That Beautiful Black Nun: Sister Antona Ebo

“You want to really, actually learn about peace? Well, get busy doing something for justice…Each of us is called to so something for our neighbors to express our love.”

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Sister Antona Ebo (1)

St.  Louis’ very own civil rights hero

She has been called an icon, a trailblazer, and a hero. I call her beautiful.

 

A rough childhood

Sister Ebo was born Elizabeth Louise (she was called Betty Lou) on April 10, 1924. Her mother taught her about God and had her baptized in the Baptist church. Elizabeth’s mom passed away when Elizabeth was just 4 years old, and her father lost his job as a library janitor shortly after. Unable to keep their home in Bloomington, Illinois, Elizabeth’s father put her and her two siblings in McLean County Home for Colored Children. In the home, a boy nicknamed “Bishop” was the first to expose Elizabeth to Catholicism. He wasn’t allowed to openly practice his faith in the home, but that didn’t stop him. One day, he and Elizabeth were sent on an errand to pick up some day old bread. On the way, he slipped into a Catholic church, knelt at the Communion rail, and prayed. Sister Ebo recalls:

He was longing for his church. I cased the joint, and it was beautiful. The sun was shining that day through the stained glass windows and I knew all those stories. I was interested in everything in that church…Bish was explaining while he knelt at the Communion rail about this little house (tabernacle) where Jesus was kept, and that the bread became Jesus during the words in Scripture–that was the difference… I had already joined the Baptist Church and only had Communion the first Sunday of te month, and it was cracker crumbs and grape juice…Communion in the Catholic Church becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and nobody else was telling me that.

It was on that day, at the tender age of 9, that Elizabeth knew she would be Catholic one day.

As a child, Elizabeth battled tuberculosis in her thumb and was in and out of the hospital for treatment. While in the hospital, Elizabeth asked nurse Mary Southwick if a visiting priest could come by her room. The priest and nurse would become a pivotal figures in Elizabeth’s life, teaching her about Catholicism, and later helping her get into Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Bloomington.

The children’s home where Elizabeth had been staying did not welcome her back once she decided to join the Catholic Church. As a result, she was sent to live with a couple of older African-American women, where she stayed until she finished high school. She was the first African American to graduate from her high school. 

She recalls her experiences with segregation:

Segregation for us was like going to Woolworth’s and ordering a hamburger. At that time, if you went with a white friend, they would bring it to you on a plate. If you went by yourself, the order was packaged in a brown to-go bag. Known as ‘the brown bag treatment,’ that was to let me know that they didn’t serve colored (people) in that store.

Starting her career

After graduating high school, Elizabeth wanted to attend a Catholic nursing school, but was rejected because of her race. She remembers, “They told me they had never admitted a colored girl before.” School officials didn’t talk to her about her previous studies or her academic capabilities, but rather focused on the color of her skin. It was experiences like this that Sister Ebo remembers as “bruises” that she carried with her throughout life.

She entered the United States Cadet Nurse Corps at St Mary’s Infirmary in 1942. It was a three year program designed to train replacements for volunteer nurses who were serving in the war. She remembers these days and nights as “hectic. Maybe you would get a nap in, and the rest of the time you were either on duty or in a classroom.”

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Sister Ebo (far left) is all smiles as one of the first three African American women to enter the Sisters of St Mary in St Louis.

 

In 1946, Elizabeth was one of the first three African American women to enter the Sisters of St. Mary in St Louis (now the Franciscan Sisters of Mary); she became Sister Mary Antona. In 1962 she earned her degree in medical records administration from St Louis University. In the early 60s Sister Antona served as the assistant administrator of St Mary Infirmary, and she was given the position of Director of Medical Records in 1965. At that time, she was the first black supervisor ever to be in charge of any department at St. Mary’s.

Sister heads to Selma

Sister Antona always listened to her employees, and the Monday morning of March 8th, 1965 was no different. She listened as her employees talked about what had happened in Selma the previous day, on what would become known as Bloody Sunday. She listened as they told her about the protesters who were attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to call attention to voting discrimination that was rampant in the area. Marchers were brutally attacked by police, and several were hospitalized. She remembers her first thought as being, “If I wasn’t in this habit, I would be down there with my people.” Little did she know, she would soon have her chance.

Despite her initial gusto, Sister Ebo had her doubts about going to Alabama. Firstly, she was in her 40s and busy running the medical records department at St Mary’s. Besides, she knew how the protesters had been treated on Bloody Sunday, and she had heard about people like Emmet Till, a 14 year old black boy who was murdered in 1955 in Mississippi for reportedly flirting with a white woman. In Selma, a young white minister had been beaten along with the other marchers. She thought if they could do that to him, what would they do to her? She also knew that if she or any of her friends from the St Louis group were arrested, she would be segregated from them in jail. “If they get arrested, they’ll be together. If I get arrested, I’ll be alone.”

