Austin Ford

Father Austin Ford

Father Austin Ford. Photo courtesy of Boyd Lewis and the Atlanta History Center.

AUSTIN FORD: I’m Austin Ford.

LEEANN LANDS: Tell me the history of your relationship to Emmaus House.

FORD: I was a director of a church out on LaVista Road, St. Bartholomew’s, and I was very much involved in trying to integrate schools and get people to register to vote and that sort of thing. This was in the 1950s and 1960s. And we’d had a very drastic situation here with Lovett School, which was the Episcopal high school in those days. They refused to accept the King children—I’m not sure which ones; I guess the two older boys—for that school. And that just blew everything up in the Diocese of Atlanta and the Episcopal church, because the dean of the cathedral was chairman of the board and all sorts of things. So a lot of us got very much involved with that.

Ralph McGill, who was a member of the cathedral, wrote an article to the effect that the diocesan authorities had been hypocritical in saying that the church wasn’t practicing segregation and proving that it did. So the whole Episcopalian community, at least, got very much involved with this. At that time, the bishop asked me if I would—since I was so interested in this sort of work—would I be interested in starting some work that would serve the inner-city community.

I hadn’t really thought about doing such a thing. I was very happy where I was. I’d been there for I guess twelve or thirteen years. But it was an opportunity, and I said, “Well, if I wouldn’t have to have a board of directors, I would be glad to do something of this sort.” And I knew what boards of directors could do because I was on the board of the Georgia Council on Human Relations, and I saw that every time we tried to do anything, the board would try to stop it. Everything was too drastic.

Anyway, so they agreed to that, and so I found a property that was for sale, and—

LANDS: The current property?

FORD: Mm-hm [agrees]. And just without any real plan, went there to work. You’d hardly believe it now, but in those days, there was a very active ecumenical movement, trying to bring the churches together. And I was very close to the nuns out in Decatur, at St. Thomas More. And so a couple of them wanted to go and help out there, so they went.

The place was a terrible wreck. It had been a sort of flophouse for alcoholics. There were signs on the doors saying, “Two dollars a night” and things like that. And I remember Sister Mary Joseph—later she became Sister Mary Rose—[chuckles] she had to have a cigar to clean out the place, there was such an awful smell. Anyway, we all went there, and then there was a Moravian seminary student who came. So the four of us went there, moved in and just waited to see what would happen.

And various people began to come. That neighborhood had been the sort of nursery of the old Jewish families, and almost all of the, by that time, very significant Jewish families had roots down there. And I remember one of the cheerful things that was that they organized a party to welcome us to their own neighborhood. It was great fun. And then people began to come with their interests.

LANDS: So it was still a mixed-race neighborhood when you all started.

FORD: Hardly. There was one white family about four or five houses—an elderly woman—four or five houses down from Emmaus House, but none of those Jews lived down there. They just had sentimental memories, the Riches and all those by that time—immensely rich, some of them, families. But they cared about that. And, of course, they’d always cared about racial justice and so on. Many of them had, anyway. So that was that connection.

And there were always Jews working there as volunteers and on the staff and so on. In fact, the—I’m struggling a little bit with names now, but the woman who always—the most important fund-raiser in Atlanta, who raised money for the symphony and everything else. And she was somebody I’d known. I’ll think of her name in a moment. She’s long since dead. But anyway, I went to see her because I had to raise the money to run it The diocese didn’t give me anything [chuckles] except they bought the address, the property for $25,000, and I had to pay it back out of the allocation they made, which was—[chuckles]. So I really had to raise money if we were going to do anything.

So I went to see her. And I said, “I can’t pay you any money, but I’ve got to have some advice about how to raise money. I never have done it.” So she said, “Well, just go home and make a list of all the people you think of that might possibly be interested in what you’re doing.” So I did that. So I took it back to her, and she said, “There are too many doctors on this list. Doctors never give money.” She said, “Do you know any lawyers?” So I said, “Well, yes, I know some.” And she said, “Well, get the name of a lawyer and ask him if he’ll send out a letter to the members of the bar.” His name was Jack Turner, and he did, and when I left there thirty years later, those people who by that time were many of them judges and so on were still giving money to that work.

