Clare Coss

“We have it in our power to create a just and safe world.”

Interviewed by Rebecca Lubetkin, VFA Legacy, January 2021

CC:  I am Clare Coss, born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1935. I was raised partly in New Jersey and partly in New Orleans. My mother was from New Orleans, my father from Illinois. They met, became Unitarians, married, and lived in Plainfield, New Jersey. Every summer my mother and I would visit her parents in New Orleans.  During 1st and 2nd grade, I went to school in New Orleans for several months.

When my father died in 1952, mother moved back to New Orleans to be with her family and friends.  She allowed me to stay up north to finish my junior and senior years at Friends Academy, a boarding school in Locust Valley, Long Island.  She said, “I did without you for two years, but now you have to go to college in Louisiana.” I was accepted at Newcomb College, her alma mater, but New Orleans residents could not live in the dorm. There was no way I could have lived at home after four years of independence at Friends.

LSU, Louisiana State University is 86 miles upriver on the Airline Highway to Baton Rouge. It was a huge culture shock. Even though I had visited the South many times to see my grandparents, I could not understand Jim Crow and race separation.  When I was six, mother and I were riding the St. Charles Avenue trolley car.  I ran ahead and moved back the little lacquered wooden placard that said “For Colored Only.” I happily grabbed a seat by the window.  My mother spoke with certainty, “When you move the sign like that, all these folks here, they can’t sit down.” I moved it back, my head down, embarrassed and mortified.  For Colored Only behind the sign. White Only in front of the sign. A  note of discord had sounded. I didn’t understand but I felt put on alert.

RL:  When you were in school in the north was it an all-white school?

CC:  Friends Academy in Locust Valley, Long Island was half boarding and half day school.  The student body was white, with two international boys, from Venezuela, and Iran.  I entered freshman class in 1948 and graduated in 1953 after four wonderful years in my home away from home.  The Headmaster called a special assembly during my junior year, to discuss whether or not Friends should admit a female student of color, or in that day, a Negro student.  There were pros and cons, such as a perfect opportunity to widen our world or to have to deal with race might interrupt our education. My contribution to the conversation: “If we are going to admit her, let’s make sure we have two, so she won’t be alone.”

And then we didn’t hear about it.  There had been no strong advocates and no strong objections to integration.  Some of us went to Miss Ruff, The Girls Dean, and asked what happened with this student coming to Friends? She said they decided not to admit her. The parents of a good friend of mine, David Fox, were on the board of Friends Academy and about 20 years ago, he told me the potential student was Lena Horne’s daughter, Gail Buckley.  She attended a Friend’s school in upstate New York that was more progressive and open minded.  It is  ironic because Friends Academy Locust Valley was originally founded to provide education for Black children on Long Island. Racism permeates no matter where you are in this country.

I had an illuminating experience in seventh and eighth grade at Evergreen Elementary School in Plainfield, New Jersey. The school in the Black neighborhood burned down and about twenty students were bused to Evergreen and joined our classes. We learned that kids are kids, we’re just all the same under the skin. We didn’t socialize after school hours, but we were friends at lunch time, in band, on teams, in clubs.   It was another awakening for me.

RL:  It was very different from your experiences in New Orleans.  Now you’re in college there. Were there any wake-up moments?

CC:  Yes, there were two major wake ups.  In 1953, my freshman year at Louisiana State University (LSU), an African-American young man from New Orleans decided to integrate the undergraduate school.  His father was a renowned lawyer in the state of Louisiana and friends with Thurgood Marshall.                                      

He won a court case to integrate and admit his son. This young man, Alexander Tureaud, was vilified. Roadkill was thrown in his room, they played loud music. His professors, one of them, said in the classroom, “I’ve never touched a paper  by a Negro. I don’t know if I can do it.”  They drained the swimming pool after he took a swim. Countless threats, attacks and insults took place.  I wrote a letter to the school newspaper, The Daily Reveille, saying “Stop your shameful support of the vilification of AP Turead.  As a citizen of the state of Louisiana, he has a right to an education at the state’s university.” I was afraid to mail the letter of defense and protest because I had no support at all. My sorority sisters and friends said, “You don’t understand, you’re from the north, you don’t know what it is like down here.” It was very disturbing to be there.  A theatre major, a couple of close friends (from the North) in the theater department understood my position. I chose to go inactive in my sorority; they wouldn’t let me quit. 

I applied for permission to leave the dorm (no sorority houses at LSU then) and live in International House, where the global women students resided. My roommate, Cyra Miron, was from Guatemala. I found my own way to live an integrated existence when I was at LSU. Then in 1955, Emmett Till, a Black boy from Chicago…

RL:  Excuse me for interrupting, but before you go to 1955, 1954 was the decision in the famous Brown vs. Board of Education case, which said that separate is not equal. So that was the beginning of the official expectation of desegregation.

