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Sister Shirley recalls a summer in suburbia

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On this beautiful Saturday afternoon, June 6, 2020, I turn on the TV and I see all of the huge masses of people trying to once and for all protest that all people, regardless of color, are all equal in every way. And my memory clicks in, about 1970, when the country was going through the same thing. I was teaching at Superior Senior High School, a totally white school, grades 10 through 12 and had an enrollment of 2,100 students. It was then the largest school in the state of Wisconsin. I think we may have had one or two black students, children of a university professor.The music department was huge and extremely talented. We had two bands, multiple vocal groups and I had a 105 students in my symphony.

During the summers, the sister teachers could do anything they wanted as long as it was helping others or get more education. I had already by that time done all the coarse work toward a PHD but we were told not to get the title because most high schools would not hire a PHD because of the higher salary they have to get.

So in 1970, five of us sisters were asked if we would try to help with the civil unrest in Cleveland, Ohio. It was called “Summer in Suburbia. The job was going, two by two to the homes in the suburbs to try to get the people to go to local meetings to try to invite the black people involved in local governments and eventually integrate the black and white people to live together in the suburbs.

There were 70 sisters from the U.S. that volunteered that summer. We went through a week of training and then the fun began. We were dropped two at a time on some corner and then we were told to visit every home in a specific part of the suburbs. Of course all the suburbs chosen were extremely weathly white suburbs. We stopped at the first house and while we were talking one could hear them calling their neighbors and warning them we were coming. And so by the time we got there, they would not be home even though one could hear talking and TVs on. Even though many of us were still in habits, believe me it made no difference in their treatment of us.

On the first day, we had dogs chasing us, some took to turning water hoses on us. We had our lone black sister with us. And she was really abused. It was Sister Thea who is now being considered for canonization. She was a class behind me. The first day, it was so bad that by 10 a.m. all groups had called back to the head of the organization and had them come back to pick us up. After much coaxing we went out the next day promising to pick us up earlier. Do you know what lt’s like to be dropped off in a rich territory where you’re not wanted and stand on a street corner with temps in the 90s in habits?

Well needless to say after one week they decided this wasn’t going to work. If nuns couldn’t do it, then nobody could, So for the rest of the summer some went home and some found volunteer work. I worked the rest of the summer in a nursing home, night shift. Needless to say this was a summer different than anything I had ever suspected. My community eventually opened a black school in Mississippi and an Indian school in Odanah. I worked there during one summer and found it very enlightening. Attending the weekly pow wows in the dark of the night with only fire as light was very different but mystifying.

So here it is 50 years later and seemingly not much has changed except there’s more of it and now everyone is armed with a weapon or drugs.

Hopefully enough people will discover that enough is enough! So when we vote in the fall, please look carefully and vote for smart, moral, and honest God-fearing people.

— Sister Shirley Wagner, Medford