Sister Antona Ebo, FSM models a life well lived. She was one of the first three African-American women to join the Franciscan Sisters of Mary in 1946, among the first in any Order since Reconstruction. She spent several years growing up in an orphanage due to the Great Depression and experienced firsthand the need to care for others. Her life is a lesson in standing up tall, which continues today at age 93 despite having experienced cancer and two strokes.
She has influenced the history of our nation. The February 17, 1965, killing of voting rights protester Jimmy Lee Jackson by an Alabama State Trooper led to the Selma march now remembered as Bloody Sunday. March 7 left SNCC Chairperson and future Congressman John Lewis with a skull fracture. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s first attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge followed two days later on Tuesday, March 9. Among the marchers was The Reverend James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston. Leaving a Selma restaurant that same evening, Reverend Reeb was beaten unconscious and died on March 11. On Wednesday morning, March 10, Sister Ebo flew to Selma with a group of 48 St. Louis, Missouri, faith leaders sent by Joseph Cardinal Ritter. She was the only person of color. Aware of what happened to Reverend Reeb, they landed in a farmer’s field for safety and arrived at the Historic Brown Chapel AME during a town hall meeting led by Reverend Andrew Young, future UN Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor, who declared, “ladies and gentlemen, one of the great moral forces of the world has just walked in the door,” honoring Sister Ebo and the other women religious by calling them to come up and sit on the pulpit. Sister Ebo would be asked to speak, and the gathering choose her to lead another march for voting rights that very afternoon. She understood the risk to her own life and worried that if they were “simply arrested,” she would be held racially segregated from those with whom she traveled. Their march was blocked by Selma Mayor Joe Smitherman, and they were surrounded on three sides by State, County and City Police. Sister Ebo explained to the now international media audience her presence there because she had just been able to vote in St. Louis and believed that all people deserved the right to register and to vote. The PBS documentary “Sisters of Selma” expands on the then NY Times story, reporting that these brave women religious, and her unique contribution, sparked the national consciousness, galvanizing the civil rights movement.
Her trailblazing extended to her hospital administration career, which began at then-segregated St. Mary’s Infirmary in St. Louis. She later became the Administrator of St. Claire Hospital in Baraboo Wisconsin, becoming the first African American woman religious to lead a Catholic Hospital in the United States and the first African American to lead a hospital in the State of Wisconsin. She became the first African American to serve as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Catholic Hospital Association. By achieving the highest position you can have in a hospital, she forever broke the glass ceiling, helping others to enter all health related careers.
She would assume various leadership roles within her own religious order, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, and was a founder of the National Black Sisters Conference. Grounded in her own Catholic faith, she is a strong believer in interfaith work, often attending services at Central Reform (Jewish) Congregation. She has also been part of a mixed race/mixed religious dialogue group meeting monthly for 20 years in St. Louis. On the 35th anniversary of the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, she finally marched across Selma’s Pettus Bridge. She led youth and adults who had traveled in buses from around the country as a part of Freedom Ride ’99, an interfaith project of the NAACP and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Her clarion call as a part of the press conference demanding Mississippi finally file murder charges was followed by a conviction announced exactly five years to the day. And on the very day, 45 years after she first marched in Selma, Sister Ebo offered the invocation at an event in St. Louis featuring President Obama. Sister Ebo’s prayer said at the very hour her plane arrived back from Selma marked an indelible moment in history. She was inducted into the National Voting Rights Museum Hall of Fame on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Having shown up in Ferguson, she continues to support the movement for justice and protecting voting rights, encouraging all of us to fulfill our responsibility to vote. Sister Ebo’s continuing passion is her message to youth to have and pursue your own dreams for a community that works for everyone today.