LANDS: So what year is it that you’re purchasing the property and starting this?

FORD: We bought the property in 1966, and I moved in in 1967. I think it was early July.

LANDS: And there’s no overarching mission that you have in mind or anything?

FORD: I just wanted to go and see what happened. I was very much interested by that time in welfare rights, and I had been traveling around the state for the Georgia Council [on Human Relations], organizing little cells of people who were concerned about welfare rights, and very much involved with trying to integrate the schools, which we had done some in Decatur and DeKalb County. And so I was already involved with those things.

Although we had new civil rights laws by that time, they weren’t really implemented. For example, black women and white women had different rules in the Welfare Department, and they made no apologies about any of that. It was just the way they did it. And when you asked questions, they said, “That’s none of your business,” because we didn’t have any right to information in those days.

LANDS: We don’t have the Freedom of Information Act at this point?

FORD: No, not at that time. But I remember there was a state Welfare Board meeting, and I refused to leave when they said it was a closed session, and I said, “No, it’s a public board. You can’t have a closed session.” [Chuckles.] And he said, “You have to leave or we’ll have you arrested.” And so I said, “Well, I’m not leaving.” So they did have me arrested, and I remember the state trooper who said, “I don’t know what to charge you with.” And I said, “Charge me with attending a public meeting.”

LANDS: [Chuckles.]

FORD: So when I went on trial, the judge said, “How absurd! Nobody can be arrested for attending a public meeting.” [Laughs.] There were lots of fun times like that, too.

LANDS: And before we move on to Emmaus House, tell me about your work with the Georgia welfare rights organization.

FORD: Well, I didn’t know anything about the welfare rights organization until I went there, except that—I mean, the national organization, I did not know. I just knew that there was a lot of discrimination in the Welfare Department, and so we would try to get welfare recipients together to find out what their problems were and so on. And then I guess it must have been 1967, in the fall, when somebody from the National [Welfare Rights] Organization came down and met with us and talked about welfare rights and so on. This was—I forgot her name. She was a black woman from Washington.

They were having a training group. They recruited some of the people who were at that meeting to go and spend quite a while, I think a month or six weeks or something, at that training session. These people were not in any sense accustomed to taking charge and so on, but they knew how to do this. I mean, that organization knew how to train those people, so when they came back, they knew exactly how to take charge.

LANDS: So you’re sending Atlanta community members, neighborhood welfare recipients—

FORD: Uh-huh, uh-huh [agrees], and they went to—there was a training session somewhere up north. I don’t know because I wasn’t in it. But they came back just very well equipped to talk about welfare rights, and I remember one of the tense times was that we already had a chairman, but she wasn’t on welfare, herself, and Mrs. [Ethel Mae] Matthews, who had by that time become sort of the leading spokesman of the thing, ousted her. She said, “If you’re not a welfare recipient, you can’t have anything to do with making policy.” You see, they learned that. These people had five and six years of schooling, but those people really knew how to train. And so they took over, and then we began to have lots of demonstrations and things like that, going to the Welfare Department and making demands and so on.

I’ve often told the story, which must be somewhere, about going down and—there were two black women living next door to each other, each with the same number of children and no income, but each had a separate grant. And so we went down and presented this, and they said, well, it was none of our business. They wouldn’t have to tell us anything about it. So the next time we went down—oh, we had a huge crowd, and we’d done some training. We went in, and one of the women, a Mrs. Stinson, was trained to go down to the water fountain and have a seizure. So she did, and everybody of course, staff and everything, went down to see what this woman was dying of. And I picked up the rule book and left. [Laughter.] And that’s how we found out how to figure a grant, according to what the rules really were. And so the next time we went down, we had refigured everybody’s grant. And we had a lawyer by then to help us.

LANDS: Now, Ms. [Grace] Stone mentioned that you had some people occasionally inside the welfare system and the Social Security systems, feeding you information and helping out.

