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One died for rights; the other raised her children

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  • Charles C. Primas
    One died for rights; the other raised her children January 29, 2005 BY SUZETTE HACKNEY FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 29, 2005
      One died for rights; the other raised her children

      January 29, 2005



      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
      rights movement.

      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
      northwest Detroit.

      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
      was 94.

      "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
      our family."

      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
      Williams said.

      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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