Janie Culbreth, SNCC Legacy Project.
As remembered by Faith Holsaert
August 1, 2017
Janie Culbreth Rambeau of Albany, GA passed this weekend. In her late teens, she was expelled from Albany State, following her arrest with hundreds of others in 1962. SW Georgia activists Rambeau, Annette Jones White, and Bernice Johnson Reagon finished their schooling at Spelman College following their expulsions.
Janie lived in Albany, where she was a pastor of a church, earned a PhD., and was a loving and loved member of a large family. Janie's story appears in Hands on the Freedom Plow (University of Illinois, 2010) and she was taped the spring of 2017 at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies as part of the SNCC Legacy Project.
As remembered by Annette Jones
October 15, 2017
In Memory of Rev. Dr. Janie Culbreth Rambeau
January 15, 1940-July 30, 2017
On July 30, 2017, Albany, Georgia lost an outstanding citizen who was an active member of the community at large and I lost a special one of a kind friend. She was a minister, an educator, a writer, a civil rights activist in the Albany Movement and a participant in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sponsored Southwest Georgia Voter Registration Project in the early sixties. We met as toddlers in our strollers and remained friends from that time until her death.
I met Janie in 1941, when her mother began bringing her, in a stroller, to our house. Although not a licensed beautician, my grandmother, "did hair" for her friends, and Janie's mother, Annie Mae Culbreth, was one of my family's friends as was Janie's father, Ross Culbreth. They lived on Newton Road where it crossed Corn Avenue, the street where I lived. Living less than half of a block from our house with her house facing ours, Mrs. Culbreth and my grandmother often exchanged greetings and conversations as they looked at each other from their front porches. Whenever Mrs. Culbreth came to our house, my mother would put me next to Janie in my stroller, and we would talk "baby talk" and play with each other, I was told. We grew rapidly, were soon free of the strollers and were allowed to play in my backyard while Janie's mother had her hair done. This routine went on for years. That was the beginning of our friendship, and we maintained an active friendship for more than 70 years. Although I have other friends, they came into my life years after Janie and I met. She and I had a special bond, and we shared many milestones and other events that changed our lives and the lives of others.
In 1945, we entered first grade at Mercer Street Elementary School, our first early childhood milestone. We sat next to each other in grades first through third. In fourth and fifth grade, we sat near each other at Madison Elementary School. By then, Janie's family had moved to the five hundred block of Cherry Avenue which was one street back from where I lived. Again, Janie was less than half a block from me. We often visited back and forth. I would visit her and when I left her house she would walk me home. Then, I would walk her back home and she would walk me back home and we would continue doing that until one of our mothers stopped us.
Whenever I visited Janie, I was told to "come in" before I could knock — Mrs. Culbreth would be sitting in her "easy chair" where she could see the door which was not locked because in those days nobody locked doors. If Mr. Culbreth were home, he would always say "Howdy, daughter". I was offered the chair by the front door until Janie came in. I met her sisters, Mary and Marie, and her brother, Walter who was a friend and classmate of my brother. There were older siblings that lived out of town that I did not know.
Janie and her family were faithful members of First Bethesda Baptist Church where my great-grandfather had been a deacon. The church was called "Shepherd" Church, the name of the White family that built the church for the Black congregation. Every second Sunday in August, members and former members (from all over the United States) would come back to rural Albany for the annual all-day fest of preaching, testimonials, singing, and feasting. Janie and I enjoyed that special day very much.
After finishing Madison Elementary School, Janie and I entered Carver Junior High School where we shared classes. We visited each other more often and became more familiar with each other's relatives. My parents and grandparents treated Janie like family. They enjoyed having her around because she always seemed to be in a good mood. She had a wonderful sense of humor, a big smile, a hearty laugh and she endeared herself to my grandparents by calling them by the names I gave them when I first started to talk — "Dear Dear" and "Pa Papa."
The years passed and we graduated from Monroe High School. In the fall of 1959, Janie and I were students at Albany State College where we had classes together and often sat together. She began with a major in French and a minor in English; I began with a major in English and a minor in French. A year later, in 1960, the two of us became three when we became close friends with Bernice Johnson (now Reagon). We joined the NAACP Youth Council (which was off-campus) and our first project was to convince the White owner of a business in a Black neighborhood to hire a Black employee. Janie helped draft letters to the owner. The owner of the store was not convinced so we were not successful.
