By Gene Guerrero
Vol. 17, No. 3-4, 1995 pp. 15-17
On October 25, Anne Romaine died in Gastonia, North Carolina of complications from a burst appendix. She died about a week before she would have turned 53.
Anne was best known for her music. In 1966 she and former SNCC Freedom Singer Bernice Reagon, who now leads Sweet Honey in the Rock, founded the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project which for many years organized music tours of the South featuring grassroots black and white performers of traditional Southern music including Johnny Shines, Phyllis Boyens, Rev. Pearly Brown, Sparky Rucker, the Balfa Brothers, Ralph Stanley, Billy Ed Wheeler, the Georgia Sea Island Singers and Mabel Hillary. It was Anne who gave the legendary Nimrod Workman exposure on the national stage leading to his Smithsonian Institution appearances.
Appropriately enough, there was music at her funeral from former Atlanta school board member Bob Waymer, and from Mike Seeger, Hazel Dickens, and Alice Gerrard, who served as mainstays of the Southern folk tour. Before they sang, Highlander Center’s Guy Carawan, who with his wife Candy has done as much as anyone to preserve and celebrate traditional Southern music, gave Anne the credit she deserves. While a lot of people talked about it, Carawan said, Anne actually collected together the South’s musical heritage and directly gave it back to thousands of Southerners through the folk tour and later through the “Grassroots Days” festivals she organized in Nashville’s Centennial Park. It wasn’t just music. It was music celebrating the struggles of Southerners for justice. Hazel Dickens later commented that it was on the folk tour that she was first able to sing music with a message.
Anne came by her music naturally. Her father was a successful lawyer who once served as a state senator and retired to an Arabian horse farm near Gastonia. His father had been a second-shift weaver at Cannon Mills in Kannapolis where his mother ran a beauty shop. Anne grew up playing the piano, singing “Sweet Hour of Prayer” in her church, and watching country music star Arthur Smith, who had a regular show on a Charlotte television station. In high school, Anne organized groups to sing the rock and roll music which swept the South just as it swept the rest of the country.
In the ninth grade Anne, like many churchgoing teenagers, decided to become a missionary. Unlike most, Anne, always driven and determined, did it. After spending a couple of years at Queens College in Charlotte, where she first took up the guitar and then dropped out of her sorority, Cookie, as she was know at Queens, took off for Moreila, Mexico where she worked in a mission hospital, played piano at devotionals, and assisted the minister in services. After graduation from Queens, Anne worked at the Arkansas Girls Reform School near Little Rock where she counselled young women and sang songs like “Will Your Lawyer Talk To God.” At the same time, like so many other white Southerners, she watched the 1964 Summer Project in nearby Mississippi wondering what she could do and if she should get involved.
Her chance came that fall when she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Virginia. She quickly fell in with a number of students who were active in local civil rights efforts and with the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC). She and Howard Romaine, who worked in the SSOC/SNCC White Folks Project during the Mississippi Summer Project, were married that year and spent the next summer in a student-organized voter registration project in Southside Virginia.
She and Howard then lived in Nashville in a tiny apartment next door to the SSOC house where Howard was on SSOC staff. On her own, Anne began to plan what became the folk tour. I was there in the SSOC house one day when Anne told us she had somehow gotten Johnny Cash’s telephone number. She wanted to talk with him to see what he thought of the folk tour idea, but she was nervous about calling him. We pushed her to make the call and a few minutes later she came back, bouncing up and down with excitement. Not only had she called Johnny Cash’s house, but Mother Maybelle Carter answered the phone and spoke with Anne for a long time, offering encouragement and assistance. Anne was off and running.
As she organized the folk tour, she also worked on her Masters from the University of Virginia. It was a history of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party largely compiled from lengthy oral interviews she conducted soon after that summer of 1964 with MFDP leaders. Many scholars consider her thesis one of the most valuable histories of that critical period of time.
Later, living in Nashville where she worked as a curator with the Tennessee State Museum, she met Roots author Alex Haley. She conducted extensive interviews with Haley and was finishing up a biography of him at the time of her death. She co-produced the 13-part “Carry It On” series on traditional music for PBS, wrote many songs, and recorded albums for Rounder and Flying Fish Records.
Eventually Anne moved back to Gastonia, helping to produce “The Uprising of ’34” documentary about the great Southern textile strike of that year, and giving seminars at the Gastonia History Museum. Next spring she planned a major traditional cultural festival in Chapel Hill where the archives of the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project are now located. At last year’s first Southern Student Organizing Committee reunion it was agreed that the second reunion ought to be held to coincide with the Chapel Hill festival.
For me, what was most moving about Anne’s funeral was not the past, but the present Anne was working to create when she died. One of the first to stand to pay tribute was David Moore, an African American man who said in remembering Anne it was important not to forget her work on race relations. He went on to describe their work together on a county task force on drugs and violence. Later a white minister, Rev. Skip Dunford who served with Anne on a Presbyterian anti-racism “Oneness Through Diversity” task force said, “everyone who knew Anne saw that when she was present she was a catalyst, a spark.” Rev. Dunford pledged that Anne’s lifetime of work for civil rights would continue.
Somehow, even as she travelled through middle age, Anne managed not only to be active, but to continue to play leadership roles–not just in music, or in history, or in “race relations;” but in all three. Her leadership makes it all the more tragic that she was struck down so young.
As she worked on the larger issues, she managed to touch individuals as well. Anita Norris became a close friend after Anne came to her, years ago, for a psychic consultation. Anne pushed Anita to go back to school. Anita did, recently earning a Masters in Social Work from Case Western University. She now works as a social worker in North Georgia hospices. After Anne’s death Anita said, “To the end she fought to be who she was. She made an impression on everybody she met. She was a sparkler. A Fourth of July sparkler.”
Yes she was.
Anne Romaine was one of the more than forty million people in the United States without health insurance. Founded in her memory, the Anne Romaine Memorial Fund supports organizing efforts for universal health care and health care justice in the South. Donations can be made by writing: Anne Romaine Memorial Fund, c/o Fund for Southern Communities, 522 Hill Street, SE, Atlanta, GA 30312.
Gene Guerrero worked with Anne Romaine in the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC) and on the Great Speckled Bird underground newspaper. For information about the second SSOC reunion write him at 7059 Eastern, Takoma Park, MD 20912.