I met Dr. Deborah Wolfe a few weeks into my internship at Monroe Village in Cranberry, New Jersey. I was interning under the chaplain and spent much of my time trying to figure out how to preach 5-minute sermons to residents with Alzheimers who would not remember a word I said.
I also spent time visiting residents in the Assisted Living wing, which was where I first met Dr. Wolfe. In our first conversation she made a casual reference to "the Kennedy boys", as in John and Bobby. I smiled and nodded politely. When you work at a nursing home you hear all kinds of things that make you smile and nod.
When my supervisor read my report for the day, however, her finger stopped on Dr. Wolfe's name and with a glean in her eye encouraged me to research Dr. Wolfe on the internet.
Turns out she did know “the Kennedy boys.” And she knew them well. In 1962 she took a leave of absence from Queens College (where she was the first African American on faculty) and began working for the United States House of Representatives as Education Chief of the Committee on Education and Labor.
I had many interactions with Dr. Wolfe, but the most memorable came a few months before she died. Here’s what I remember from that day:
Dr. Wolfe opened the door to her apartment and welcomed me in.
"Would you like some orange juice?" she asked.
"No thank you." I responded. Dr. Wolfe walked with a shaky cane and the thought of her waiting on me seemed wrong.
"Would you like some orange juice?" she repeated.
"No, I'm fi--"
"WOULD YOU LIKE SOME ORANGE JUICE?"
"Sure. Orange juice would be great."
There was a long delay in our conversation as Dr. Wolfe got a glass, poured the juice, and slowly made her way back to the couch where I was sitting.
As I sipped my juice, she began to recall her experience of walking down Constitution Avenue prior to MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech (she sat in the second row behind Dr. King).
"Do you know ‘We Shall Overcome’?" She asked.
"I do," I said.
"Sing it for me."
"Well, I'm not sure I could--"
Dr. Wolfe cut me off and began a lively rendition: "We shall overcooome. We shall overcooome. Sing with me!" She said. So I did. She grabbed hold of my hand, and swinging it in beat with the song we sang together.
"Now by yourself!" She commanded.
So I sang, by myself, still clutching Dr. Wolfe's hand and highly self-conscious of my solo.
"Louder!" She called.
I sang louder.
"LOUDER!" She said again.
I sang louder.
"Again!" She cried.
Over and over again, at the top of my lungs, I sang by myself with Dr. Wolfe's hand in mine, bouncing on my lap in time to the music.
I don't remember the rest of the visit, but the taste of orange juice, the firm grip, and the boisterous music are ingrained in my memory.
Today, 12 years after this encounter I googled her name and found this essay from Stephanie Van Hover:
“Wolfe participated in the now famous march down Constitution Avenue, in the second row behind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She recalled waiting to hear his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech:
Here we were, of all races and creeds, walking down Constitution Avenue. We actually held hands, black and white together, and sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ and other songs of love, harmony, and peace. Constitution Avenue is, in itself, a symbol of America and what it stands for: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I think the whole emphasis of the Constitution is that each individual is important in order to make America really a democracy. On the grandstand, I sat next to a Jewish white man from Boston and he asked if I was a life member of the NAACP. I said no, but I had been a member my whole life. Right there, on that day, on that platform, I wrote a check for life membership in the NAACP. I thought it was so significant that this Jewish white man from Boston asked a black woman who was fighting for civil rights to become a life member. You could feel the momentum, the spirit of unity, the potential of America; all of us working together for justice, equality, and opportunity. That one day exemplified the American dream like no other day in my life.”
“We actually held hands, black and white together, and sang ‘We Shall Overcome’.”
I’d like to think that had I been alive on August 28, 1963 I would have been on Constitution Boulevard, holding hands with Dr. Wolfe and singing in real time. But I am afraid my activism is more retroactive than timely. It’s easier to be an advocate in hindsight.
There is so much I don’t know. Only a few weeks after singing with Dr. Wolfe, I overheard a friend of mine from Princeton Seminary talking about getting pulled over. “
“Wait, why were you pulled over?” I asked, interjecting myself into the conversation.
“No reason,” he said.
“But what were you doing?” I persisted.
“Driving,” he said with a smile.
“Too fast? Too slow?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said, “just driving.”
“What did the officer say when he pulled you over?”
“He said, ‘How are you doing this evening?’” my friend responded.
“I don’t understand. Does this happen a lot?” I asked, thoroughly confused.
“It does,” he said, still with a small smile.
“How often?” I pressed.
He had lost count. He continued: “My mom told me what to do. She said when I’m pulled over to make sure that I keep both of my hands on the wheel where the officer can see them. I say ‘Sir and Ma’am’ and I answer all of their questions politely.”
I’m thankful for this friend who answered my ignorant, naïve questions with such grace.There is so very much I don’t know. I’m afraid of being found in the “white moderate” Dr. King speaks of:
I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
And so on this day in particular, as I remember Dr. Wolfe and read Dr. King, I am praying that I will be a “nonviolent [gadfly]”. I will embrace tension even though resolution is more comfortable. I will pay careful attention to the timeline laid out by my black sisters and brothers. Additionally, to quote Dr. King, I will “write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers” in the hope that we shall overcome someday.