History

Six Degrees of Joan Countryman: a Lifetime of Civil Rights Connections

August 5, 2021 | by Amy Cohen

African American men protest the racially-motivated Philadelphia Transit Company strike in August 1944. | Image courtesy of Making History Productions

I gave a Zoom presentation in July about my favorite topic: local African American history. I talked briefly about the August 1944 Philadelphia Transit Company strike, a wildcat strike that occurred when operators of Philadelphia’s buses and trolleys walked off the job to protest the hiring of Black drivers. The city’s robust war production was severely curtailed. President Roosevelt sent 5,000 troops to the city. Strikers finally returned to work when they were told they would lose their draft deferments and be blackballed from any future war work.

As I spoke, Joan Countryman (maiden name Cannady) wrote in the Zoom Chat that she remembered the strike although she was only five years old. She was to be a flower girl in her Aunt Grace’s wedding that was scheduled to take place in the Cannady’s East Mount Airy home on Saturday, August 5. Joan recalled her aunt weeping, afraid that the strike would prevent guests from attending her nuptials. The groom was Reverend Leon Howard Sullivan, then assistant pastor to Adam Clayton Powell at his church in Harlem.

As it turns out, trains, today’s Regional Rail, saved the day. The wedding came off without a hitch, other than the flower girl forgetting to sprinkle rose petals as she descended the stairs. To this day, many older Philadelphians, including Joan, recall seeing armed, uniformed soldiers stationed on the city’s public transit in the days following the strike.

The wedding of Reverend Leon Sullivan to Grace Banks Sullivan on August 5, 1944. From left to right: Sullivan’s best man (name unknown), Reverend Louis Sullivan, Grace Banks Sullivan, maid of honor Olga Banks (later Langston), and flower girl Joan Cannady (Countryman). | Image courtesy of Joan Countryman

Intrigued by her memories of the strike, as well as her close connection to the Lion of Zion, I reached out to Joan after the talk to see if she would share more of her memories with me. She and I have many overlaps and connections, and I have known her superficially for a long time. As we talked for nearly three hours in her apartment overlooking the Delaware River, Joan shared with me snippets of her life story. Collectively, they resemble a “Who’s Who” of 20th century African Americans.

Joan began by telling me that her father became the first Black public high school teacher in Philadelphia when he was hired at Bok Technical High School in 1938. When Joan was a toddler, she attended a childcare program at Bok. If you are a hipster, you can picture the setting. The childcare center was on the school’s top floor. During playtime the kids frolicked on the site of what is now Bok Bar.

Joan’s father had graduated from Howard University in 1933 with a degree in electrical engineering. Kenneth Clark, the psychologist who served as a key witness in the Brown v. Board case, was a fraternity brother who became a close friend.

Bill Cannady with his class at Bok Vocational High School in 1938. | Image courtesy of Joan Countryman

As a Black history nerd, I knew that Minnie Jean Brown had gone to live with Kenneth and Mamie Clark in New York City after her expulsion from Little Rock Central High School. An irrepressible member of the Little Rock Nine, Brown had called a group of girls “white trash” after they threw a bag of combination locks at her. Did Joan meet Brown, I asked.

Oh sure, she told me. And she fondly recalled going to a party at the Clark’s home with all members of the Little Rock Nine in the spring of 1958, celebrating the end of what must have felt like an interminable school year for her fellow teenaged guests.

Joan was no stranger to breaking racial barriers in schooling. Starting in kindergarten, she attended the Emlen School close to her Upsal Street home. On the first day of school, Joan became fast friends with Mary LaVerne Wright. Her friend’s younger brother was then known as “Buddy.” He grew up to become Reverend Jeremiah Wright whose fiery rhetoric came close to derailing Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

In second grade, Joan was in the top reading group when she and her best friend decided to read ahead and finish the highest-level primer in the classroom. Flummoxed, the teacher assigned them to dust books in a closet during reading time. Her parents were outraged.