CC:  You reminded me of the end of the story for AP Tureaud. LSU got a court order to kick him out after fifty-five days and he went to Xavier in New Orleans, it’s an all-Black college, where he met his wife. Blanche, my partner of fifty-two years – Blanche Cook, the historian and biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt – we were speaking at Xavier just a few years ago and somebody mentioned that A.P. Tureaud Sr’s home had been made a stop on the civil rights trail and that his son was there for the dedication ceremony.

My age and still around!  I found his contact info and called him at home in Connecticut. We have become close friends with him and his wife Fay. LSU’s Diversity Department has invited us to speak and to tell our story. And I sent the letter that I couldn’t send before.  LSU’s Reveille featured the letter in the historical context of desegregation at LSU.  So the unsent letter had a political impact sixty-six years later!  AP Tureaud is on the board of an organization in New Orleans called Plessy AND Ferguson. Plessy v. Ferguson in the late 1890’s was the Supreme Court decision responsible for separate but equal. Their descendants, the Black descendant of black plaintiff Plessy, Keith Plessy, and the white descendant of Judge Ferguson, Phoebe Ferguson  – have formed a civil rights organization in New Orleans called Plessy and Ferguson. A.P. Tureaud is on the board.  LSU is very much with me these days in a way I had never imagined. 

The summer of 1955 Emmett Till, a fourteen year old African-American boy from Chicago was visiting his cousins in the Mississippi Delta.  Accused of wolf whistling at a white woman storekeeper, Carolyn Bryant, he was kidnapped at midnight, tortured, murdered, thrown in the Tallahatchie River.  A hundred-pound cotton gin fan was tied around his neck with barbed wire.  But when his body caught on a brush of branches, his feet rose up above the water. At the trial, Roy Bryant, Carolyn Bryant’s husband, and his brother “Big” Milam were found “Not Guilty.” 

With monumental courage, his mother insisted on an open casket so the world could see the horrific brutality and help her to tell the story.  Emmett Till’s lynching continues to be in the news.  Each time another Black person is murdered, Emmett Till’s name is called out. An endless list: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland –       Emmett Till presente!

RL:  How does that connect with your work or your experience?

CC:  One morning in the early ’90s, I woke at dawn and felt a spiritual mandate to write about the Emmett Till wound in my heart. I had never known how as a white woman to write about this. I created a white teacher who cares, but is silent. One of the characters in the play that I wrote called Emmett Down in My Heart, the teacher is in denial that she can take responsibility.  She manages to take a step towards responsibility when she decides that she must talk to her students about the murder of Emmett Till.

Everybody was told in this little town in Mississippi, don’t mention this lynching ever again. And to this day, you can’t bring it up in that area if you’re white and trying to get more information about it. There are tremendous works inspired by this tragedy. There are poems, Audre Lorde wrote a poem, Gwendolyn Brooks wrote a poem. There’s going to be a feature film that Keith Beauchamp who became very friendly with Emmett Till’s mother is starting. There’s going to be a series on television about Emmett Till and a tribute to his mother Mamie Till-Mobley for her courage, because it was her turning point of course, she became an activist.

RL:  You wrote the play.

CC:  And it won a play contest by a new political theatre in Tucson.  The prize included a production.  Mary Watkins, a Black composer from Pueblo, Colorado – now living in Oakland – flew down for opening night. She admired the play and that was the start of our collaboration. 

We began working together long distance – coast to coast – in 2013.  I wrote the libretto, she composed the music  –  we talked mostly on the phone, occasionally on Skype. (No zoom back then).  Mary worked on the orchestration for 23 instruments.  By 2018 our new opera, Emmett Till was ready.  With over a hundred donations, plus grants from the Ford Foundation, Eastman Fund, Lower Manhattan Community Council, MAP Fund, we held two workshops, and three sing-throughs with a magnificent cast.  John Jay College’s esteemed president, Karol Mason, has gifted us the Gerald W Lynch Theater for four nights, two for rehearsals with orchestra, two for concert performances.   Liz Player, artistic director of the Harlem Chamber Players will assemble the orchestra.  Robert D Mack, artistic director of Opera Noire International will cast the soloists. Tania Leon will conduct.  Damien Sneed is the choral director.  After postponements due to the pandemic, we are set to premiere Emmett Till concert performance on March 23-24, 2022.

RL:  How wonderful. Well, I can see that your pursuit of justice was very profound, and I’m interested in how you moved to include feminism.

CC:  I joined the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

RL:  Where were you – where were you living then?