During that same time frame and in protest of segregation in Albany, Janie would drink from the "White Only" water fountains and use the "White Only" dressing rooms in downtown stores. She noticed that the White salesclerks, in order to avoid touching the hands of Black customers, would take the bills, offered in payment for items, with their finger tips and then drop any change due to Black customers on the counter. So, with a straight face, Janie started paying for purchases in coins and dropping them on the counter. I was with her once when she did that. The salesclerk became angry and we left the store in order to avoid repercussions. We both felt that in a small way, her actions were valid protests of the treatment that Black people received from White people in Albany.
We became aware of certain inconsistencies at Albany State College and began to discuss them with members of Student Government and with other students: day students paid activity fees as did on-campus students, but the very few activities on campus were not open to day students; there was no representation on campus for day students; every day at lunchtime, not enough food was cooked and campus students had to stand in long lines while more food was prepared; they often were late to one o'clock classes or missed them altogether; the lines were closed if students were a minute late for breakfast and they were turned away and could not eat; and when they asked, at dinnertime, for the breakfast milk they had paid for, they were refused it. The locks on one of the girls' dormitories were broken and on several occasions, since a main thoroughfare ran through the middle of the campus, vagrant men wandered into the dormitory.
Janie thought those things were unfair to students and said so to anybody who would listen. She did not live on campus but she felt that as a fellow student she should be concerned with the welfare of all students.
The Student Government Association (SGA) had little authority on campus, but it raised questions and wrote letters of protest. As a result, and to diffuse the situation, the president of SGA, Leviticus Roberts, was sent, by the administration, to a school out of town to do student teaching although he already had been assigned to a school in Albany. The Dean of Students was not allowed to fulfill her duties. A new Dean, Irene Asbury, (now Wright) was hired the following year, and she empowered Student Government and listened to the complaints of the students.
However, although she empowered us and did all that she could to improve our conditions, including getting locks for the girls' dormitory, she was met with resistance by the administration. Janie, Bernice and I spent much time talking with her about conditions on campus. Not able to change conditions, she resigned in protest of how students were treated by the college. Janie, Bernice and I, and a few other students became activists on campus to the dismay of the administration. We wrote letters that outlined our grievances to the new Dean; we went from dorm to dorm and talked with students and we held meetings on campus.
The three of us were adamant that things had to change, but nothing was accomplished Then in October of 1961, SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, came to town and the three of us met Rev. Charles Sherrod, who was about to head a Voter Registration Project in Southwest Georgia, and Cordell Reagon who was assisting him. They came on the campus, asked for us by name (Sherrod had received our names from former Dean Asbury and my former employer, Atty. C.B. King) and talked to us. They also talked with Bertha Gober and Blanton Hall, Albany State students.
Janie and I were receptive to his ideas and nonviolent philosophy and the two of us walked to SNCC's office every morning to hear more and to do office chores. We lived in West Albany and were close to the location of the office. Bernice lived in East Albany and did not always have transportation, so she could not come to the office as soon or as often as Janie and I could. The college administration forbade Sherrod to come back on campus, but he came. He told us he was organizing meetings for students who were interested in becoming nonviolent canvassers. He came to our NAACP Youth Council meeting and told of SNCC's philosophy of nonviolent protest marches and "jail without bail." Janie was very impressed. Later, she, Bernice, Bertha Gober, Blanton Hall and I switched our allegiances from the Youth Council to SNCC, although we remained members of the Youth Council.
By then, Frank Shaw had become SGA president and Lewis Carter had become president of the newly formed Day Student Council and they were making waves on campus as they questioned campus policy.
Janie, Bernice and I attended the first meetings that Sherrod held at Bethel Church and became members of a committee to recruit students to become canvassers. Bertha Gober and Blanton Hall also joined the committee. Sherrod and Reagon also taught us "Freedom Songs." The college administration heard about the SNCC meetings and sent a student to one of the meetings to see who from Albany State was attending. Armed with our names, the Dean of Students called us in, one at a time, tried to get us to tell the date and time of the next meeting and warned us not to attend any more meetings. Neither Janie nor Bernice told them anything. Since I had been elected Miss Albany State College during the spring quarter, I was told there might not be a coronation in November if I did not tell them what they wanted to know. I let them know that the coronation was not as important to me as they appeared to think and I told them nothing. Janie and I canvassed certain areas together — areas assigned to us by Sherrod.
