The Ballad of Juanita Nelson
Juanita standing up to segregation.
Words and music by Sarah Pirtle © 2003, Discovery Center Music, BMI
1.We rushed to the train in the station in Ohio.
We landed in the back car, the worst car that was plain.
Spider webs and dust piles, all the seats were torn up
Only for Black passengers, a segregated train.
I was just sixteen. It was in the 1930’s.
I spoke up ‘cuz I knew what I did know.
I looked at my Mama, and she looked back at me.
My heart was beating hard. I knew where I had to go.
Whatever age I be, I will follow what’s true for me.
Oh, the world can’t change me. The truth inside has claimed me.
I must do what I feel is true.
2. The train left the station. I left where I was sitting.
I knew what was ahead before we traveled very far.
Mama caught my eye. She didn’t try to stop me.
I told her how I felt--I have to leave this car.
No, I would not stay in the place they tried to put me.
I couldn’t breathe, my hands were tight.
I entered the next train car with just white people sitting.
I stayed with my convictions. I sat down. It was right.
3. I sat down on those cushions in the white cars.
I breathed, and I got up whenever I felt through.
The porter caught my eye. He didn’t try to stop me.
He said he was afraid of what someone might up and do.
I was more afraid of silencing my conscience.
I wouldn’t let cold fear start running me around.
I sat in every white car on that Jim Crow train to Georgia.
I did what I had to do. I sat down.
4. No one threw me off the train. The conductor didn’t stop me.
I made my way from car to car, then back to Mama’s place.
I don’t recall the passengers. I just recall their silence.
And the look of love that I saw upon my Mama’s face.
Production: Engineered by Joe Podlesney, www.joepodmusic.com.
The recording “Everyday Bravery,” where this song appears is dedicated to Juanita Nelson. This song not only describes what Juanita was moved to do at age sixteen, but speaks of how she has lived her whole life.
The Story Behind the Song
The song began when two girls from Journey Camp and I walked over to Juanita Nelson’s home at Woolman Hill to interview her. Eva Botkin-Kowacki and Mackenzie Daigle asked what she did when she was their age, and this is the story she told. I met Juanita in 1979. She’s been a spiritual mother for hundreds of people in New England and beyond.
Learning about Juanita Nelson
Juanita grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Three years after she refused to stay in the back car of a segregated train, Juanita sat down in a Woolworth Lunch Counter in 1943, a nineteen-year-old sophomore purposefully ordering a cup of hot chocolate with friends. This action helped launch the Howard Civil Rights Committee which succeeded in desegregating the Little Palace Cafe on the edge of the Howard University campus in Washington, D.C. During this sit-in action, she was arrested for the first time. She has used non-violent direct action to confront injustice throughout her entire life in public actions and has made her daily life an expression of nonviolence.
She and her partner Wally Nelson were active in the Civil Rights movement since the 1940’s, part of C.O.R.E., Peacemakers, and Pioneer Valley War Tax Resistance. Juanita and Wally moved to the Quaker land trust of Woolman Hill in 1974 and built a house with no running water or electricity, an outhouse in the back, a well, and a garden where they grew organic vegetables to sell at the Farmer’s Market, part of a way of living outside of the tax-paying war economy and saying no to contributing in any form to war.
Here are her words on an interview released on the recording called, “Let My People Go.” She says, “Who are my people? I think of Wally’s favorite T Shirt. I now wear that shirt. Printed in appropriate colors, are the words—Black, White, Yellow, Red, Brown. Each is crossed out. Left undefaced is the word human, written in green. Let all our people go to live in peace and equality.”
People of all ages have been inspired by Juanita’s lifelong commitment to justice and simple living. Juanita received a Local Hero Award in western Massachusetts in 2012 for her decades of work sustaining local agriculture. The award described her conviction along with Wally to oppose all forms of war and live sustainably. The Greenfield Farmer’s Market, one of the state’s oldest, they worked to establish.
Into her nineties, she still helped knit farms and communities more closely together. In 2005 Juanita inspired the creation of a Greenfield (MA) Free Harvest Supper where farmers donate produce for a huge supper attending by hundreds. The event raises $4000 a year and this is donated to make fresh locally grown food more accessible to farmer’s market customers on a limited income. She also launched a Winter Fair movement, now in three locations, where farmers are able to provide an indoor market in the middle of winter.
The song lyric, “Whatever age I be, I will follow what’s true for me” marks a full life of dedication.