Visiting with the Old Hands: Sue Hanna Marquess and Melva Harmon

Quick reunion with veterans of ACORN's early years when they were VISTA volunteers working as ACORN organizers, Melva Harmon and Sue Hanna Marquess, in Little Rock at Community Bakery.

Quick reunion with veterans of ACORN’s early years when they were VISTA volunteers working as ACORN organizers, Melva Harmon and Sue Hanna Marquess, in Little Rock at Community Bakery.

New Orleans     For a couple hours it was a stroll down memory lane, first with lawyers from legal services in Arkansas where I had poached some of my first support from the idealistic and committed VISTA and Reginald Heber Smith lawyers there, and then with two of the VISTA women I had repurposed to work for welfare rights and ACORN in 1970, Sue Hanna and Melva Harmon. Appropriately, we met at Joe Fox and Lia Lent’s Community Bakery in Little Rock, since both of them had been ACORN veterans from several years later in the 1970s.

Sue and Melva were kicks!  I was about 15 minutes late, having dealt with a family problem before running in late, but Sue sharply quipped that it didn’t matter, it “wasn’t a staff meeting” after all, needling me about my perpetual pestering about starting every staff meeting punctually at 8 PM on Wednesdays back in the day.  We reminisced about the old crew.  Where was Carolyn Carr, who had worked with me for nigh on 37 years at ACORN?  Best we knew she had retired to San Diego where one of her kids had kids.  They were in pursuit, no one having heard from her in recent years.  How about Donna Parciak?  There we had all struck out, even failing to find her over the years with the help of Google. Last we knew she had returned to Connecticut where she was from.  Mary Jo Kitchen who had come a little later was still in touch with Sue and had gone back to Johnstown, New York, but her brother, Billy, who knows…it had been a long time.  Kaye Jaeger was an RN in Syracuse now.  Fred Dorsey, who had been one of the first men to stick for a while, best we knew had passed away though I had met his daughter in New Orleans after Katrina.  How about Steve Kest, who had worked one summer when they were there and came back later for several decades?  Yes, he had been lost, but now found, but his brother, Jon, too soon gone.  It went like this so long that we had to start reminding ourselves to stop talking about people dying too soon!  Names, people, laughter, and old stories spewed out of us like lava from the volcano of our memories.

And, Melva?  Well, Melva had gone to law school after her ACORN time and was still practicing though not at quite the same feverish pace.  She had been counsel to the Teamsters local in Arkansas for almost 30 years, and a labor lawyer for longer than that.  She still handled arbitrations, some EEOC work in north Louisiana, and this and that with the labor movement, or as she said of unions, “I’ve been with them this long time, so I’m sticking with them to the end.”  Turned out she had been married again and spent more than 25 years with a labor lawyer in Little Rock who I had also talked to from time to time for advice on this, that, and the other, but he had also passed away.  She was from Terrell, Texas, and might someday move closer to Dallas, but for no good reason probably.  One of her sisters had taught Jamie Foxx in school there.

And, Sue?  Sue was still a rolling stone.  She had been a couple of years older than us in our very early 20’s then and before VISTA and ACORN, a dental hygienist.  Now she bounced between New York, where she hailed from Rochester, and Florida where a lot of her family lived now, and even Little Rock where coincidentally she now had a cousin. She quipped that when she showed up at their door, “family can’t say no.” She had spent 13-years in a collective in Hartford that had been an amazing experience she had loved.  She had done several years with the Catholic Workers somewhere else.  She had been to Cuba with MADRE. She had been asked in recent years if she still believed in ACORN and had answered sharply, “Why wouldn’t I?”

These were the women warriors of their generation, full of idealism as they straddled the changing times between their mothers’ worlds and the brave new worlds of women and work that feminism had brought in.  My small insight had been understanding in 1970 and afterwards that change had come and more was coming, and all of these women were huge untapped resources, filled with anger and dreams, and ready to work to see something different happen.


War on the Workers by Anne Feeney