by Ron Petrou

Kathy Baxter, 81, author of the poem, “The Bottom Line” (see below), said she got a taste of social injustice at an early age when she visited her grandparents in a small town in southeastern Texas. “It was at the end of the 1930s, when everything was still segregated. My life has been shaped by the experiences I had during that visit, beginning with my awareness that no black person could come in the front door of my grandparents’ house or sit at their dining room table.

Kathy Baxter, 81, has fought for racial and social justice for more than a half-century.

“It went against everything I had learned about how people should behave toward one another. Suddenly it seemed that the world was broken in half, with white people on one side and black people on another. Worst of all was that no one would answer my questions. One of the things I learned that summer was that you were supposed to pretend that everything was all right.

“One day we went to see one of mother’s aunts. I remember the trees dripping with Spanish moss, the circular drive and the white house. In the middle of the yard there was a gazebo, and inside there was a tall, dark-skinned woman. She was bent over her work; it looked like she was darning clothes. I asked my great-aunt who she was.”

“Her? Oh, that’s Lackey.”

“What’s she doing there?” I wanted to know.

Kathy was told that Lackey had been a servant for a long time, that she was now old and “not quite right in the head.” Kathy started to ask another question, but her great-aunt interrupted and began talking about something else. The young girl was to get no more answers. The adults sat on the porch in rocking chairs and drank iced coffee, but “I knew with all my heart that what I saw was not right,” recalls Kathy.

From time to time, over the years, Baxter dreamed about the gazebo. In her dreams, she saw herself as a child, looking at the old black woman who seemed to be in a cage, and wishing she could let her out. “The last dream I had of Lackey was later in my life when I understood that I could not be the liberator. In that dream, Lackey let herself out of the cage. We each picked up our own suitcase and ran off together, hand in hand as equals.”

Kathy’s concerns about racism led to active participation in the fair housing movement during the 1960s. During those years, she also began collecting children’s books that portrayed black people in non-stereotyped ways. She created an exhibit of materials that elementary and middle school teachers could use to supplement their curricula. Her desire to do this grew out of her own teaching experience, “when it was only white people who were portrayed in the books I used. I wanted to find ways to give children a more honest view of American life.” For 20 years Kathy took her exhibit to schools in and around Philadelphia.

She also wrote a social studies program that she called “I Want to Be Free,” focusing on slavery at the time of the American Revolution. She got permission to test the program in a number of schools in Philadelphia, beginning with an elementary school in Kensington. “Kensington had the reputation of being the most racist community in the city, so I figured if I could teach my program there, I could teach it anywhere.” It made school administrators nervous, but they gave her the go-ahead for Sheridan School where she met Laree Owens, one of the first African American teachers who had been assigned to all-white schools in Philadelphia in order to integrate the faculties.

Laree had been at Sheridan for eight years when Kathy got there. She had a class of fifth and sixth grade students who were labeled as “dummies and trouble-makers.” But Laree was not going to let those students fail. She reviewed “I Want to Be Free” and thought it would be a good fit with her curriculum.

Kathy visited the class every week. “It was such an exciting experience,” she said. “The kids loved the program. We started with the story of Elizabeth ‘Mumbet’ Freeman, a true story about a slave in Massachusetts. Her slave master was John Ashley, the leader of a group of men who wrote the constitution for the newly forming state.”

Kathy said it was through Elizabeth Freeman that she learned the power of personal stories. “When I began to tell her story to school children, I had no idea of the impact it would have. I think there is tremendous power in learning about ordinary, everyday people. They are the ones that children can most easily relate to.”

In order to take care of family needs, Kathy had to quit her work in the schools. Now, as she joins the Occupy Movement, she says it seems like a continuation of what she did before. “The setting is different, but the goals are the same. I am adding my voice to those who demand the right to a just and compassionate society.”

Kathy Baxter, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Mt. Airy, lived in Mt. Airy from 1993-2001, the Stapeley retirement home from 2001-2009, and in Wyncote from 2009 to the present.

 

The Bottom Line
By Kathy Baxter

The sky was dark in
Corporateville;
Corporations were uneasy.
People were demanding things
That made them feel
quite queasy.

Clean air, safe roads and bridges;
Those things sound very fine,
But folks in Corporateville
knew better.
It was bad for the bottom line.

They cried; they stamped their feet; they pouted.
It’s not fair. Whatever can we do?
If people get to make the laws,
Then why can’t we be
people, too?

We must help them,
said the judges;
Their voices nearly broke.
As tears streamed
down their faces,
They took pity on those
corporate folk.

It’s really not too hard, they said,
To make your dream come true.
We’ll simply make a decision
Granting personhood
to you.

We’ll also say that
money is speech;
You can spend it without a care,
Spread it around as
much as you please,
And you don’t have
to tell us where.

Help politicians pay for
their campaigns;
They’ll be happy that you do.
No problem.
All they have to promise
Is to vote the way
you want them to.

Now there’s
joy in Corporateville.
Once again the sun can shine.
The CEOs can buy elections
And protect the bottom line.

Jan. 20, 2012, marks the second anniversary of the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, which opened the floodgates to unlimited political donations from corporations. If you wish to make your voice heard, there is a gathering at Thomas Paine Plaza just north of City Hall at noon, Jan. 20. There will be a rally at City Hall, a march along Market Street and a rally on Independence Mall to support a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution stating that: “A Corporation is not a Person, and Money is not Free Speech.” More information is available at movetoamend.org

  • Leigh763

    Kathy, I loved your personal story. What a fabulous lady you are!

    The poem said it all.