FORD: There were very good people. There was a woman with the state department—I don’t remember her name, but she would tell us what was going on and so on. But Grace would know more about the daily dealings with the Welfare Department, and she became quite an authoritative voice, and she knew a lot of people that I didn’t know, so she could tell you more about that than I could.

LANDS: So you all move into Emmaus House—

FORD: The nuns weren’t allowed to move in. They wanted to, and they were Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. And the order wanted them to go—that was when the religious orders were just trying to connect more with what was going in the world—and the order wanted that, but the archbishop did not. He thought it would be a cause for scandal and so on. That was their project; it wasn’t mine. But he said no, and they said that they were not a diocesan order, and so they went back to their—whoever runs the order for the Notre Dame de Namur. And they said no, they were going to apply to the Vatican, and they did. I remember signing the papers, and they began, “Most Holy Father, lying humbly, prostrate at thy feet,” and then you filled in what you wanted. [Laughter.] Ultimately, they sent back approving.

Of course, the archbishop was outraged, and he’d had a lot of problems already to deal with. He was a very generous-hearted person, but he was upset about that. When he was dying, his doctor called me asking me to come to see him, and I said, “I don’t think he wants to see me.” He said, “Yes, he does.” So I went. And the doctor said, “Don’t take long, because he’s very frail. He won’t live long.” So when I went in, he held out his hand and said, “I’m just clearing up the books before I go. I thought I’d tell you that I think you were right and I was wrong.” Think of that! It’s a beautiful memory. And then the nuns did move in there.

Now, let’s see—

LANDS: So is your first project welfare rights, or what do you launch?

FORD: I would say my consuming interest was in integrating the schools. Atlanta really hadn’t done anything about integrating the schools. They talked a lot about it and praised themselves a lot. I think they had something like nine or ten high school children attending a school—they were carefully selected. But they hadn’t done anything really about the schools. The black schools were on half day, and a lot of them didn’t have books. A lot of them didn’t have blackboards. When the government gave all that money for ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] grants to integrate the faculties, Atlanta did nothing almost, and the superintendents said, “Well, there’s nothing more I can do. I’ve put the best black teachers in the white schools and the worst white teachers in the black schools.” [Chuckles.] And that’s integration. Well.

But we kept pushing and pushing until I think it was 1973. Judge Smith, a federal judge—you can’t hold me to dates and not always to names, but that’s it, I think. And he said, “This has dragged on long enough.” Let’s see, did that come first? No, I don’t think it did. What came before that was that the local chapter of the NAACP decided not to press for integration of the schools, and they would go instead for jobs for blacks in the school system. Lonnie King was the chairman of that. And I just went into orbit over that. I went to New York, and I called Bishop Moore, who was one of the—he was an official—and Morris Abram, who was I think chairman of the NAACP [Legal Defense and] Education Fund—because they had withdrawn support for the court case. They had not somehow checked it out, but because the local chapter had said they weren’t going to pursue the suit, which had been placed in 1959, they abandoned it. Then, when the national NAACP realized what had happened, they suspended the local chapter and suspended Lonnie King.


FORD: It was a tremendous to-do, as you can believe. Anyway, so now we have no court case for integrating the schools in Atlanta. None. But Judge Smith cared about this, and he said he thought that the system had failed for too long to obey the law, and he ordered that the school system should provide free transportation for any black child who wanted to go to any formerly white school. And so that really put the kindling under the flames.

We went around—there were a lot of young people working at the house by that time, mostly from England and up North and Denmark and places like that, because we’d sort of got into the youth network around the country and around the world. And so we went around to visiting the housing projects, where we had a lot of connections with people, for various reasons, just to ask people if they wanted to move their children. And I think at that time you could transfer and—no, I think it must have been—yes, it was in August, and we had about, I think about three or four hundred children. We were determined not to send them just to scatter them around but to have enough of those children in a school so they wouldn’t feel isolated. And so we went to E. Rivers and [Morris] Brandon and [Warrant T.] Jackson [Elementary Schools]—all the posh schools in town. You know, they operate like private schools, and only rich white people could get there.