What she may not have known was that Selma was the headquarters of the White Citizen’s Council. The council was bent on maintaining white supremacy, but in a more “genteel” fashion than their friends in the Klu Klux Klan. Their unofficial motto was, “Why burn a cross, when you can foreclose a mortgage?”

The tensions in Selma were already high by the time Dr King came on the scene. In fact, marches and demonstrations had been going on since late 1963. So much so, that an injunction was passed in July of 1964 banning mass meetings in churches (generally accepted as the headquarters of the protesters), and public protesting about voting rights. Yep, you read that right. The government in Selma effectively negated their citizens’ right to peaceful assembly. Sheriff Clark and Mayor Smitherman did not budge on enforcing these new laws. When it was publicized that only 300 of the estimated 15,000 adult black population of Selma was registered to vote, a federal court ordered Selma to register 100 voters per day. This did not sit well with many, and black protesters moved their meeting place to nearby Marion. When Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot in Marion, the protests in Slema gained new life. Many thought they should march Jimmy’s body right to the state capital, to show the governor just what was happening in Slema. And so, the idea to march from Selma to Montgomery was born. The first march was led by John Lewis Hosea Williams, and ended at the bottom of Edmund Pettus bridge in what would be remembered as Bloody Sunday.

Sister Ebo had every reason to be scared. She had just voted in St Louis, and part of her felt like what was happening in Selma wasn’t her fight. But Sister Ann Christopher felt differently. She was teaching and living in the black community in St Louis at the time. When she heard about what happened on Bloody Sunday she immediately felt she needed to be there. After Dr King called for clergy to join him in Selma, it was decided that several priests from St Louis would go. Sister Ann asked the father in charge of her parish if she could join them. The priest called Cardinal Ritter, and Ritter answered that not only should Sister Ann accompany the priests, but sisters from each parish in St Louis should be sent as well.

When Sister Ebo’s superior first asked her if she would like to go, she remembers answering, “No, I would not like to go to Selma. I know I do a lot of fussing, but I don’t feel bad enough to want to go down there and be a martyr for somebody’s rights.” But even as she was saying those words, it was “coming into (her) mind that it was bigger than voting rights. It was the right to be self-determining.” In the documentary, Sisters of Selma she says, “It is one thing to have a right on a piece of paper, but if you cannot express that right in the way you live, the way you vote, the way you are self-determining, something has to give.” All the same, Sister Ebo was terrified.

Her fear was soon trumped by her faith. For her, the question of getting involved in social justice is answered in Matthew 25:31-46 when Jesus says, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” She felt that she had to take a position, and that position had to be based on faith. She felt that, as a Catholic, it was her responsibility to meet her brothers and sisters in Christ, and “realize we all come from the same God.” She felt she had a “responsibility to speak up and become part of the response.” Her response was supported by the Second Vatican Council, who had encouraged sisters to get out of their ivory towers and out of their habits and into the communities they were serving.

With over 50 delegates, the St Louis contingent was the largest to respond to Dr King’s call for religious leaders to come to Selma and join the second attempt to march to Montgomery. Sister Ebo was one of only six nuns, and the only African American woman in the group. The sisters and priests were joined by leaders from various denominations and arrived in Selma on March 10th. When Sister Ebo stepped off the plane in Slema, a priest there thought, “Oh my God. This is going to make a difference.” They met the rest of the marchers at Brown Chapel AME, where crowds parted as minister Andrew Young introduced Sister Ebo and she was seated in a place of honor at the pastor’s chair in the sanctuary. The St Louis group was asked to lead the march that day, with the sisters front and center.

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Sister Ebo addresses reporters at Selma

 

The sisters led the way as the group set out on the second attempt to cross over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the way to Montgomery. They had men surrounding them, for their own protection. The men were afraid that the crowd would push the sisters forward, and they had their backs. But the group didn’t get far. Contrary to the re-telling of the second march in the movie Slema, Dr King did not lead the group, and the bridge was not opened to them. In fact, the Mayor stopped them before they reached the line of state troopers just ahead. He reminded them of the law against marching in protest and said that he expected that law to be followed. It was then that someone had the idea that the religious leaders should “bear witness” as to why they were marching. And it was then that Sister Ebo became an icon when a broadcaster recorded an exchange between her and local government agents. She told them:

We are here from St Louis to demonstrate and to witness our love to our fellow citizens in Selma. We are here, secondly, to protest the violation of rights. I am Negro and very proud. I feel it a privilege to be here today. I am Sister Mary Antona from St Louis, Missouri, and I stay at St Louis Infirmary. I might say that yesterday, being a Negro, I voted. And I’d like to come here today and say that every citizen–Negro as well as white–should be given the right to vote. That’s why I’m here today.

The entire group then knelt to say the Our Father, and made their way back to the church. Their march was short, but their impact was immense.