As November approached, SNCC and the NAACP Youth Council decided to test the ruling of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) that stated that all bus and train facilities had to be desegregated by November 1, 1961. On Nov. 1, Sherrod and Reagon rode to Albany from out of town on a bus to Albany. They were ordered to leave, but not arrested. That evening, Thomas Chatmon, Advisor to the Youth Council, sent nine of its members to request services in the "White Only" areas of the Trailway Bus Terminal. They were asked to leave by the police, but not arrested.
Hearing of the students' actions, On November 17, leaders in the Black community formed the Albany Movement in order to launch full scale protests against racial segregation in Albany. The organization was headed by Dr. William G. Anderson, osteopath. Community mass meetings were held every Monday night at Mt. Zion or Shiloh Baptist Churches. Janie and I attended all of the meetings, walking together to the churches.
On November 22, five Youth Council students, 3 from Monroe High — Evelyn Toney, Julian Carswell, Eddie Wilson — and 2 from Albany State College — Bertha Gober, Blanton Hall — tried again to desegregate facilities at the bus terminal. They were arrested. The three high school students were bailed out by the NAACP as is their custom to fight discrimination by making a case and taking it to court. Although technically still members of the Youth Council, Bertha and Blanton chose SNCC's policy, "jail without bail", and remained in jail.
As a result, several things happened:
Janie, Bernice and I were among students who left the meeting that night and went onto Albany State's campus from dormitory to dormitory asking students to march with us the next morning. We asked them to meet under the flag pole at 8 am. The next morning, Janie and I met at my house and walked the mile or more to Albany State and nobody was at the flag pole — except the two of us. Bernice was taking a final exam and would join the group at City Hall. Janie and I called a taxi and went to SNCC's office and begin to march with others there.
Our friend, the late Anne Booyer, joined us and we started up Jackson Street singing "Oh, Freedom." When we reached Pine Street, we turned right and saw City Hall on the right side of the street. We circled the block twice singing and then Chief Laurie Pritchett arrested more than two hundred of us and herded us into the alley next to City Hall. I had been to the jail to see Bertha and Blanton when they were arrested and I knew the jail could not hold all of us. By then Janie and I felt that going to jail in the quest for civil and human rights was worth it and would call attention to the problems in Albany. We cut line in order to make sure we were arrested. We need not have bothered, all 265 of us were arrested and 24 people were put in cells meant to hold 4.
Janie and I were in the same crowded cell for hours, singing and cheering each time someone refused to be bailed out. After a trustee passed out paper cups of beets, spam and cabbage, which we did not eat, the policemen took many people from each cell, including Janie, and took them to the county jail. I felt sad as I watched her disappear from the cell block.
While in jail, Janie and Bertha Gober co-wrote the freedom song "Oh Pritchett, Oh Kelly" (Oh Pritchett, oh Kelly, oh Pritchett open dem cells") which is based on the spiritual "Rockin Jerusalem." Pritchett and Kelly refer to the Albany police chief and mayor, respectively.
The next morning, after a "breakfast' of blue tinged boiled eggs, "mystery meat" and bread, 40 of us (women) were put on a city bus and driven to Newton, GA in "Bad" Baker where Black people were subject to all kinds of atrocities at the whims of White people. I found out later that while I languished in Newton's jail, Janie was in jail in Leesburg, GA. Chief Pritchett had contacted surrounding counties and asked them to house Albany's overflow of prisoners. Meanwhile other groups were marching and being arrested. Martin Luther King, Jr. was invited to speak in Albany at a mass meeting; by then 700 people had been arrested. He later led a march and was arrested and when released, was able to help arrange and attend a city council meeting and get prisoners released — if the protest marches stopped.
The day prisoners were released, I was sitting on my front porch, glad to be in the fresh air and out of Newton when I saw Janie walking down Newton Rd on her way home. We waved at each other and later on the telephone agreed that it was a mistake to stop the protest demonstrations at their heights. In December, we received letters of suspension from Albany State College without the benefit of a hearing. The Albany Movement and its attorney, C.B. King, protested until we were given a hearing from which he was excluded although he represented us. It was a farce. After listening to us one at a time, we were told we were suspended and to leave the campus and not return. Later parents, including my mother and Janie's mother went on campus to see President Dennis, but were told he was not at the college. Janie's mother went pass his secretary and into his office and found him there. The group was ordered off the campus by security.