Emlen School Spring Festival, 1946. Joan Cannady (Countryman) is the 2nd student from the right. | Image courtesy of Joan Countryman

Fortunately, her father had learned that Germantown Friends School (GFS) was looking for Black applicants. As a third grader, Joan became among the first African Americans to enroll at GFS. She stayed through her senior year, sent both of her children there, and was also a long-time beloved teacher of both math and urban studies.

After graduating from GFS in 1958, Joan attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York where she studied mathematics. She became caught up in the nascent civil rights movement. Instead of attending mixers, Joan and her friends went to intercollegiate civil rights conferences. Electrified by the sit-ins conducted by college students in the South, young activists formed the Northern Student Movement. The head of the organization was a Yale student named Peter Countryman who Joan married in 1962.

After college, she turned down a scholarship to pursue graduate studies in math at Dartmouth College and instead worked with her husband at the Yale University offices of the Northern Student Movement. They collaborated closely with the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), future congressman John Lewis. They also worked with his successor at SNCC, Stokely Carmichael. James Foreman, SNCC’s executive secretary was another friend and comrade in the struggle. As a civil rights activist Joan also reconnected with Julian Bond, an old acquaintance from her years as a member of Jack and Jill, the youth club for members of the Black elite. Joan, her husband, and their infant son Matthew attended the March on Washington and listened to the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Jack and Jill Party circa 1953. Joan Cannady (Countryman) is 5th from the right in the front row. In the back row the boy 7th from the left is Congressman William H. Gray, then known as “Herbie.” | Image courtesy of Joan Countryman

I asked if she knew Bob Moses, the recently deceased organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project and President and Founder of the Algebra Project which uses mathematics as a tool to empower marginalized youth. Yes, she knew him and as a fellow math teacher worked with him over the years. Did she travel to the South during Freedom Summer? Absolutely not. Joan’s father had been raised in Durham, North Carolina and her mother in Baltimore, Maryland. They did not want their daughter to experience the indignity and uncertainty of Black life in the Jim Crow South.

As a college student, Joan helped organize weekend bus trips to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to picket Woolworth’s for their segregated lunch counter policies. But, obeying her father’s wishes, she never went south of Maryland until after the age of 30.

Like other young activists, Joan and her husband became involved in the anti-war movement. She recalls spending the summer of 1963 in New York where Tom Hayden, Stokely Carmichael, and others would meet in their Upper West Side sublet for strategy sessions. Back at Yale, they both completed masters degrees, Joan in urban studies and Peter in political science. With their son Matthew and baby daughter Rachel in tow, they then spent more than a year in London on Fulbright scholarships.

In the fall of 1967 the family returned to the United States and moved to Joan’s hometown. She took a job at the Philadelphia Board of Education working for superintendent Mark Shedd’s Community Schools program. Joan was at work on November 17, 1967, the day of the largest school walkout in the city’s history. 

African American high school students gathering at the Board of Education Building to protest the school system’s “white policy” in 1967. | Image courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection at Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

Students from across the city converged at the school board’s headquarters at 21st and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to demand more Black studies courses, the hiring of more Black teachers and administrators, the right to wear Afros and dashikis to school, and so forth. When she and a colleague left the building to get lunch, the atmosphere was lighthearted with students from different schools mingling and chatting. Later that afternoon, she watched from a window in horror as police with billy clubs beat students and adult organizers.

Joan’s next job was in the office of the dean of students at the University of Pennsylvania. She recalls hearing the name Donald Trump (Wharton, Class of 1968), but cannot remember why. Applications to Penn skyrocketed in the fall of 1969 following the widely covered sit-ins at Columbia University the previous year. Administrators from across the university, including Joan, were asked to read applications.

One afternoon on the train home to Germantown, she ran into her former English teacher and then head of upper school at GFS, Robert Boynton. As a student, Joan occasionally babysat for Boynton’s daughter Sandra. (Pretty much anyone who has been a child or had a child in the past 40 years will recognize her name as the author of over 50 children’s books and thousands of greeting cards. Moo Boo La La La anyone?) Boynton encouraged Joan to apply to teach at her alma mater.