LANDS: Now, do you remember when you’re approaching, say, the public housing projects, are the parents aware at the time of the ruling that they could access the transportation to go to any school?

FORD: I don’t think they were aware of it until we told them.


FORD: So once they did—because they knew how desperate the situation was. I mean, here are these women with little children, and the children have to come at noon from school, all this sort of thing, so they were desperate to get—and the children were reading five and six years below grade level. It was horrendous, really, the situation they were in. So we had a big crowd to go—and at that time, you could transfer at Thanksgiving time as well as in September or August, whenever it was, and so we had a lot more children signed up by that time. It was fun, you know. We knew if there was trouble on the buses, that that would sabotage the program, so we had volunteer mothers who would ride the bus in the morning and then be at the school and ride home in the afternoon. I mean, a lot of them. [Chuckles.] You can’t imagine how exhausting it was, because you had to pick them up. You had to pick the mothers up at home, get them to the bus, which was, you know, by seven thirty, eight o’clock, whatever, and then you had to be at the school. They had to go to get them back to the school by two thirty or whatever, to ride home. Every time I sat down during those couple of years, I’d go to sleep.

LANDS: How did you recruit the mothers? Are they the children’s mothers or from a diocese?

FORD: We knew them from welfare rights, mostly. That’s what it was. There were a lot of housing projects, and they were all teeming with women who were desperate to improve their situation and help their children. There wasn’t any problem with recruiting. And so then at Thanksgiving time we had a lot more children ready to move. To transfer from one school to another, you had to have what they called an [unclear] ticket. It has all your records on it. And the schools wouldn’t release them.

LANDS: So they’re interfering with your process of transferring the kids.

FORD: They wouldn’t do it, yes. And so Dr. [Benjamin] Mays, who was a famous black man on the school board, and he was not in the least interested in integrating the schools—I called him. I got him at this Thanksgiving dinner, and I said, “We really need your intervention.” He said, “I’m not interested in this. This is not something that I do.” And I said, “Dr. Mays, I don’t mean to be rude to you, but we’re going to be there with those buses on Monday morning, and the press is going to be there, and I think you’ll get interested after that.” [Chuckles.] Well, he did get interested. All went smoothly. Anyway, it was fine.

Those were the really tumultuous days. There were some very good white parents who stayed with the schools. I remember Mr. [Robert] Woodruff had a niece, whose children were at Brandon, and she and her husband stayed and worked for those children. They couldn’t believe what shape they were in, and how desperate. I remember one of the mothers said, “They just brought in everything to try to help those children.” She said, “It would have taken us twenty years to get this sort of equipment and machinery and help for our children in the schools they were in before.”

Anyway, that was that, and it went on for quite a while. And actually it worked quite well. What you would have expected was that with children in such sad case, that the schools would have been really damaged by having them, but they were not. The grades went up at the end of the year, which meant that the white children improved. You see, they were stimulated by the new experiences. [Chuckles.] And obviously, the ones who stayed were willing to be stimulated, so here you had a third to a fourth of the school with children who could hardly read, and the other children, and the grades from the year before went up.

I remember Mr. Kimball at E. Rivers. He wouldn’t let me in the school. He would stand at the door with his arms stretched out and said, “The children have a right to come here, but you do not.” [Laughs.] I went to a Rotary meeting somewhere, and he was the speaker. This was at the end of the second year, I think. And he said, “I finally,”he said, “late in my career, I’ve learned what a school ought to be.” He said, “We’re having the happiest time I’ve ever had in this school.” So it went well, and the children learned.

But within a few years, the well-to-do blacks had realized how advantageous this was, and they sort of crowded out the poor ones. Within four or five years, we had no poor children going anymore. And then the court ruled that the schools were now integrated and you couldn’t make them take them anymore.

LANDS: And that’s the late 1970s?

FORD: Must have been early eighties by then.

LANDS: Okay.

FORD: So that was that.