Finally, a federal court order was issued to allow the march, and President LB Johnson pledged his support. National Guard troops as well as U.S. Army troops protected the marchers on their four day journey to Montgomery.

It would be another 40 years before Sister Ebo would fulfill her desire to cross the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge that spanned the Alabama river and led to Montgomery.

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Sister Ebo finally crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge

 

 

The image of Sister Ebo marching in Slema that day would become an icon. She remembers:

It turned out that the habit was what got everyone’s attention very quickly, because nuns had not been seen doing anything like that before. It didn’t ring a bell with me that we were getting involved in something hysterical and historical.

There is no doubt Sister Ebo is glad she went. She has said, “The one thing I didn’t want to do was to become a sweet little old nun that was passing out holy cards and telling people ‘I’ll pray for you’ and not really having mastered or developed an expertise in being a caregiver from a good theological base.” And develop an expertise she did…

Life after Selma

When she returned home to St Louis, Sister Ebo picked up right where she left off, but seemed to do so with even more gusto.

  • In 1968 she helped found the National Black Sisters’ Conference (she would later serve as President).
  • She earned her Master’s degree in hospital executive development from St Louis University in 1970.
  • In 1976 she was appointed as the executive director of the St Clare Hospital in Baraboo, Wisconsin. She was the first African American woman religious to head any Catholic Hospital in the nation.
  • After some health problems of her own, she decided she wanted to stop paper-pushing, so she got her second Master’s degree, this time in theology of health care in 1978 from Aquinas Institute of  Theology and began serving as hospital chaplain. In a 1978 article in the Catholic Herald Citizen, she compared her position as chaplain to that of a clown, “Clowns don’t do a lot of talking. They’re quiet. they bring happiness by smiling in a way that is both happy and sad. It’s a wry smile that says, “I’ve experienced life– both the gladness and the sadness. I’m human just like you.
  • In 1989 the National Black Sisters’ Conference presented her with the Harriet Tubman Award, and described her as being “called to be a Moses to the people.”
  • In 2000, at the 35th anniversary of what came to be known as the “Right to Vote” Bridge Crossing, she was honored with the Living Legend Award by the Voting Rights Institute in Selma.
  • In 2002 she received the Distinguished Humanitarian Award from the Dr Martin Luther King Jr State Celebration Commission of Missouri.
  • She was honored as the Lifetime Achiever in Health Care by the St Louis American Foundation at their 12th annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards in 2012.

 Additionally, she has been the recipient of six honorary doctorate degrees from the following Universities:

  • Loyola University-Chicago (1995)
  • College of New Rochelle of New York (2008)
  • Aquinas Institute (2009)
  • St Louis University (2010)
  • University of Missouri St Louis (2010)
  • University of Notre Dame
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Sister Ebo receiving her honorary doctorate from Notre Dame

 

She has continued to speak out for voting rights of not only African Americans, but all Americans

There is a concerted effort to suppress the votes of the poor and blacks. The effort  was made during the last election to make sure we didn’t have people standing all the way around the block, just to get the right to vote, but it is still happening in individual states.

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She has also been vocal about present-day racism and injustice that is seen in substandard educational opportunities for minorities and recent shootings of unarmed black youth. A friend drove Sister Ebo through Ferguson shortly after the shooting death of Michael Brown, and when he stopped to talk to some law enforcement officials that he knew, word soon spread as to who he was escorting around. The head of security in Ferguson, Capt. Ron Johnson of Missouri Highway Patrol visited Sister Ebo first, and several soon followed suit. A small video crew from Birmingham Alabama had walked past the car, not realizing that the living legend was inside. Capt Johnson stopped them and told them they were going the wrong way– they should be talking to that beautiful black nun. Sister Ebo told the crew to not be satisfied by taking some superficial pictures. “You are going to raise the rug and look at what’s under the rug. The mistake I think many of is made in the 60s is we were taking somebody else’s word for it; you have to look under the rug.”

Sister Antona Ebo visited with Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol on her visit to Ferguson in August.
Sister Ebo with Captain Ron Johnson

 

She was present at a Faith in Ferguson prayer service in March of 2015, where she urged people on both sides of the conflict to meet for dialogue. She noted that dialogue between races and cultures creates understanding and builds bridges. She challenged the congregation: “You want to really, actually learn about peace? Well, get busy doing something for justice…Each of us is called to so something for our neighbors to express our love.” In the words of Pope Paul VI: “If you really want peace, work for justice”

Sister Ebo told the group in Ferguson that “every 20 years or so, we go through a new discontent.” She recognizes that there are many human rights issues to deal with today, and encourages people to ask themselves, “What do I need to be responding to?”


Sister Ebo has done her fair share of responding. Though not a native to St Louis, we will claim her as our very own beautiful black nun. Our very own civil rights hero. And our very own responder.

 

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