Sherry A. Suttles

From Student Revolutionary to Lifelong Fighter for Justice

A brief synopsis of the life of Sherry A. Suttles: Book excerpts for 40th Commemoration,
Columbia ‘68 Student Strike, April 24-27, 2008
President, Barnard College Class of 1969, Hamilton Hall 1968 Veteran, and Executive Producer of VALA (Columbia ’68-’08) Film

On April 23, 1968, in the wee hours of the 24th, actually as a Barnard College Class of 1969 participant in the Columbia University student takeover of Hamilton Hall, I found out I was not a revolutionary after all. What a grave revelation and a lifelong disappointment.

This was my first time to step up to the plate after years of grooming, first at the lead of my mother, Ann E. Suttles, in various civil rights meetings, marches, and demonstrations. We were teenagers when she took my sister and me to see Malcolm X in person; his fiery speech put the fear of God in me, so I know the white people hearing him even second-hand were petrified. We were in the 1963 Detroit March that preceded the August DC one where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a hint of his “I have a dream” speech and where my mother’s picture was captured by the Detroit Free Press wearing a birdbath hat saying “Birds of a Feather Stick Together.” (I still have this by the way).

We licked stamps, made calls, and otherwise showed up at every evidence of discrimination, whether in Alabama or Detroit. Emmett Till’s brutal murder was a rallying call, especially since he was from Chicago where I was born and my mother grew up after leaving Greenville, Mississippi at age 13 to live with her siblings there.

However, mom rejected my vocal pining to go to the civil rights frontlines in the south.

When I got to Barnard College – on scholarship, in 1965, work study and grant monies – in response to a cover page of Ebony Magazine, “Ivy League Schools Seeking Negro Students,” I thought I was ready to do battle. Of course, staying in school was my first priority because my mother, a high school graduate, was an office clerk at the time, and my dad, an 11th grade drop out, was a factory worker and neither of them were in any position to put me through school. I had declined Howard University and University of Michigan; Barnard was my ideal college choice. It was out of Detroit and into New York City where I could have the best of both worlds – a top-notch Ivy League education – like that of others at my, predominantly Jewish, Mumford High where I had graduated with honors – and all the black people, culture, and radicalism just up the street in Harlem.

Hamilton Hall was my first time to show just how much of a student radical I was. I had spent my first three years dealing with housing, police brutality, and education issues in Brooklyn and Harlem, and with civil rights issues of voting and public accommodations in Philadelphia where the Northern Student Movement (NSM), adjunct of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was located. I have the minutes where I was delegated by the Students’ Afro American Society to NSM. I was a second semester junior and had just pulled out of “sophomore slump,” so my grades were on the rise. I had chosen a Government major. I had made plans for my first visit to Africa, summer ’68, with Operation Crossroads Africa. Freshman year, I was the first to cut my long bougie straight hair into a short AFRO, the first to wear African clothing, and I took two years of Swahili at Columbia with my Japanese American classmate. I had read the black history/African studies texts in our Columbia study group (pre-Black Studies) such as The Wretched of the Earth and The Fire Next Time.

Fortuitously, I had made now lifetime friends of Iya Omosalewa Amy Olatunji, Spiritual Leader, and her husband the late M. Babatunde Olatunji, world-famous Nigerian percussionist. Like the others of our day, I had volunteered from Brooklyn to Harlem with after-school and summer recreation programs, Negro teachers’ union meetings, and marched down Central Park against the Vietnam War. I had a hint about my lack of revolutionary abilities when horse-mounted police charged through the crowd trying to re-direct us to a different route. I was thrown to the ground, broke my glasses, and felt forever fearful of police action – even without southern Billy club, water hose, or gunfire.