LANDS: So that’s consuming a great deal of your time in Emmaus.

FORD: Really more than anything else, although we were very much involved in trying to integrate public housing as well, because it was totally segregated.

LANDS: Now, I haven’t heard Emmaus’s role in that, so can you talk about that?

FORD: Well, we organized something called—what did we call it? Something for Public Housing. There should be a lot of in the newspapers because we used to take five or six hundred people down to picket the Hurt Building, where they had their headquarters.

LANDS: Now, there was the TUFF [Tenants United For Fairness] organization. Was it TUFF?

FORD: Uh-huh, that was what we organized. Tenants United for Fair Housing, I think. And Louise Whatley was very much involved with that. She was living in Carver Homes, and maybe still is. But, no, that was an Emmaus House organization, and we worked very hard on that.

LANDS: So what got you started on that particular project?

FORD: I guess just trying to integrate. We were trying to make the city and the state obey the law. And, of course, you had constant complaints about—I’m sure, maybe some of those people are still around. Let’s see. All the public housing has been shut down without a murmur against it, and torn down. Atlanta has no provision now for housing the poor. It’s amazing that there’s no Section 8 housing available in the city. They all have to go way off somewhere. That’s what happening in Clayton County. Those people have been pushed down there.

LANDS: Now, around that same time period, the diocese participates in—and I don’t know much detail about this—but in the fair housing or open housing pledge campaign, and the announcement is made at All Saints, but I think it’s made by the bishop. Do you remember anything about that?

FORD: I don’t remember that pledge, but Frank Ross, who was rector of All Saints, was very much involved in all sorts of good causes, and Bishop [Randolph R.] Claiborne I guess was still living then. He had been very upset with me over that Lovett School business. But in 1968, after King’s death, there was a garbage strike in Atlanta, and they had a white chairman and a black chairman of the strike, and I was the white one.

LANDS: You were the chairman.

FORD: The co-chairman. And we all got locked up. That was very advantageous for me for later on, because the black leadership, you see, was all involved in that. It was really done as a memorial to King, who had just been killed. And so [Ralph David] Abernathy and Andrew [J.] Young and all those people—we all went to jail together. And so that sort of gave them a good feeling about me, and so they would work with me. They didn’t think I was up to some monkey business.

But I remember Mrs. Matthews lying down in front of that garbage truck and saying, “I don’t think that you will choose to run over Mrs. Ethel Mae Matthews.” [Laughs.] Which they didn’t. [Laughs.]

But the interesting thing was that they really did—they really did settle. They agreed. You see, at that time, the black workers, they couldn’t use showers, they couldn’t drive trucks, all sorts of things, and those are the things that they finally agreed to do, and to equalize salaries and so on. And it was to be negotiated in the settlement, with the leadership of the union and the leadership of the city. And Bishop Claiborne agreed to preside over that. It thrilled him, because it sort of gave him a new sense of himself, I think, and a feeling of having really come through whatever agonies he’d been through at Lovett School and so on.

LANDS: Is Bishop Claiborne or Rev. Ross still around?

FORD: No, they’re both dead.

LANDS: And in Peoplestown, at the time that you’re starting and into the early 1970s, you’ve got some other housing issues that are going on—you’ve got the stadium, you’ve got some anti-slumlord activity.

FORD: Yes.

LANDS: Is Emmaus House active in those?

FORD: Well, we were always active in those things. But actually the leadership of everything by that time was taken on by the Welfare Rights Organization, and I supported them, but I never put myself in the forefront of things.

LANDS: And it’s the Welfare Rights Organization, not the Poverty Rights Office?

FORD: Right. I’ll tell you about the Poverty Rights Office. The Welfare Rights Organization was headed by Mrs. Matthews until the very end. I remember once they were having a campaign to get credit for welfare recipients at the stores, and it got pretty serious because they were turning over cars and that sort of thing at Sears-Roebuck and so on.

LANDS: Here in Atlanta?

