One died for rights; the other raised her children
January 29, 2005
BY SUZETTE HACKNEY
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
Sarah Evans' name doesn't appear in history books. Her life in Detroit
hasn't been chronicled through many newspaper, magazine or television
accounts. By no stretch is she recognized as a heroine of the civil
But those who knew and loved Evans say the sacrifice she made for a
white woman and her five children back in 1965 should be one for the
It started with a promise nearly 40 years ago.
Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife and part-time student at Wayne State
University, decided to travel to the South to help register black voters
in Alabama at a time when local authorities fought against it. She left
her husband and five children behind in their brick home on Marlowe in
Liuzzo, 39, who was both employer and best friend to Evans, made one
request: If anything were to happen to her in Alabama, would Evans help
raise her children? Evans warned Liuzzo about the dangers and begged her
not to go. Still, she pledged to support Liuzzo's family.
On a foggy evening on March 25, 1965, just two weeks into Liuzzo's
journey, she was fatally shot by a carload of Ku Klux Klansmen and an
FBI informant as she drove rights marchers on U.S.-80, a four-lane
highway between Selma and Montgomery, Ala.
Liuzzo became a symbol of the civil rights movement, and is the only
white woman to have been killed for the cause. She is often called a
Evans became a surrogate mother to the five children during the
tumultuous 1960s. She was often called an angel.
Evans died in her Detroit home Thursday of congestive heart failure. She
"I'm sure my grandmother's relationship with Viola had a lot to do with
her decision to go to Alabama," said Evans' granddaughter Sarah
Williams, 51. "Knowing a black woman and being able to identify with the
black struggle helped raise Viola's consciousness."
Born and raised in McCool, Miss., Evans moved to mostly-white Detroit in
the late 1930s with two of her brothers who were looking for work in the
North. At her mother's insistence, Evans left her only child, a
5-year-old girl, in Mississippi.
Two worlds meet
Liuzzo and Evans met around 1945. Evans was working in a store when
Liuzzo came in looking for black pepper. The store owner, who was
functioning under World War II rations, told Liuzzo they did not have
pepper. But Evans spoke up, said there was pepper available and went to
get it for Liuzzo.
The two became fast friends, and Liuzzo, who was pregnant, asked Evans
to come work for her. Liuzzo had noticed Evans' housework because she
cleaned for a woman who lived in the Liuzzos' lower flat. Evans was
single then, using her maiden name Kennedy.
"Her and Viola were like sisters," said Monzia Williams, 74, Evans' only
daughter. "Mother worked for Viola, but Viola fell in love with her. She
never treated mother like a worker, and mother took care of her like she
was her own child."
Evans, who faithfully attended Scott Memorial United Methodist Church on
the city's west side, met a woman who said she had the perfect man for
her: the woman's nephew, Merry Evans. They married in the late 1940s; he
died in 1981.
Merry Evans didn't blink when his wife told him she had another family
to care for. In fact, he would drive her to the Liuzzo house, where she
would stay during the week. On weekends, she would return home,
sometimes by bus, to her husband, daughter and grandchildren.
"I would get jealous sometimes," Sarah Williams said. "It's not like she
didn't treat us well, but I sometimes didn't like how well she treated
them, especially because they were white. I remember telling some of
Viola's kids 'that's my grandmother.' "
Mary Liuzzo Lilliboe, who was 17 when her mother was killed, said there
are times when she can't picture her mom, but can see Sarah Evans
clearly. She said Evans taught her about becoming a lady, not to
whistle, and about unconditional love.
"Sarah was probably the second greatest role model," Lilliboe said.
"After Mom died, Sarah was the only stability for us. She was, and
always has been, reliable in the sense that her character never changed;
her principles and values, her love and the devotion to her family and
Lilliboe, 57, said she still can taste Evans' baked goods, especially
her famous Southern teacakes the families would fight over. She hasn't
forgotten the fried chicken, greens, dumplings or bread pudding either.
Though the Liuzzo family didn't consider Evans their housekeeper -- the
women spent hours talking and drinking coffee -- others probably did.
"We lived in a Jewish neighborhood and our neighbors had their girls,"
Lilliboe said. "I'm sure the perception was that Sarah was our maid. But
my mom and Sarah had been friends for so long. The story of mom's death
really belongs to both of them. Sarah was my hero in a lot of ways.
Sarah was our rock."
Tyrone Green, another grandchild of Evans, said he remembers being
taught by Liuzzo and his grandmother that skin color didn't matter. He
said he would listen to the women as they plotted how to end racism.
Green said his grandmother would often take him to church along with the
Liuzzo children. Even in God's house there were stares, but Evans liked
to think folks were looking at her colorful hats.
"She didn't think she was dressed up unless she had on a hat," Monzia
As Evans aged she kept up with the things that were important to her:
shopping, playing bridge, church, cooking, senior recreational
activities and family. She worked at Champion Spark Plug -- a job
Liuzzo's first husband got her -- as a cook in the cafeteria until 1980,
when her physician forced her to retire.
"Her doctor said 'you are working yourself to death,' " Monzia Williams
Evans suffered a stroke in 1995, which limited her mobility. About three
weeks before her death, while using a feeding tube and oxygen, Evans
told her family she didn't think she would make it. She wasn't scared,
"She always had a smile on her face no matter what," Green, 58, said.
Much recognition has been paid to Liuzzo, including being honored in a
civil rights memorial in Montgomery and being the subject of a
documentary in 2004. Liuzzo's family thinks Evans, too, deserves such
recognition. In fact, Liuzzo seemed prophetic during a of their many
conversations as recounted by Evans in an interview for the film "Home
of the Brave."
"Sarah, you and I are going to change the world," Liuzzo told her. "One
day they'll write about us. You'll see."
Besides her daughter and four grandchildren, Evans is survived by four
great-grandchildren and eight great-great-grandchildren. Visitation will
be from 2 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at O.H. Pye Funeral Home, 17600 Plymouth
Road, Detroit. The funeral will be at noon Wednesday at Redford United
Methodist Church, 22400 Grand River in Detroit. Family hour will be a
half-hour before the service. Burial will follow in Mt. Hope Memorial
Cemetery in Livonia.
Contact SUZETTE HACKNEY at 313-223-4536 or hackney@...
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