Joan Cannady (Countryman), center, and her 11th grade class at Germantown Friends School. | Image courtesy of Joan Countryman

She stayed at GFS for the next 23 years. She taught math and urban studies and also served as an administrator. The student body during her long tenure included NBC correspondent Kristin Welker, New York Times Magazine writer and Yale Law professor Emily Bazelon, Sex and the City producers Julie Rottenberg and Elisa Zuritsky, as well as my husband who was so influenced by Joan’s urban studies class that it became one of his college majors.

Joan’s next professional post was as head of the Lincoln School, a girls’ school in Providence, Rhode Island. When she retired from Lincoln in 2005, she looked forward to spending time with her four grandchildren, reading the newspaper, and relaxing at her Rhode Island home. Little did she know that her closest brush with biggest fame was about to happen.

Joan was recruited to serve on a team that was to help Oprah Winfrey set up her Leadership Academy for girls in South Africa. She spent two weeks in Johannesburg meeting with the team that Winfrey had put in place. When Joan asked Winfrey what kind of person she was looking for to lead the school, she simply pointed at her and said “you.” Joan agreed to spend a year as interim head during which time she got to know Winfrey, Stedman Graham, and Gayle King.

The last time Joan saw Winfrey and Graham was a few years ago at the Brown University graduation of a young woman from the school in South Africa. After the ceremony, a group of the young woman’s supporters, including Joan and two of her grandchildren, went out for lunch. They were seated at a table overlooking the Seekonk River. Joan looked on in amusement as nearly every patron in the restaurant found a time to peek at Winfrey and Graham as they visited the restrooms.

Joan Countryman in 2021. | Image courtesy of Joan Countryman

Today, Joan lives in Philadelphia in an apartment she shares with Ed Jakmauh, her husband of 45 years. She looks back on her life in wonder. Her mother had been offered a scholarship to Morgan State, but as the oldest of six, her family needed her to work. But Joan’s mother lived long enough to watch her grandchildren, Matthew and Rachel, graduate from Yale and go on to notable careers in what Joan calls the “family business.” Matthew is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and is the author of Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia, the definitive history of this period in our city’s history. Rachel served as the dean of academic life at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut and is currently a math teacher and administrator at the Polytechnic School in Pasadena.

Today Joan enjoys writing poetry and finds she derives satisfaction that is similar to what she experienced doing math problems. She reads, cooks, attends lectures, and keeps in close touch with her family. She also serves on the school committee that governs GFS.

“Do you still engage in activism?,” I asked. In response, she quoted Bernice Johnson Reagon, a founder of SNCC and a member of the all-female a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. When Reagon was invited to participate in activities commemorating the 50th anniversary of SNCC she declined, stating “I support you, but I’ll just sit here on the porch.”

Although Joan’s energy and appearance belie her 81 years, she has certainly earned that time on the porch to reflect on a truly remarkable life.

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About the Author

Amy Cohen Amy Cohen spent 20 years as a social studies teacher, most recently at Masterman. She is currently the Director of Education at History Making Productions where she develops educational materials to accompany documentaries about the Philadelphia region. Amy was born and raised in Center City long before the era of sidewalk cafes and pop up beer gardens. She now lives in West Mount Airy with her husband—also a lifelong Philadelphian—and their two daughters.

8 Comments:

  1. Hazelita says:

    Loved reading this.My grandfather was Thomas E.Allen.One of the motor men.It is amazing how this has come up lately.Unfortunately all of my possessions including pictures were stolen.

  2. Polly Cohen says:

    Fabulous article.

    1. Evelyn Eskin says:

      Loved reading this article. Thank you, Amy!

    2. Amy Cohen says:

      So sorry to hear about this theft of your visual memories!

  3. Conrad Person says:

    Thank you for a wonderful glimpse into a most meaningful life. It was also a pleasure to think back on Rev. Sullivan too!

  4. Janice says:

    Thanks for a great article

  5. Matt Zipin says:

    I was a colleague of Joan Countryman’s at Germantown Friends for a number of years. She is the personification of class. She inspired a huge number of teachers–and students–in her career, and she has been a valued friend to so many over the years, including me. Thanks, Joan!

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