So, by the time April 23, 1968 rolled around in my life, it seemed time to go to the next level. I do not recall any preparatory meetings and in fact, had not remembered that Cicero Wilson took over the presidency from Hilton Clark, SAS founder. Thanks to my clerical mother, I had learned to type at age 12, and was doing so in an office in Hamilton Hall when someone told me, about 3:30 pm, that the building was being taken over by black students. I do not recall anything about white students being there. I recall continuing to work until 5 pm and just staying in the building with the others. There really was no time to think about what to do. I just decided that this was the time:

to avenge the murders of three young fellow students gunned down two months earlier in the Orangeburg Massacre at South Carolina State University, February 8, 1968;

to demonstrate solidarity with SNCC (Stokeley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, who later I learned came to the defense of Hamilton Hall students);

to show kinship with the brothers and sisters who had hurled Molotov cocktails at police cars in my home town of Detroit and in Watts (L.A.) and in our beloved Harlem;

to lock arms with African warriors – Mau Mau in Kenya vs. the British colonialists; the Shona of Zimbabwe, with whom I had marched to the U.N. freshman year with our classmate Siphikelelo Sithole in their fight against UDI by Rhodesian whites; and with the Pan African Congress fight to free Nelson Mandela from prison.

It was time to avenge the 1963 church bombing of four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama, the brutal assassination of El Hajj Malik Malcolm X just six months before we entered Columbia and the same fate that had befallen Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just three weeks before the take over. It all seemed to come together in one simple action – the need to sit in Hamilton Hall to protest the expansion of Columbia University into Harlem with a segregated gymnasium. I sat in for 12 hours, from 3:30 pm to 3:30 am.*

After all of these years, I have given credit to one of the leaders, Sam White, for telling the others to “let her go” when it was clear that I was not handling the situation. Bill Sales reminded me that he, too, saw my plight, called someone to counsel me, and agreed that I should be allowed to leave the building. I thought I was just not able to sleep on hard floors and desks. I thought it was the cold Kentucky Fried Chicken that was being brought in for food. I thought it was the fact that the leaders were all men– Bill Sales, Sam White, Leon Denmark, and Cicero Wilson – whom I loved and respected

but who nevertheless had relegated we women to traditional servitude roles of cook, nurse, and otherwise helper. I deeply resented that, since we had worked so hard to prove

our intellectual and leadership capacity at Barnard – a women’s college I had chosen for that very purpose.

So it was for all of those reasons that I fled in the middle of the night,* confused, frightened, yet determined to stay connected, by running back and forth for the remaining days and nights – bringing the girls personal effects from their rooms, including tampons, clothing, books, newspapers, and making calls to parents and boyfriends. My closest friends, DD (my freshman-year roommate), Evvie, and our Japanese-American friend Ginny, tried to keep me grounded. Indeed, Ginny was playing music one night and was startled to find me still awake – I told her I could not go to sleep because of the music!

Finally, my mother came to get me. (Concerned by my calls?) For four weeks I went into a “blue funk” of depression, but made it out to California with her for the National Association of Social Workers Convention. There I witnessed yet another revolution – the formation of the National Association of Black Social Workers. Then I went on my long-awaited trip to Africa – one week in Ghana for orientation and six weeks in the Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) – where I made bricks for a youth center. I turned 21 in Africa, worried whether I would have a campus, a city, or a country to come back to. Bobby Kennedy had been killed on June 6, 1968. Hundreds of “riots,” urban rebellions as we called them, had followed on the heels of King’s April 4th assassination.

With the “culture shock” experienced in Africa, and with what was going on back home, I switched my focus from international affairs to local government. Selected from a national search, I became one of 20 Urban Fellows in the NYC Office of Mayor John Lindsay – my first city government role model who had walked the streets of Harlem and endured debilitating strikes during our four years by teachers, nurses, sanitation, and transportation workers. I interned in the NYC Housing Authority (1969-70), With the Fellowship came six hours credit at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, so I got a Master’s Degree in Public Policy (M.P.P.) in a year and half, December 1971. I traveled by Eurail for seven weeks throughout Europe from Copenhagen to Spain, then Morocco.

My first real job was with the International City (now County, too) Management Association. I went on to become Assistant City Manager in Menlo Park, California; Executive Assistant to the City Manager in Long Beach, California, and my first City Manager position in Oberlin, Ohio.