FORD: Mm-hm [agrees]. And somebody came up and was talking to me, some reporter, and [Ms. Matthews] said, “Father Ford has not got a movement. Father Ford has got a house. I have the movement. You better talk to me,” she said. [Laughs.] It was wonderful. So all those things happened.

But what happened about the Poverty Rights Office was that I went to see [James] “Jim” Parham, who was head of the state welfare department by then, and asked if we would pay for it, if they would put a notice in the checks as they mailed them out in Fulton County saying that if they wanted any information about their rights as welfare recipients, they could call the following number. And I thought it might be hundreds. There were thousands.

LANDS: Now, why would he agree to that, when they initially—

FORD: He was just a good person. [Laughs.] But it certainly cost him. Herman Talmadge and all those people came down and fixed him!

LANDS: Really?

FORD: Yes. Immediately I realized that this was unbearable. There was no way we could manage this from that one telephone we had in Emmaus House, so we had sort of an emergency meeting of volunteers, because we delivered surplus food a lot—do you know about that?

LANDS: I’ve heard a little bit about it.

FORD: Well, this was before food stamps, and so people who qualified for assistance with food would get an allocation once a month of quite a lot of food, grits and powdered milk and sometimes cheese, things like that. But anyway, you had to go over to the state farmers market, which at that time was in West End, to get it. Well, it was several hundred pounds, and most of those people had no way to get it, and they certainly couldn’t afford taxicabs and so on. So we had an army, really, of women, and Muriel [Lokey] organized that, who would have a certain number of families that they would go and pick up for each month.

So we got a lot of those volunteers, who were interested, to meet. We went out at—that Roman Catholic retreat center out that, way out beyond the river, and we spent the weekend there, talking about what we could do. That was when they decided to organize what became the Poverty Rights Office, to be staffed on a daily basis.

LANDS: Do you remember when that was, when it was established?

FORD: No, I don’t.

LANDS: I’ll look.

FORD: It must have been—I just don’t remember the date. But that’s how it came about, and Muriel Lokey was director.

But it was Mrs. Matthews’ office, as she always reminded them. [Both chuckle.]

LANDS: So the Welfare Rights and the Poverty Rights Office really come together after that?

FORD: Well, not really. The people who ran the Poverty Rights Office were really operating on a different basis altogether. Although they would participate—you know they would go on demonstrations and things like that. A lot of those rich white women got arrested once when we were in the state capitol. [Laughs.] And their husbands were none too happy. [Laughs.] I forget what that was about.

LANDS: So PRO is really answering a need. People can come to the office, people can call—

FORD: Whatever your problem is, they would at least listen. And people like Grace Stone and so on really had connections. They knew how to get hold of people who could really help them. And very often there was help available, but the bureaucracy often isn’t interested. So that was what they did, actually, was to prod the bureaucracy. But they treated people as clients, not as supplicants. That made a difference, and that’s why it became such a popular place to go to.

LANDS: And then the Welfare Rights Organization is the group that’s marching on the capitol—

FORD: Yes.

LANDS: —and lobbying legislators.

FORD: Uh-huh, yes, and having meetings all the time.

LANDS: So they’re political action oriented.

FORD: Mm-hm [agrees].

LANDS: Now, eventually at Emmaus House you were also starting an after-school program, and programs for the kids in the neighborhood?

FORD: We did that from the beginning, really. The nuns were very much interested in that. They’d have groups of children come in for tutoring in the afternoons and so on. So there was always a lot of that, and there were always people who—really, that was their idea of what they wanted to do. They really wanted to teach children, so there was a lot of that going on.

I remember Eliza Paschall had an article in the paper saying those women should be home, making money to pay their maids instead of going down there interfering with the children, chuckles] and a lot of things like that. I got in a lot of trouble over that, because I said to her, “Well, I don’t know how many people would have seen your article. Do you want people to know what you think?” She said, “Yes.” I said “Well, I’ll print it up and mail it out,” and I did. But I sure caught it over that. [Chuckles.] Yes, a lot of people were angry with me, because they felt betrayed, which wasn’t what I meant at all to do. I just thought, well, something to think about.

