Native civil rights chief displays and appears to the longer term

LANCASTER – At 95 years old, Alice Saunders has lived a full life.

As one of Lancaster’s most prominent civil rights leaders and a co-founder of the Black Interest Group, Alice has led the fight for equality, a fight tempered by her own experiences and desire to make the world better for not only her kids, but for future generations.

She said she’s proud of what she and her family accomplished in the city, but she added she knows there is work that needs to be done across the country, given that people take the time to sit down and talk about their problems.

Although she grew up in the Logan and Hocking County area, Alice has been around Lancaster since her high school years.

“We lived on a farm near Logan, and when we went to visit one of my aunt’s in Hamilton (Ohio), we’d stop through Lancaster. And even the first time I went through the city, I said ‘oh wow, it’s so pretty,'” she said. “I just liked visiting, I thought the trees and the greenery around town were so pretty. It made me want to live there.”

Eventually, Alice started attending church with her sister and her sister’s mother-in-law. That’s where she met her soon-to-be-husband, Kenneth. He’d served in World War II, stationed in Texas, conducting medical exams on soldiers returning from overseas.

Before she’d met him, Alice said the community had told her a lot about him. After they’d been dating, she said she knew he was ‘the one.’

The discharge papers and medals of Kenneth Saunders. He served during World War II in Texas, conducting medical exams of soldiers returning from overseas.

Settling in Lancaster

But coming to Lancaster wasn’t always full of perks. Alice said the members of the Black community would warn her away from some businesses in the city, because the owners were alleged to be “prejudiced,” Alice said.

“That got me really curious, so I’d always go and visit, to see if what the black folks had told me was true,” she said. “And I can’t say if I ever had a single problem.”

Alice added that she was used to dealing with white business owners from having grown up in the more diverse area around Nelsonville.

“I have a very mixed heritage, and I was always around a lot of people who also had a mixed heritage. I think that’s why most of the Lancaster business owners were nice to me,” she said.

A memory of a date to the theater in Hamilton did stand out to Alice: she had been warned to cross the street and not to walk too close to white people, and once they were at the theater, there was a spot designated for her and her companions to sit.

Portraits of Kenneth and Alice Saunders sit on a mantle in their house.

“Well, I didn’t like that. They had us in the back, and I couldn’t see anything, so I wasn’t having any of it. I moved to the front, and they didn’t like that. It got us kicked out. I remember my sister took the time to buy some snacks on the way out of the building, and I almost smacked them out of her hand, I was so fired up,” she said. “I was still going when we got to the bus station to come home. But the conductor told me I needed to stay quiet, not to talk like that. But I wasn’t having it.”

With that spirit, and the curiosity to see if Lancaster’s business owners had the same attitude towards people of color, Alice visited a few shops.

Photos of Alice Saunders' family. A photo of her grandmother and her husband sit on the far left.

“The man at the shoe store was supposed to be racist. But I had to go buy boots for my husband, because he worked in a factory. So I went in, and the owner came up and talked to me, helped me with everything I needed. When it came time to it, I even got all my babies’ shoes there,” she said. “He and I became really good friends. He and his wife would ask us questions about things, and we’d just talk to them, these real ‘prejudiced’ people.”

She recounted a similar situation, with Dr. Hubert Amstutz, a prominent World War II veteran and physician. Alice had been told Amstutz was a prejudiced man, but she went to him for a health check up. Since her husband was also a veteran, she talked to Amstutz about his military service, and she said he became ‘like a second father’ to her.

“That man was the nicest man I’ve ever met. He’d keep his office door open to the waiting room, and if he heard anyone say anything bad about me or any other black person, he would come out and shut them down, ‘we don’t talk like that here,'” Alice said. “He was a very close family friend, he cared for all my kids until he retired in the 1980s, but we stayed friends after that.”

Photos of Kenneth Saunders' family, along with his portrait in the center.

The Civil Rights movement

Her children were in school around the time of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The prominent civil rights leader’s death sent shockwaves across the nation, and Alice said despite the low population of Black people in Lancaster, people were worried.

Hollie Saunders, Alice’s daughter, said she still remembers the atmosphere.

“A lot of the other black people in town were very scared, not sure what was going to happen. They looked to mom and dad for guidance. They would always sit us down to talk about what was going on in other cities, especially the ones where riots were taking place,” Hollie said. “We wanted to be sure something like that wouldn’t happen here, and dad always made sure to tell everyone to stay peaceful. There were still some people who were hardheaded, and followed Malcolm X’s followings a little closer than Dr. King, so there were still some fights.”

“All heck broke loose. I remember one boy grabbed me by the throat in the hallway, and told me ‘we killed one (racial epithet), we can kill another one.”

