Eleanor (left) and sister Wanda (right) on the porch of Eleanor’s house, the same house in which a cross was burned because she moved into an all-White neighborhood. (See below.)
In anticipation of Black History Month celebrated in February in the U.S. and Canada, I interviewed Philadelphia-born sisters Eleanor Richardson and Wanda Richardson Washington. I had met Eleanor Richardson at Saunders House, where my mother-in-law Lena Jacobson resides. (You can read Lena’s previous interview by placing her name in the search box on the lower right hand margin of my page.)
When Eleanor retired from nursing at Saunders House last year, we took her to dinner and found out that she had survived the burning of a cross on her front lawn in 1978. She had moved there recently, and was the first person of color to move into a “White neighborhood” in the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia. The May 24, 1978 article in The Evening Bulletin was entitled “Black Nurse Braves Rocks, Cross Burning.”
What amazed me is that Eleanor remained in her home and never allowed the burning of the cross incident to get in the way of her living a full life. But when I told her I wanted to interview her, she kept insisting that I needed to meet her sister Wanda, whose life was even more fascinating, according to Eleanor. So, one day last fall, I went to Eleanor’s home, which is only two or three blocks from where live, right off City Line Ave. in Philadelphia. I met Wanda, younger by two years. (Eleanor was born in 1944 and Wanda was born in 1946.)
Both women described their childhood and younger years as those of protesting in the Civil Rights Movement. In the mid-1960s, their main protest was to make Girard’s Orphan College available orphans who were Black, as well as those who were Black. White orphans were given the opportunity to go to college and the Blacks in the community wanted the same for their orphans. While their mother did not want her girls to participate in the protest, the young Eleanor and Wanda marched with the NAACP. They also protested when school buses refused to pick up Black children in the same neighborhood as White children.
While Eleanor went off to nursing school, Wanda lived in the fast lane most of her life, a street life of alcohol and drugs, later committing a crime, resulting in Wanda’s conviction. For the crime she committed, she spent several years in The State Correctional Institution in Muncy in Central PA. Amazingly, Wanda did become rehabilitated and began the pardoning process in 2000. We watched the video of her being interviewed by graduate law students at the University of Pennsylvania Law School for a class project on the pardoning process. She was granted a gubernatorial pardon by Governor Ed Rendell in 2005 for the crime she committed in 1983.
Now Wanda is free, pursuing her dream of helping others (including prisoners) with her degree in social work. She earned an Associate Degree in Behavioral Health and Human Services from the Community College of Philadelphia(2000) as well as a Certificate in their “Drug and Alcohol Curriculum.” She then went to Temple University where she earned a Bachelors & Masters Degrees in Social Work, completed in May 2004.
Actually, Eleanor is in a similar field, Welfare to Work, helping women on welfare obtain the tools they need to become certified nursing assistants. She also continues to do some nursing as a private duty nurse, but still considers herself “retired.”
I spent quite a long time with Wanda and Eleanor, meeting Eleanor’s lovely daughter. Learning about the sisters’ lives as active Black women was an eye-opener for me, because I was more an observer of the Civil Rights Movement, not a participant. I think they are two women who have come a long way, one surviving an attack on her home as a Black woman in a White neighborhood, and the other serving time in prison and coming back to help other prisoners transform their lives.
At the end of our conversation, Eleanor said that her background as a protester kept her fighting for the right to live where she chose. And Wanda worked to be free so she could help others. Both women have more courage in their little finger than my whole hand. It is a privilege to know them and a perfect way for me to celebrate Black History Month.