LANDS: There were certain instances throughout these stories where you’re really enabling, building capacity of the residents in the community. Did you see yourselves doing that at that time, and was that an intent?

FORD: Yes, training people to take charge of their own lives was certainly what we intended to do.

LANDS: So you told me the story of training the welfare rights people or sending them off to training. They came back and then helped other people. Can you give me some other instances of where you were capacity building?

FORD: Well, I supposed when we were integrating the schools, we always tried to recruit mothers of children to go to the school board meetings, and we were there all the time, and they learned from that, of course, how the schools operate and also what sort of pressure they could bring against them. And one of them actually got elected to the school board, Margaret Griggs.

LANDS: Did they speak at the school board meetings?

FORD: Yes, they would always pipe up and say what they thought. But, of course, you don’t have ones that are very shy willing to do that, so the ones who do it are probably not so much being trained to do it as they are being given the opportunity to do it.

LANDS: I think this may be off the subject of Emmaus House, but you mentioned being part of the Georgia Council on Human Relations—

FORD: Yes.

LANDS: Can you talk about that for a minute?

FORD: The Southern Regional Council had state councils all over the South, and the Georgia Council on Human Relations was sponsored by the Southern Regional Council. Nowadays it sounds very simplistic, but what we tried to do was to have interracial committees all over the state so that blacks and whites could at least talk to each other. Sometimes it amounted to the president of the bank and his chauffeur, but still—[Laughs]. But we had some very interesting times. And, of course, that meant that when it came down to register people to vote and that sort of thing, there was a connection. Goodness, those were exciting days.

LANDS: Now, is that prior to your work at Emmaus House?

FORD: It was all prior, and also during it. But finally I became chairman of the Council. We’d go down to these country churches and register people to vote. You’d have to get down behind the pews, for fear somebody would see you.

LANDS: Your off-the-cuff comment earlier was about the Council being reluctant to take strong actions—

FORD: Oh, yes. You know, if you wanted to stir things up, they wouldn’t let you do it.

LANDS: Now, is that Southern Regional Council not allowing you to stir things up, or the Georgia—

FORD: No, it’s the Georgia Council. The Georgia Council ran its own business. The Southern Regional Council just paid the money and made the appointments and so on.

LANDS: So even when you’re chair, you feel limited in actions?

FORD: Well, you were always limited because you had to have consensus, and the board always had to agree to what you wanted to do. If you were trying to integrate a school or register people to vote and so on, they were all for that, but they might not be for blocking a doorway or suing somebody, that sort of thing. They would be hesitant.

LANDS: So they’re more of a behind-the-scenes—.

FORD: The board was just interested—you know, it was just different. And by that time, we were working a lot with death penalty things, and a lot of them really thought the death penalty was a good idea [chuckles], so you know, it wasn’t a clear-cut situation. If you wanted to do something about the prisons or something, they would—sometimes they didn’t think it was a good idea.

We had a good time with—I used to drive the [Emmaus House] school bus down once a month to Reidsville [State Prison, in Reidsville, Georgia], which at that time was the maximum security prison. There were a lot of bright men down there, and the ACLU had a library there. The prison was totally segregated. About 60 percent of them were black, but they had the use of the playground—it was a called a playground—after the whites were finished. They ate after the whites did, all sorts of things like that. And the men, themselves, wrote a brief and mailed it to Judge [unclear] in August, petitioning for the integration of the prison. And he said it was so well done, he gave it the force of a court order, so they had to integrate. And he said that the blacks should choose a certain number of referees, and the prison system could. So I was one of the referees chosen by the blacks to sit in on this. That was quite an experience.

What’s his name, who’s now the congressman from Columbus and Albany? At that time, was a Legal Aid lawyer. Bishop, Sanford [D.] Bishop [Jr.] was our chairman. And we were going to meet at a hotel near the prison the night before and get ready to do whatever we were going to do. I’d been through that little town all the time, but I never stopped there. But there was a motel there, so I drove down in the afternoon, wearing a sport shirt, like now. And I went in and asked if Mr. Bishop was there, and the woman looked at me with some malevolence and said, “No.” And I said, “There’s not another motel here, is there?” And she said, “Just set down.” So I sat down. She went to the phone, and I’ll tell you exactly what she said: “That white preacher that works for the NAACP is over here lookin’ for that nigger lawyer. Have you got him?” [Laughter.]