Former Dean of Students, Irene Asbury (Wright), heard of our plight and contacted the Atlanta University Center to see if the colleges there would admit us, and they agreed to accept us if we met their qualifications. The former Dean also contacted a former co-worker at Spelman College and friend, Prof. Howard Zinn, and asked him to find funds for those of us who needed financial assistance. Janie, Bernice and I met the requirements of Spelman College and were accepted. While waiting to enroll, Janie and I continued to canvass for prospective registrants in areas where some people were hostile, fearing reprisals from White employers. Janie was threatened with bodily harm if she did not leave one woman's porch.
We enrolled at Spelman and participated in the Atlanta Student Movement and marched on Grady Hospital, protesting certain policies that were discriminatory towards Black people. We returned to Albany on weekends to attend Movement mass meetings. After a year, Janie left Spelman for personal reasons and was able to return to Albany State and graduate.
I learned through the Admissions Office at Albany State that although the College had "suspended" 40 students, a few among the 40 were actually expelled and could not return while the others could return after a month or two. I was told that since I was Miss Albany State, president of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, a member of the Pan-Hellenic Council, secretary of Student Government, member of the College's Disciplinary Committee, etc. I was considered a student leader with too much influence over the student body and could not ever come back to the College.
In the fall of 1963, Spelman offered none of the courses I needed to graduate, so I returned to Albany where my mother delivered my younger sister. Janie was almost a constant presence visiting my mother, helping where she could. I returned to Spelman in January of 1964, graduated in June of 1964, returned to Albany and after a courtship of five months, married Frank White in a private ceremony. Janie was my maid of honor. Frank and I moved to Maryland and Janie and I stayed in touch by phone and letters. Janie wrote about her relationship with Ralph Rambeau and their marriage of Nov. 5, 1965. Returning to Albany, Frank and I became very frequent visitors at Janie's parents' house where Janie and her husband lived for a short time before buying a house on Whitney Avenue. For the first time, Janie was more than a block from me, but we remained in touch over the years.
In 1969, Frank joined IBM and we moved to Binghamton, NY. In 1970, Janie wrote me of the death of her brother, Walter, and sent me a funeral program which I have to this day. My brother was an active pallbearer at the services. Over the years, Frank and I moved to Endicott, NY; Endwell, NY and then to Petersburg, VA. Janie and I kept in touch mostly by telephone. When IBM transferred Frank to Atlanta, Janie and I were able to see each other again during my many trips to Albany. In 2003, Janie had a stroke that altered her memory but not drastically. I called her often to make sure she was alright. She was the same Janie with the same laugh and sense of humor. Seven years passed and in 2010, the new administration at Albany State College (University) decided to welcome back the students who had been suspended and expelled for participating in civil rights activities. They hired historian Dr. Raquel Henry to plan a year of activities for us to take part in.
Janie and I participated in all of them. Janie was the Founder's Day speaker and I spoke at Convocation and did a poetry reading. The activities culminated with us receiving honorary degrees. During the ceremony, Janie became ill and was rushed to the emergency room where she was fitted with a pacemaker. From thereafter, she was in and out of the hospital and we talked every week.
In 2016, I was in the hospital in Atlanta due to a stroke and kidney failure when she was in the hospital in Albany and we talked from our hospital beds. My stroke affected my vision, ability to sit or ride for long periods of time, hearing, long and short-term memories and ambulation and I was placed on dialysis due to kidney failure. Later, Janie had respiratory problems that required her to be hospitalized a day or two almost every week. We still talked on the days she was at home. On the late morning of July 30th, I called her home to check on her and was told that she had died earlier that morning. I was devastated and my blood pressure was dangerously elevated for days as I struggled for 6 days to find transportation to and from Albany for Janie's funeral. I found it the day of the funeral and left that morning, arriving at the church just as the family was arriving.
Janie's funeral was a beautiful tribute to her and the extraordinary life that she lived. The huge church was full and people were standing wherever there was space. The Albany Civil Rights Institute Freedom Singers sang the song Janie wrote while in jail in 1961, "Oh Pritchett, Oh Kelly." (The song since has been recorded by the original Freedom Singers with Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1963 in Voices of the Civil Rights Movement. The CD is in the Smithsonian Institute
Ken Dryer, the Superintendent of the Dougherty School System (DCSS) spoke of Janie's more than 38 years teaching in the DCSS and at Darton College
Her following achievements were revealed:
SHE IS SORELY MISSED BY ALL WHOSE LIVES SHE TOUCHED.