See also Ralph Featherstone
By Mariama Nzinga Orange
Edited by Paul Lee
Originally printed in the Michigan Citizen, December 13-20, 2009. Reposted by permission of Michigan Citizen.
Dr. Charlotte Louise Orange-Featherstone, a renowned educator and the widow of one of the unsung martyrs of the modern civil-rights and Black Power movements, was born at Detroit, Mich., on Jan. 22, 1943, during the "Blizzard of '43."
On the way to the hospital, the taxicab broke down in the snow, whereupon Victor Orange, Sr., had to carry his wife, Jessye Louise, the remainder of the way to give birth to a beautiful baby girl.
She was the fifth of seven children: Victor Orange, Jr., Mary Esther McKissic, Gerald Orange, Maxine (who died before Charlotte was born), Charlotte, Arthur Stewart, Jr., and LeJeurita Stewart.
Dr. Orange-Featherstone joined the historic Hartford Avenue (now Memorial) Baptist Church, then on the city's Old West Side, when she was a little girl and sang in the junior choir and a quartet.
She graduated from Detroit's prestigious Cass Technical High School, earned her Bachelor's degree from Eastern Michigan University (EMU) at Ypsilanti, her Master's degree from Yeshiva University at New York, and her Ph. D., in elementary education from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Her area of emphasis was special education, including gifted and talented and emotional disturbance. She was an active member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (AKA), at EMU, where she held three offices, including Basileus.
Dr. Orange-Featherstone was known as the traveler of her family, making her home in many places, including Michigan, New York, Washington, D. C., Texas, Virginia and finally California, where she made her ascent.
In her youth, she was very active in the modern civil-rights movement, particularly in the Washington, D. C., "friends" chapter of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where she met and fell in love with Ralph E. "Feather" Featherstone, the love of her life.
Featherstone was from the nation's capital, where he taught "speech correction" in several elementary schools. In 1964, he participated in the historic Mississippi Summer Project to register African Americans long denied the right to vote under the state's Jim Crow segregation laws.
At McComb in southwest Mississippi, he conducted a "Freedom School" as an alternative to the state's segregated, under-funded schools. It not only taught juvenile and adult literacy and constitutional rights, but also black history.
In May 1967, he was elected SNCC's program director along with the group's new chairman, the firebrand H. Rap Brown (later Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin).
Together, they helped SNCC transition from an interracial group dedicated to integration and pledged to nonviolence to an all-black organization seeking Black Power, or self-determination, and advocating and practicing self-defense against attacks by white racists.
In 1966 and 1967, Featherstone traveled to Japan and Cuba as part of SNCC's effort to identify itself with the world's emerging nations and revolutionary movements.
The following year, along with several SNCC associates, he helped conceive, establish and manage the Drum and Spear Bookstore, which specialized in literature by and about black peoples, in the heart of Washington, D. C.'s African American community. Charlotte also worked at the bookstore.
On March 9, 1970, while driving back to Washington after attempting to visit Brown, scheduled to appear for trial at Bel Air, Md., the following day, Featherstone and his comrade William H. (Che) Payne were killed by an explosion of dynamite — a crime that remains unsolved to this day. He and Charlotte had been married for only three weeks.
Following her husband's wishes, Dr. Orange-Featherstone had his body flown to Lagos, Nigeria, where it was buried in a Yoruba ceremony attended by an estimated 10,000 Nigerians on April 7, 1970. He was memorialized as "an African prince and warrior."
Dr. Orange-Featherstone was many, many things to many people, including an educator, a spiritual guide, a painter, a seamstress, a vocalist, a jewelry-maker and a humanitarian. But her family knew her best as a loving and dedicated mother, a co-creator of life, love and light with God. Her dedication to people and to life was second to none.
She was a professor of special education at Virginia State University, a historically black land-grant university at Petersburg near Richmond, from 1980 until her early retirement in the mid-2000s. She trained teachers to instruct special education students.
During this time, she touched the lives of many students. She remained in Petersburg until a progressive weakening of her lower extremities caused her son, Olufela, to take her to Los Angeles in an effort to determine her undiagnosed condition.
In Los Angeles, she remained extraordinarily mobile and active. Engaged in numerous pursuits, she was characteristically seen flitting around in her scooter from activity to activity. She remained optimistic and determined to walk again, unassisted. A pure inspiration, she made significant progress on her road to walking. Now she flies.
A teacher of teachers, a master of masters, widely loved and admired and an inspiration to all, Dr. Orange-Featherstone schooled people at all levels of life and education, from kindergarten to graduate school.
At the time of her transition, she was in the midst of working on several singing engagements, creating children's books, developing a distance-learning course, producing a play and a myriad of other projects. She was found still, yet characteristically in mid-action, in her residence at Los Angeles on Monday, Oct. 19, 2009.
In keeping with her spirit of avid travel, Dr. Orange-Featherstone's remains were flown from Los Angeles to Detroit, where her children left some of her ashes at the site of her mother's grave. A memorial service was held for her at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church on Nov. 2, conducted by Dr. Charles G. Adams, its pastor.
Her children will later take the rest of her ashes on the same pilgrimage to Nigeria that she made with Feather's ashes, many years before.
There, her physical remains will join in the reunion of her spirit with her beloved "Feather," Ralph Featherstone.
Dr. Orange-Featherstone's spirit lives on and is perpetuated through her son, Olufela Kumasi Orange; daughter-in-law, Shinkai Karzai-Orange; daughter, Mariama Nzinga Orange; granddaughter, Kundai Hazvinei Jongwe; and her grandchild on the way, due to arrive in 2010.
We give thanks to have known, and to continue to know, the beauty of her spirit. Her light shines on in our hearts through eternity.
During Black History Month (February), The Michigan Citizen will present "Feather: A civil-rights love story," a two-part memorial to Charlotte and Ralph Featherstone by historical features writer Paul Lee.
Copyright © Mariama Nzinga Orange and Paul Lee, 2009