Well, anyway, we went the next day, and we were sort of sitting—there was a big table for the prisoners and the state authorities down here. They were sitting there, and we were sitting around on the outside. We didn’t do anything. They knew exactly what they wanted and how to do it. It was puzzling at first because they weren’t really talking about integrating the prison. What they were talking about was they didn’t want their mail read. They didn’t want to be searched after coming back from visiting their relatives, all sorts of things like that. They figured this out. See, they asked for things that the whites would want, too, and there was not any problem. They just went sailing through that. It was just an eye-opener to see how carefully they had planned that.

LANDS: When did you start the Reidsville program?

FORD: Right away, because we soon found out there were people there—every family, practically, had somebody down there, and it was 200 miles away; you couldn’t get there, so we started right away going down every month.

LANDS: And you just traded off who drove?

FORD: No, I always drove.

LANDS: You did.

FORD: Mm-hm. Well, you know, unless I had the flu or something like that, and sometimes we’d get volunteers to drive. But otherwise I always did. I liked being with those people.

LANDS: So Emmaus House hit the ground running in the 1960s and the early 1970s. What’s the diocese and the bishop think of all this, what he wrought?

FORD: The diocese became very—in 1968, after Bishop Claiborne got to preside over the settling of the garbage strike, he was so pleased with himself that—[Chuckles.] And they were always—he and Bishop Sims, who followed him. He loved the House, and they had all their family occasions there and so on. So those two bishops were really very much involved there.

LANDS: I was also interested in how you think Emmaus and the PRO influenced other organizations. Did you create spin-offs? Did you serve as a model for others?

FORD: No, I hoped we could. And Bishop Sims, when he was retiring, wanted to raise a lot of money for Emmaus House and sort of set it up with an endowment and so on. And I said, “I really think it’s better the way we do it, not having any money but having a lot of enthusiasm and people working and making it go. What I wish you would do instead would be to set up three or four of these around.” And he thought about that, but they didn’t do that. What they did instead was to found the Episcopal Charities, which has never done anything very much, so far as I know—certainly not any advocacy work.

LANDS: Are there other organizations like yours, say in Vine City—

FORD: I was very much inspired by the Vine City [Council?]. I was at St. Bartholomew’s in those days, and we had a lot of parishioners there who were involved with that group. There was a man, a Quaker, who ran that, called Hector Black. But I guess I learned something about that, too, because he sort of took the leadership, I think, and they felt he was telling them what to do. And I remember—what was her name? Helen something—she said, “We tried to make him understand that we didn’t need any more white heroes.” And I remembered that [laughs] and was always careful to let other people be leaders.

LANDS: They eventually fall apart, don’t they?

FORD: They fell apart.

LANDS: So he and they were sort of a model for you as you thought about Emmaus House?

FORD: Well, they were in the sense that—I didn’t know any particular programs that they did, but they were really fighting the city all the time about discrimination in their community, from garbage collection on. But it really didn’t last very long.

LANDS: Is there any other organization around that you remember, in the early years?

FORD: I’m trying to think. There was a Roman Catholic priest. What was his name? He set something up in Mechanicsville. And he was very popular. [Telephone rings.] But nothing seemed to last.

[Recording interruption.]

LANDS: What you think I’ve missed about Emmaus House?

FORD: I don’t know. I just don’t know, because I moved on. You know, I retired twelve and a half years ago. We probably touched most things.

LANDS: Okay. Well, thank you for your time.

FORD: But in thirty years, a lot did happen.

Interview with: Austin Ford
Interviewed by: LeeAnn Lands
Date: 6 March 2009
Location: Home of Austin Ford
Transcribed by: Mim Eisenberg/WordCraft
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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