn’t sure who his mother was. He came, and he was angry and he had an orange t-shirt and it said “Nathan” on the back so I said, “Hey Nathan.” He wore that t-shirt about three times a week, and it was always clean. I would say, “Hey Nathan, Hey Nathan.” He would stare at me and just give me these mean looks. And then after about three weeks, he said, “My name’s not Nathan.” And it was a hand-me-down, and I think about that every time I start to give away my children’s clothing, you know to take their name off in case somebody whose name isn’t Eleanor gets something that was hers. You know, bless his heart, I don’t remember his name, but he was much happier after I called him by his name.

LANDS: The early years—1970s and 1980s—what do you think were some of the major day-to-day challenges—not big picture policy issue challenges, but stuff that you guys faced day in and day out?

QUINNELLY: Hmm. Helping people to maintain, keep utilities. Keeping the man from beating down the front door and taking somebody away. Helping parents to be able to get their children up and on the buses—the children who were in the busing program had to get up so early to catch the buses. Listening out where there might be trouble, you know, where somebody might seem to be hungry maybe and how to deal with that in a dignified way. Some child is coming in every day saying, may I have some more cookies? They’re hungry. What’s going on? Again, like I said, we were encouraging people to stay here until the apartments opened thinking that, but we lost a lot of people then. I had gone by the time the apartments were really opening, so I don’t know what our relationship was—I don’t think we really had that much of a relationship over there.

LANDS: When you say you’re losing them, where are you losing them to? Nearby neighborhoods?

QUINNELLY: DeKalb County—South DeKalb. Thomasville. Now, it is my perception, Clayton County, but not when I was here. No, not when I was here. Yes, and then some people got into the [public housing] projects, and they would go there. But we tried to maintain relationships. It’s so much, again, what a gift that you know that I can be in a grocery store or pull up to a service station and somebody say, “Are you Ray QUINNELLY?” Or if I have on an Emmaus House t-shirt, somebody will say, “Hey, I used to go up to the Emmaus House.” I say, “Well, come on back, it’s still there. Come on by and see us.” That’s wonderful, but yes I would say just helping people address their needs.

But again, people just always shared. I’m going into somebody’s house to get a form so somebody could go on a field trip, and they’re having Saltines and canned beans and the mother would say, “So and So, please get up and get Ray a bowl.” Not knowing whether to say, “That’s OK.” I’d just say, “I just want a little bit,” because I didn’t want to take their food, but I didn’t want to be ungracious so—. But always that generosity of spirit. I’ll always remember that. And always being welcomed back. You know when I went away, wasn’t involved for that stretch of time, and then I came back when Patricia Nuckles was murdered and started getting involved then. Tricia and I had known each other from being staff and goofing around and nobody said, “Where have you been?”

Oh, here’s a great Ms. Matthews’ story! I knew she trained me right. I had started coming back and got on the Board. Ms. Matthews came into the Board meeting and she said, “Hey Ray, where have you been?” And I smiled and I said, at first I was scared, and I went, “Well, Ms. Matthews, I’ve been out doing the work you taught me to do,” and she said, “Very good.” And it’s true. Anybody that was on staff or lived here—we don’t look at things the same way. If somebody says, “Oh, it’s that Section 8 house” —I had this happen one time—“Oh it’s those Section 8 people,” and you learn how to say it in a gentle way too because you don’t want to say, “You lost your little mind, you moron.” You have to say, “No, they’re not ‘Section 8 people,’ they’re just plain ol’ human beings. They’re in a Section 8 house. That means they pay some rent. It’s OK.” You learn to speak up when people have the Susan Smith syndrome of “a black guy did it.” You say, “How do you know?” You learn, and I think because as middle class people you have the choice of whether to speak or not speak, and if you feel tired, you think, well good God, if you feel tired, how must the people who are still living in that community feel? And then you’re able to speak again.

LANDS: Thank you for your time today!


Interview with: Ray Quinnelly
Interviewed by: LeeAnn Lands
Location: Emmaus House, Ezzard Hall
Date: 21 April 2009
Transcribed by: Nancy Hill
Edited by: LeeAnn Lands


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

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