Before Rosa (and after Claudette), Aurelia sat at the front of the bus.
Before Rosa (and after Claudette), Aurelia was arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of the bus in Montgomery.
It is Aurelia’s name that leads on the lawsuit filed that would eventually set the legal precedent to end segregation on public buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and elsewhere in the Jim Crow South. Aurelia S. Browder v. William A. Gayle was filed on February 1, 1956 and ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme court at which point, on December 20, 1956 the Montgomery Improvement Association voted to end the bus boycott that had lasted over a year.
Most of us know the name Rosa Parks. We are less familiar with the other Black women who mustered the same courage, who exercised the same political savvy, who worked as part of a larger community effort to bring about the end of segregation in their community.
Mary Louise Smith.
In those 381 days of the boycott, African Americans walked long miles to and from work. Carpools were organized in cars like this one.
Well, not exactly like this one. This one has become a piece of art. A tribute in honor of a powerful community activist, a Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, the determined Aurelia Shines Browder Coleman. Offered by her niece, also a powerful community activist, artist, and business woman, in her own right, Michelle Browder.
While I want you to remember Aurelia, I also want you to get to know Michelle. And the amazing the More Up Campus she is creating.
In particular, I want you to get to know her stunning, amazing, glorious sculpture, Mothers of Gynecology.
I had only first heard of her and her work the week before during an online meeting, from a presentation given to the Board of the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project, made by Dr. Denise Rompilla, the Chair of the LSP Memorial Management Team.
Mothers of Gynecology is striking. It is dramatic. It is magnificent. It flips the traditional narrative on its head, centering the rightful protagonists of the story.
In this case, Michelle Browder informs us, that if we are to be thankful for the modern science of American gynecology, it is not to the so-called Father of Gynecology, J. Marion Sims, a propertied white man who practiced medicine in Montgomery in the early 19th century. Instead, we are to be thankful to the actual sources of the knowledge: the three enslaved women upon whom he experimented, without anesthesia: Anarcha, Lucy, Betsey.
The three women who, because of their enslavement, could not give consent, yet still it was their sacrifice from which this medical knowledge flows: Anarcha, Lucy, Betsey.
Instead of codifying and continuing the traditional story of J. Marion Sims as hero, this new narrative informs us of the ways he profited from the tortured of these three women: Betsey, Lucy, and Anarcha.
Flipping the narrative is very much the goal of the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project and has been from the very beginning. The LSP uses only sparingly the name of the head of the slave ring. If we are going to use names, we bring focus to the names of the Lost Souls, those 137 African American women, children and men stolen in 1818 into permanent slavery and sent to the Deep South, without their proper consent. Doubling down on flipping the narrative and centering the rightful protagonists, the LSP is intentional about highlighting the real lived lives and the real resistance of the Lost Souls.
There are other parallels. Michelle Browder created the Mothers of Gynecology when it became clear that the state of Alabama would not be taking down the statue to J. Marion Sims that is in front of the capitol (the statue of him in New York City was removed in 2018). When it comes to the Lost Souls, the LSP is working to uncover the history, educate the community, and build the memorial ~ even as the street named after the head of the slave ring remains in East Brunswick. (For now.)
The resonance was strong when I heard about this effort. So, when I found myself in the same public space as Michelle, I mustered the courage and introduced myself. I shared a little about the work of the LSP. Though she was in the midst of a busy event, she was generous enough to listen; she even shared her contact information.
I looked on the web to see if I might be able to visit the Mothers of Gynecology Park. Disappointingly, the website said that it was closed on this final day in Montgomery. Online pictures of the space gave me the impression it would still be worthwhile to drive by; I might be able to get a glimpse, even if it was from outside the fence surrounding the installation.
Serendipity arrived again. My friend, Patsy, and I drove by. We were expecting it to be closed, but discovered the gate open. Our hearts leapt with hope and excitement. We entered respectfully, slowly in case our presence was an imposition.
In fact, we were welcomed in by a friendly, informative crew of women, who were generous with their time, attitude, and knowledge. Tracey (who I think is Michelle’s cousin) told us the story of Aurelia, both the real person and the intricately welded car named after her. Tracey spoke of her father, Chaplain Curtis Browder, the first Black chaplain in Alabama, and the powerful ministry he has done for decades with citizens returning from prison and who is a part of the remaking of the More Up Campus. The stories were a received blessing.
Patsy and I then spent a delicious measure of time beholding the magnificence that is the Mothers of Gynecology.
Michelle was there at the intimate park, engaged with other folks with whom she seemed to be having enjoyable conversations. We waved hello to each other. By the time we were done taking in all the amazing-ness of the installation, Michelle and her friends were near the entrance/exit of the park.
On our way out, we approached Michelle. I reminded her that we had met earlier in the day. (Of course, my pink hair makes it harder for folks to forget me.) We thanked her for the chance to see the Mothers of Gynecology up close. Then Patsy and I headed to the car.
Just then, Michelle gestured for us to return with her into the park. You see, there are many aspects of the small park that I have not described here because space is limited. The park is committed to healing and health in a comprehensive way, which consequently includes small medicinal gardens, similar to ones that enslaved women kept.
Michelle pulled twigs of rosemary, placed them in each of our hands. She instructed us to rub them vigorously, which we did. She gestured for us to raise our cupped hands to our noses, and then to inhale. This, she said, was an gesture that we might heal, even if just a little bit, from systemic racism. I took this to be a gesture for me personally, and for the collective we.