An Open Letter to Mama
There are so many things that I could say about you, but I want to start off by saying thank you. As you near 100 years old, I hope for nothing more than to continue your legacy.
You weren’t like most grandmas. When my friends would recount their fondest memories of their grandmothers they’d tell stories of handknit quilts, sweet potato pies, and church candies hidden in their pocketbooks.
My memories of you are filled with thrilling stories of you laying on gravel crosswalks so folks would stop running Black children over when they walked to school, fighting on the 125th street picket lines in Harlem shouting “Free Patrice Lumumba,” getting arrested when you joined the Black Panther Party, and being the only woman allowed on the Audubon Hotel podium with your right hand, “Freedom Fighter” Malcolm X, the week before he was assassinated.
You would tell me about the frightful moments when the sky from your bedroom window glowed red with fire from the 1964 Harlem riots. The magical moments when the Black Panther members, 5 Percenters, and the ever-present Black Muslims gathered in solidarity from corner to corner in their afros and dashikis to fight for equality. And the awkward moments when you were caught teaching your kindergarten students Black history instead of reading story books
Coming from a family of civil rights activists was just different. But looking back, I was a pretty lucky kid. I know I’ve never said this to you because well you’re just my grandma, but there are so many unspoken heroes that walk this earth and Mama, you deserve all the praise and recognition.
“The most disrespected woman in America is the Black Woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black Woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black Woman,” your friend, Malcolm X once said. You, among your comrades, worked to defy those odds and today Black women are breaking boundaries, in the ways that you imagined. It is because of you, that I believe because I am a Black woman, I can do anything.
I hope to be like you one day. In the meantime, I am lucky that you are still here and have poured your wisdom into your great-granddaughter in hopes that she will pass along your message to the next generation.
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Considered one of the greatest living civil rights activist in New York, your strength, courage, and determination is truly commendable. With your lifetime achievements and unconditional love, I am honored to be your granddaughter and forever thankful for the opportunities you paved for women of color. You are Black History.
Ora Mobley Sweeting is best known for her work in Harlem, New York beginning in 1958 when she became a member of the Executive Board for P.S. 157. Named the “Queen of Harlem,” by Reverend Jesse Jackson, Ora was the Organizer of the first Decentralization Community Control for P.S. 157 and created a resolution for “All Africans Freedom Day” in April of 1963. She founded the Harlem Mother’s Association in 1964 and was a key organizer of the St. Nicholas Tenants Association. Mother Ora, as she is fondly referred to, was responsible for the renaming of Mary McLeod Bethune School and Harriet Tubman School in 1967. In 1974, Ora Sweeting was directly responsible for renaming of Seventh Avenue in Harlem to “Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard” and renaming of Lenox Avenue in Harlem to “Malcolm X Boulevard” in 1987.