Sr. Antona Ebo recalls her ‘march on Selma’ in ’65
At age 90, Sister Antona Ebo could be relaxing and relishing the contributions she’s made over 68 years as a religious Franciscan Sister of Mary.
Instead, she travels nationwide speaking about her participation in the Oct. 10, 1965, March on Selma, Alabama, that called attention to voting rights for African Americans.
Such was the case Sept. 22, when Xavier University’s Institute for Black Catholic Studies invited her to discuss being one of six nuns who traveled from St. Louis to Selma in 1965 to march alongside other religious and citizens – black and white – against injustice. Prior to her talk, the documentary “Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness” – in which she is featured – was shown.
“If religious life is yours, it’s sharing what you get from the Holy Spirit and passing it on,” she said about her part in the march.
Sister Antona, who doesn’t consider herself a trailblazer, said she had no clue that her presence as the only black nun would have an impact until she entered Brown’s Chapel AME (African Methodist Episcopal Church) in Selma that day and the crowds parted as minister Andrew Young who was at the podium introduced her and she was seated in a place of honor at the pastor’s chair in the sanctuary. That same day, the press questioned her intent about being there.
“We are here from St. Louis to demonstrate and to witness our love to our fellow citizens in Selma,” she answered. “We are here, secondly, to protest the violation of rights. When asked about her race by the press, she said she was “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 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 am here today.”
She considered herself a reluctant warrior. Somewhat aware of the voting rights issues among African Americans, Sister Antona knew few specifics about what was going on in Selma. At the time, she was in her 40s and busy working as medical records director at St. Mary’s Infirmary.
God called her to action when her superior, Sister Eugene Marie Smith, asked if she wanted to go to Selma the next day.
“No, I wouldn’t like to go to Selma,” she first answered. “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 voting rights.’ But even as I was saying it, it was coming in my mind that it was bigger than voting rights. It was the right of becoming self-determining.”
She mentioned her fears during the march and how she relied heavily on her Catholic faith to protect her.
“I was so scared, I didn’t know my own name part of the time. ... That was the truth. I knew they had already beaten a young, white minister. If they did that to him, God only knows what could have happened without the protection of my guardian angels and the Holy Spirit.”
She credits the Holy Spirit as often guiding her as she sang the black spiritual, “I’m Gunna Do What the Spirit Says Do.” “We have a responsibility to go forth in the name of Jesus and in the voice of the Holy Spirit to tell the world about this Jesus whom we love. ... God is so good to each one of us, takes care of us and brings us from place to place and makes sure we are in the right place when it’s time to walk on with Jesus.”
She was a Baptist
Sister Antona wasn’t raised Catholic. Her Baptist mother had her baptized and taught her about God and the “Our Father” before she died when was she only 4 years old.
For most of her childhood, Sister Antona lived with her siblings at McLean County Home for Colored Children. That’s where, she said, the Holy Spirit introduced her to Catholicism through an unlikely source – a child nicknamed “Bish” who had been banned from practicing Catholicism at the home. One day while on an errand picking up day-old bread – with Sister Antona in tow – he slipped into a Catholic Church, knelt at the Communion rail and prayed.
“He was longing for his church.” she said. “I cased the joint, and it was so 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 the 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 we only had communion the first Sunday of the 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.”
At that moment at age 9 she knew she would be Catholic one day.
“God used Bish to teach me.”
Other hints of Catholicism crept into her childhood. While in and out of the hospital with tuberculosis, she asked nurse Mary Southwick if a visiting priest could visit her. He began teaching Catholicism to her. That same priest knew Southwick and they later helped Sister Antona get in Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Bloomington. She was the only African American there at the time. She later studied nursing in St. Louis at a Catholic nursing school at St. Mary’s Infirmary, a hospital that treated African-American patients.
Sister Antona believes keeping injustice alive in people’s minds makes a difference. Shortly after receiving an honorary doctorate (one of six) of law from the University of Notre Dame, she was invited to speak before the Mound City Bar Association. She spoke of present-day racism and injustice that’s alive through substandard educational opportunities for minorities and recent shootings of unarmed black youth – referencing the incident in Ferguson, Missouri, near her home.
“It gave me an opportunity to ask them where are the Thurgood Marshalls now. When your children have to scout around to find schools that will prepare them for college since many of them (public schools) are not accredited. ... There’s no end to it.”
Sister Antona, who was diagnosed with lymphoma, said she does a lot of praying these days and asked the audience for prayers and to continue spreading the love of Jesus to youth and be ready to answer God’s call when the time comes.
“Pray and talk with him, and, when he’s ready to use you, he’ll let you know,” she said. “I love the Lord and that gives me reason for wanting to keep on keeping on until my time comes.”