CC: I was in Buffalo, married to a man at the time who was teaching at Buffalo for a year. I joined an organization dedicated to peace and justice: The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), founded in 1915 by Jane Adams and Lillian Wald. I also directed a play at Neighborhood House in Buffalo.  In J. E. Franklin’s The In-Crowd, teenagers put their parents on trial. Judge TopHat says it’s not your parents who are to blame, it’s the system. This was in the early ’60s when J. E. Franklin was identifying systemic racism through this play for teenagers. 

In 1966 my husband and I returned to New York after a year.  I had been active in WILPF in Buffalo and hooked up with the Manhattan branch at a gathering called to Plan an Action Against the War in Vietnam.  In a church meeting room of thirty WILPFers on the east side of Manhattan my life was to change big time.  I met my life partner, Blanche Wiesen Cook. What better place to meet than at a WILPF meeting to help end the war.  We became platonic solidarity sisters (with an accompanying erotic charge) and spent the next four years getting to know each other at demonstrations for peace and justice, Community Control for Schools, expansive hours for working people at the public libraries. In 1969 we left our husbands for each other and celebrate our anniversary on the Full Moon in June.  52 years coming up.

WILPF was brimming over with strong women leaders and empowered women, women who took bold stands, women who broke the silence. They were certainly wonderful models for both of us. It was inspiring to be part of this international organization for peace and justice.

My own personal introduction to feminism happened in my living room when a friend brought a guest, Lila Karp, a British feminist. It was the late ’60s, at the start of second wave of the feminist movement. She had written the book, The Queen is in the Dustbin in England.  The title was translated for U.S. publication to “The Queen is in the Garbage.”  It has been reprinted by the Feminist Press with an introduction by Kate Millet. 

It was a landmark evening for me. Lila was very attractive, brilliant, entertaining, appealing. The men were fascinated with her and what they thought were her very strident feminist demands. She was playing to the men.  I didn’t exist for her. I was taken over by a very big headache and withdrew from the scene. But I knew that her every feminist word was absolute truth.  On the one hand it made me furious that the men were so amused by her feminist declarations; on the other hand it made me furious that she totally ignored me, the only other woman in the room. Soon after, I joined NOW –  my first introduction to organized feminism through National Organization for Women. And Blanche and I continued our activism with WILPF.

RL:  So you continued with your theatre work, but you also became a psychotherapist?

CC:  Yes, I became a psychotherapist in the late ’70s.  My private practice included work with individuals and couples.

RL:  You went back to school then after?

CC: I was admitted as an affirmative action candidate at SUNY at Stony Brook’s radical and progressive school of Social Work. Bernice Goodman, who was a friend with one of the esteemed professors there said, “Why don’t you include gay and lesbian in your affirmative action if you’re so progressive at Stony Brook?” She had just helped to get the AMA to remove homosexuality as a disease in their list of diseases. She was quite a leader for the celebration of difference. She convinced her friend on the School of Social Work faculty, Bob Lefferts, to fight for this. He did – it wasn’t that hard.  They admitted one out lesbian and one out gay man each year.

RL:  What year was that?

CC: ’74.  Tremendous homophobia abounded at that time.  I was a teaching fellow with two classes each semester for the two years I was there. I always came out in class early in the semester.  It was my responsibility as an affirmative action student to celebrate difference and talk about homosexuality openly.  It was a little scary, but not terribly scary, because students who chose to go to Stony Brook knew they were going to a progressive college. Students would approach me after class each semester to say how much it meant to them that I came out and I was so open.  It helped them;  emboldened them in the world. As a white privileged woman it was a very unique experience for me to be admitted under affirmative action. I received a Masters in Social Work (MSW) and entered and studied Modern Psychoanalysis as part of my training for my private practice.  I retired from my practice five years ago.

RL:  Did you have a support group that helped you to become stronger? There you were in a homophobic environment, what did you have for yourself to build you up?

CC:   Blanche and I were very fortunate to have a fabulous support group. Our chosen family, we called it. Blanche was very close to poet Audre Lorde.  They met as student leaders at Hunter College and were very, very close friends when I came on the scene.  Francis Clayton, Audre’s partner for seventeen years, was a psychologist. Frances left her tenured position at Brown University to live in New York with Audre and her two children with Ed Rollins:  Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins, now a practicing obgyn physician lives with her partner agent Judy Boals and their son Matthew Boals; and Jonathan Rollins, married to Judy Lew now lives in California. We essentially became a family.