I had achieved my goal to be the first black woman city manager by age 31 – there was a small town planner who was manager for six months, but I am considered the first, professionally trained. It is a fact that I was the only black female city manager for two years, from 1979-81. I have always been the first. And I appointed Oberlin’s first black police chief (who retired 20 years later). I managed to get elected to both my national professional association organizations (ICMA and ASPA) in between jobs.

My mother was killed in an auto accident two months later on July 7, 1979, at the age of 53. I turned 32, less than two weeks later, on July 18, 1979.

I got through the manager’s job, a position as Government Relations Director with United Way in Cleveland (1982-85), the birth of my son (1/20/83), and the co-authoring of a book with my sister Billye Graham, Fielding’s Africa: South of the Sahara.

I was recruited by a national headhunter for a job as Assistant County Manager for Mecklenburg County, Charlotte, NC (1985-89). I got married and “followed my husband” to accept yet another city manager post in Lawrence Township, New Jersey (1989-92). I returned to Charlotte doing grant writing consultant work through the County (1992-94). I had one last stint as a local government professional in Greensboro, NC as Deputy County Manager (1994-1996). Then did more grant writing in Charlotte.

I had a radical mastectomy for right breast cancer, 3.5 on a scale of 4. In fact, May 11, 2008 is my 10th anniversary as a cancer survivor. I took early retirement in ‘98.

In 2000, I moved to Myrtle Beach and ultimately Atlantic Beach. I created the Atlantic Beach Historical Society, Inc., obtained a historical marker, and am finishing up a book about that unique historically black beach resort. I was elected to town council, served two years and confirmed that I prefer being in administration over being elected.

My most recent accomplishment was getting accreditation and historical designation for a 116-year-old predominantly black group home in Charleston. Other achievements over the years include Downtown Oberlin and Menlo Park Beautification, Oberlin Youth Council, Housing Rehab in both cities; performance improvement in Long Beach; city park bond passage in Lawrence; and over $3 million in grant monies raised;

I speak French fluently and have traveled extensively: in Europe – Romania, Iceland, Norway, Luxembourg, Germany; Sweden, Copenhagen; Greece, Italy, Paris, London; Amsterdam and Switzerland; in Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean; and in Africa – Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Nigeria, Morocco, and South Africa.

Over 20 years after my Hamilton Hall “panic attack” in 1968, February 14, 1991, while serving in my second city manager’s job, I learned about a condition that I had had probably on that fateful night. A nervous breakdown, it is commonly called, but on this 40th anniversary, I can now say that, clinically, I have what is called bipolar disorder formerly manic-depression. It was not labeled in ‘68, because while in Detroit, between Hamilton Hall and California, a psychiatrist told me I was already “cured,” never said of what, without meds, through diet, rest, exercise, and most importantly, “removing myself from the scene” of stress and getting a proper perspective on “everything.”

People joke about “taking meds,” but this is no joking matter, and I am grateful to God, family, friends, classmates, and doctors to still be here, and to have done so well. Losing your mind, however briefly, is way more terrifying than losing a breast—trust me. I am in remission from cancer and bipolar (no more episodes). Like me, millions dodge the stigma of being called “crazy” (I accept nut or eccentric). I have continued to fight for justice, and am a revolutionary in my career, my consciousness.

Bill Sales, when I told him what had happened in Hamilton Hall, after 40 years, writes that he knew I was not “my old self” because I did not trust him and his intentions (*Bill gives me credit for being in the building longer than I remember, by the way). The safe and successful exit of my friends, and their testimonies to that effect, clears up questions of leadership style, women’s roles, and democratic decision-making that I and others had held. My going to Africa that summer “is a testimony to your resiliency and determination,” Bill concludes in continued friendshp to this day. Perhaps my coming out of the bp “closet” will help someone else to go forth.

Now, my Hamilton Hall legacy will be the “vala4you” film directed by my 25-year-old son Kamau (“Quiet Warrior,” Kikuyu). It has assuaged all guilt I have felt in having abandoned ship, not knowing I had no choice. As President of my Barnard Class of 1969, for which this film is a class 40th reunion project, it is my honor to showcase the Hamilton Hall true revolutionarieswhose story has never been told.

- by Sherry A. Suttles
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