by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, April 2015) On March 14th Women Speak Out for Peace and Justice celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom at Kan Zaman Restaurant at W. 25th and Franklin Blvd. The celebration honored two women, Norma Freeman and Bea Silverberg, with the Ione Biggs Human Rights Award.
The Kan Zaman Restaurant proved to be a fitting location for the ceremony as Norma Freeman and Bea Silverberg both chose to share a bit of the story of their lives and their efforts in the struggle for justice. The interior of the restaurant is shaped like a Bedouin tent and its name, in Arabic, means “Once Upon a Time” – the beginning phrase for storytellers.
Following an introduction by a Woman Speak Out member that described Norma Freeman as born in Cleveland, a graduate of John Adams High School and Fisk University. Freeman is a resident of the Glenville neighborhood for the past 50 years, married with three boys. Freeman is co-editor with her husband Don of the magazine Vibration. She served as a health educator in Cleveland and was the first African American teacher at the Cleveland Health Museum. Norma was also involved in teaching and mentoring children at League Park Center where her husband, Don served as Director. Norma and her husband Don have been steady advocates for Cleveland’s children at school board meetings and in educational reform groups for decades – and have continued that advocacy long after their own children graduated from the Cleveland Municipal School District. Norma Freeman also involved herself in the struggle for racial justice and is currently involved in several groups seeking justice following the death of unarmed civilians due to police violence.
Norma Freeman thanked Women Speak Out for the Ione Biggs Human Rights Award saying that the award was especially meaningful because she knew Ione Biggs and considered her a mentor.
Freeman then began to relate her story – choosing to start at a major turning point in her life that happened in 1957 when as a newly arrived 17 year old student at Fisk University a chance encounter with the schools’ most famous graduate, W. E. B. Du Bois, changed her life. Freeman remembers seeing W.E.B. Du Bois walking on campus and recognizing him from pictures she had seen. She went up to him and introduced herself. She remembers the 15-minute encounter with Du Bois in which he told her whatever you do in life make sure “you assist our people in their liberation.”
Norma said when she and Don Freeman’s relationship was beginning to get serious, Don told her “Nothing on this planet will stand in the way of me working for the liberation of our people and for all oppressed people.” Norma says that is when she fell in love with Don. She believes that without the encounter with W.E. B. Du Bois she would not have recognized the importance of what Don was saying.
Norma said in her life that followed with Don, they consciously chose to stay in Glenville, to send their children to public schools in Cleveland and to embrace the neighborhood children.
Norma marveled at the heroic lives people in her community in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood live every day. She spoke of the alienation that educated people sometimes feel when they leave the city and warned of the life alienating values of our culture such as materialism, hedonism and egoism. She spoke of the difference between “Me and Mine vs. We and Us.” She urged young people to embrace a philosophy of “We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”
Speaking of the life she and Don live, Norma said, “We chose this path. The road that is least travelled, that is where I want to go.” Again in closing she offered some advise to the young, “Lead the kind of life you choose.”
A Women Speak Out member then introduced Bea Silverberg as a writer and historian who believes in peaceful means of settling conflicts. Silverberg was involved in the labor movement in Washington D.C. In 1945 she participated in a United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation mission to Yugoslavia. In 1948 she went on tour with Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party. In 1949 she married Lou Silverberg and moved to Ohio. During the 1950s she became involved in the civil rights and peace movements in Cleveland. She worked as a War on Poverty researcher at Case Western Reserve University. In 1966 she took a position as a social worker for a Head Start program on the Near West Side of Cleveland.
In 1974, Silverberg moved to Ashtabula and became involved in the Ashtabula Head Start Program. She was involved in starting a new agency called Home Safe that provided shelter and services for abused women. She also became involved in the Ashtabula Peace Council. In recent years Bea Silverberg has been involved in writing and art. Her books include a children’s book about Jane Addams and in 2009 she had an art show featuring her ceramics work.
Bea Silverberg showed her love of history as she began her talk by relating the story of Jane Addams, a subject of one of her books. She said that 100 years ago, when World War I raged in Europe, women in the United States formed the Women’s Peace Party. She said Jane Addams served as the president of the party from 1914-1915. During that period 43 women from the party crossed the Atlantic to meet with 300 European women at The Hague. She said the women went to leaders of countries on both sides of the conflict pleading for peace.
Silverberg also talked about her involvement in starting the Ashtabula Peace Council during a time period when people were worried about the world coming to an end due to nuclear war. The Ashtabula Peace Council, organized by four women, targeted a war production plant that was storing depleted uranium rods. They held a meeting in Jefferson, the Ashtabula County Seat, and organized a march of 500 people to the war production plant. At the time Ashtabula County was being sprinkled with radioactivity. The theme of their organizing was “there is no hiding place.” Silverberg said families with baby carriages and dogs in tow joined the protest. She said, stories about the radioactivity poisoning fields, brooks and the atmosphere made headlines. The war production plant closed down.
Bea Silverberg said her message was that four women, each doing what they could in their own way, were instrumental in closing a plant that was damaging the community.
In closing, Silverberg cited the poetry of Mary Oliver urging those present not to just be visitors to the planet, but to work for peace, freedom and justice for all. She then added, “We should all be feminists.”