Audre, poet, professor, essayist, theorist, also made beautiful intricate necklaces for her friends and family.  This is one of her later creations – a macramé necklace with a jade carving of a bird flying backwards. Which means, she said, it is never too late to change. She loved this necklace.  Every time she saw me wearing it, she would lean near and examine it closely: “That belongs in a museum. It took seventy-two hours to make.”  She said creating necklaces was part of her writing process – deep concentration,  rumination – while she designed and interwove a new necklace, lines for a new poem would emerge.  My plan is to have this very special necklace framed to gift it to the Lesbian Herstory Archives. She loved that idea, so that is where it is going.

RL:  So there is a lesbian archive?

CC: The Lesbian Herstory Archives is an amazing institution. It started here on the Upper West Side in the apartment of Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel. Now the Archives has its own indispensable building in Brooklyn with exhibits, programs, activities.  A house of treasures for the lesbian community. Blanche and I are thinking that we will give the necklaces to Spelman, our whole collection that Audre made, because that’s where her papers are. The necklaces are extraordinary, starting with the very first delicate ones, to big bold African beads. You can appreciate her growth as a jewelry maker by looking at the necklaces though the years.

RL:  Since that time, you have continued to write. You’ve written your plays and you’ve continued in your practice until five years ago.

CC:  My play, Emmett, Down in my Heart, has been translated into German for a production in Berlin by the Afro-German theatre troupe Label Noir. Postponed a few times because of the pandemic, Lara Sophie Milagro and Dela Dabulamanzi , artistic directors of Label Noir, now are planning a theatrical film of the play.

One of my favorite plays is Dr. DuBois and Miss Ovington. They are primary founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.  Dr. W.E.B. DuBois is an African American historian, leader, sociologist, and writer.  Mary Ovington is a white woman, a Unitarian from an abolitionist family in Connecticut. She lived in Brooklyn at the time of the “Lincoln race riots” – what they called “riots” in Illinois. It really was redefined by the progressives as a race war, not a riot.  

She said, “Where is the big organization that can respond to this?” She brought together the progressive Black folks of the Niagara Movement and the progressive White folks in New York City to form the NAACP. She invited W.E.B. DuBois to come up from Atlanta, where he was teaching to be Director of Publicity and Research and editor of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis. Dr. DuBois and Miss Ovington helped to build and empower the NAACP through the decades.  It is a very stirring play and speaks to our present moment.

Woodie King Jr, artistic director and producer of the New Federal Theater, commissioned the play, Lillian Wald: Home on Henry Street.  Lillian Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement, The Visiting Nurse Service and the Neighborhood Playhouse. All three community institutions are thriving today in NYC, over one hundred years later. She was great – I chose Lillian Wald and I chose Mary White Ovington because my family were not activists. I needed foremothers. What would Lillian Wald do? What would Mary White Ovington do?

RL:  The last thing I want to ask you about and then I’m open to your sharing what I didn’t ask you, is about the Gay Women’s Alternative as a movement?

CC:  The Gay Women’s Alternative (GWA) was a vital organization here in New York starting in the early ’70s.  Their goal was to provide the lesbian community a place to meet besides the bars.  Historically lesbians wore green on Thursdays to signal they were in the life.  The organizers decided to have a gathering for women to meet every Thursday. Because of homophobia, the search for a place was a big challenge.  Nobody wanted us. Finally the Universalist Church on Central Park West in the ’60s, right on the corner across from Central Park allowed GWA to have their weekly meetings in their large basement/downstairs room.

RL:  This was something that was developed as an alternative to the bars and was really unique at the time. It was before the proliferation.

CC: We had fabulous speakers each week – from Bella Abzug to Audre Lorde to Joan Nestle in her black slip to Blanche to Jewelle Gomez to Cheryl Clarke –-  What a grand roster!  Our programs and speakers were amazing. After the late ’80s, gay and lesbian groups were forming all over the country and ACT UP was prominent in the fight against AIDS.  We dropped down to the first Thursday of the month.  By the early 90s there were many out and open LGBT groups and the magnificent Gay and Lesbian Center on 13th Street.  GWA had served our community well – a bridge from the bars to an international movement.

RL:  Are there any issues that you’re working on now, now that you’re retired?

CC:  I don’t feel retired. I am retired from my psychotherapy practice and am grateful for my wonderful dual career as writer and psychotherapist.  I worked out a balance that allowed full attention to both.  Since 2013 when composer Mary Watkins and I began our collaboration, I have been working on the Emmett Till opera.  It has been an incredible journey and I have met wonderful artists and allies who have become good friends.                                                                              

RL:  Is there anything else that you would have liked me to have asked?

CC:  Blanche and I deeply appreciated our friend Annette Rubenstein, one of our wise activist for justice mentors, who liked to say: “Life is about the struggle.”  May our presence on this planet have helped to make it better.