Memorial planned for activist Rosalie Oakes
By Christine Miller Ford
The Winchester Star
September 30, 2008
Winchester Born in the spring of 1917, raised to be a "proper young
lady" in an Irish family of five daughters in a home on Clifford
Street, and remembered by friends and family as quiet, modest, and
somewhat shy, Rosalie Oakes might seem an unlikely candidate to
change the world.
But after graduating from Handley High School in 1934 and heading to
Richmond for college, Oakes pursued a remarkable career that included
15 years in South Africa, where she taught leadership skills to black
women living under apartheid.
Early in her career with the Young Women's Christian Association,
Oakes faced off with the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina after the
group tried to shut down a YWCA camp where blacks and whites lived
and swam together.
At colleges in the South in the late 1950s and '60s, she served as a
behind-the-scenes driving force as sit-ins and protests began to
unravel the Jim Crow laws that for nearly a century had kept blacks
and whites separated in schools, movie theaters, restaurants, and
other aspects of public life.
"In the era we grew up in, most young women didn't veer too far from
what was expected," said 85-year-old Winchester resident Farley
Massey. "But many of us learned to broaden ourselves as we got older,
and Rosalie obviously did that. I admire her for all she accomplished."
Oakes, who died this summer at 91, will be remembered Saturday
morning at a memorial service in Washington. Her burial is planned
for that afternoon in the Oakes family plot at Mt. Hebron Cemetery.
Family members say Oakes's health began to fail after Ann Oakes, her
only surviving sibling, died in April. Oakes had lived with her
younger sister in Arlington since her retirement more than three decades ago.
His aunt wasn't the type to broadcast her achievements, said Drew
Babb, who lives in Lincoln and is the son of Oakes's sister Lillian.
"We found out about a lot of her accomplishments only after she died,
when we were looking through her papers and other belongings,'' he
said. "She was an absolutely amazing woman, but she never brought
attention to herself."
Oakes, whose post-graduate work included studying at Crozer
Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa. where Martin Luther King Jr.
would earn a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951 is mentioned in
several books as a key mentor in the women's movement and the civil
"She influenced a lot of people, but she's probably not the kind of
woman you've ever heard of," said Casey Hayden, an undergraduate at
the University of Texas at Austin in the mid-1950s when Oakes led the
student chapter of the YWCA there.
"She was always in the background supporting other people," said
Hayden, who helped to organize Students for a Democratic Society in
1962 with her then-husband Tom Hayden. "She wasn't in it for the
accolades or the recognition; she was just living her life."
Joyce Mims also met Oakes as a student in Austin. She said Oakes knew
how to bring out the best in the people around her and to rally them
in support of a just cause.
"So many people think the civil rights movement started in Greensboro
[N.C.] with the lunch counter sit-in in 1960, and that did bring the
issue to national prominence," Mims said. "But for years before,
Rosalie and people like her were training leaders to fight against
Hayden, who lives in Tucson, Ariz., called Oakes her role model.
"We called it 'the Y's way to work,' but of course we meant that as a
play on words, too it was truly the wise way to work," Hayden said.
"She was inclusive, supportive, respectful, a true egalitarian."
In 1958, Oakes left Austin for South Africa, where she helped to open
community centers where women could take vocational training and
learn about health education, infant and child care, nutrition, and
A decade earlier, South Africa had legalized racial apartheid, a
system not fully dismantled until Nelson Mandela's election as the
country's president in 1994.
Women were doubly repressed, with no access to education and legally
unable to own property.
In a 1967 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story, Oakes shared her frustration
with the ever-tightening restrictions on black South Africans,
calling the latest laws "a tremendous setback for human rights."
She finished her career in New York City, serving as director of the
World Relations Unit of the YWCA of the United States. In that
position, she organized extensive sessions to teach women from around
the world leadership and other skills.
After retiring to Northern Virginia, Oakes took an active role at the
Church of the Epiphany Episcopal in Washington.
Her religious convictions were a motivating force throughout Oakes's
life and career, said Doug Rossinow, a history professor at
Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn.
He wrote about Oakes a decade ago in "The Politics of Authenticity:
Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America."
"Rosalie Oakes acted like a completely fearless woman, living out her
Christian faith for decades in a way that people hardly ever do,''
Rossinow said in an interview Tuesday.
"She stood on the front lines fighting for a just, Christian social
order. I don't think she ever sought the limelight. But we should
always remember her, and people like her, as inspirations and exemplars."
Mims, who makes her home in Montclair, N.J., last visited with Oakes
in June. The two updated each other on the lives of people they knew,
including several friends still in Texas.
One of the students mentored by Oakes went on to become mayor of
Austin and another served as chief counsel for the university. In
South Africa, a woman who Oakes met and helped to train as a Y
leader, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, now serves as a top government official.
"I don't think Rosalie had any idea just how powerful an influence
she was," Mims said. "She was a genteel Southern lady, but she was
very impatient with injustice. If something was the right thing to
do, then she was going to do it.
"There's no question about Rosalie's legacy," she said. "Because of
her, we've lived different lives."
Contact Christine Miller Ford at firstname.lastname@example.org