Alice said the riots weren’t going to do anything, but she said she couldn’t fault people for being upset. She said for real change to happen, it has to be peaceful, and she’d taken that philosophy into her work for equality.

Hollie said her dad was seen as the patriarch of the Black community in Lancaster, but her mom was a little more active. Because of her upbringing, Hollie said Alice could see both sides of the issues for both the white and Black communities.

“She was able to help people stay calm and talk through their problems. People would sit down to talk with her, she was able to help them talk to each other to find solutions, and sometimes they’d realize the problems weren’t as severe as they thought,” Hollie said. “I definitely think mom and dad gave the area a head start in equality. Change might have come without them, but it wouldn’t have been for a while.”

Change was slow, Hollie said. Something that had stayed over from her dad’s time growing up in Lancaster’s to hers was the policy at Miller Pool. Back in the 1920s, the pool wasn’t available to Black people until the night before the water was drained, the pool was cleaned and then refilled. Hollie said her dad would talk about how he and his friends would sneak into the pool after it’d been cleaned to be the first ones to use it.

“I remember going to swim with my white friends, after it was desegregated. It was still hard to get in, and we were very discriminated against. A lot of folks didn’t like it,” Hollie said.

Alice and her husband were invited to be on boards throughout the city, following the civil rights movement. Alice said she still noticed some signs of discrimination around town, and how her kids weren’t allowed to do certain activities at the school.

“As our kids grew up, the younger ones would be able to do more than the older ones had been allowed to do, they were more included. They were happy about that, but they still had problems,” Alice said.

“We were able to do more and be included more because my parents were brave enough to stand up and say something about it. There were also great teachers in the school who would help us, but mom and dad made a great difference,” Hollie said.

Moving forward, Alice continued to help people find equality in all things, regardless of race. She said it was common for people on a local level to ignore her letters, but she was prepared to take it to the top. She said they’d usually send someone down to figure out what the issue was, and it’d be resolved.

Alice and Hollie helped found the Black Interest Group of Lancaster after being encouraged by Alice Morrow, the director of the YWCA at the time. Alice and Morrow served together on some boards in town, and they’d become good friends. After hearing about some of the issues the Black community had experienced, Morrow asked why they didn’t do something about it.

Around that time, Hollie said they’d met some Black families who had thought they were the only ones in town. They held a “soul picnic,” open to anyone, to come down, but Hollie said it allowed the Black community to get together. They decided to go beyond the picnic, holding meetings for about a year before creating the BIG.

“It was an advocacy group, available to anyone for anything, but at the time, we predominantly focused on issues impacting the Black community in Lancaster. We did have a lot of white members who came to support equality, though,” Hollie said. “A lot of folks didn’t expect us to stay around that long, a lot of them said five years and it’d be done. But we’ve been doing it for about 40 years now, and even though mom’s threatened to pull the plug, she keeps on going behind the scenes.”

The BIG was listed with social service agencies to assist people, providing a heartline to the community. The group also holds an annual banquet to mark the beginning of Black History Month, although the coronavirus pandemic disrupted that tradition.

A photo of Evan Saunders, left, and his mother, far right, pose with former President Bill Clinton during a visit to Ohio.

The group also holds a Martin Luther King Jr. Day service, and a march from Lancaster’s downtown to the church. In the beginning, Hollie said the event was not received well.

“We’d get folks calling us, and threatening us, saying the march was too much, wasn’t it enough we got the service. We got a lot of threats, but we had to keep going,” she said.

Alice compared the civil rights movement’s protests to the recent turmoil centered on race, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I don’t think they’ll accomplish anything. And when the protests happened downtown, those folks hadn’t done anything to me, so I didn’t see the need to hop in, but I couldn’t believe it was happening here in Lancaster,” she said. “There have been times when race has been an issue. A national Ku Klux Klan member tried to have a rally here, and when we went to the authorities, they said he had gotten the permits, so they couldn’t stop it.”

“So folks came to me, asked what to do. We decided they should just stay away, we prayed the day before the rally and the day of, we put it in God’s hands.”

She said God must have heard them, because the rally never happened. The leader had been arrested for domestic violence, and the spirit had fizzled out.

Hollie recounted another instance when the KKK were supposed to come through town, and her dad and a group of men, along with law enforcement officers, went to the edge of town in an attempt to stop them. She said the KKK were stopped without incident.

She said the events of last summer involving Black Lives Matter protesters and counter-protesters were kind of scary. The magnitude of the gatherings, the fact neither side were talking to the other, it was not what she expected of the area.

“That’s why we got a group of ministers together, to hold a peaceful prayer demonstration, we weren’t sure if the BLM folks were going to come down and create a mess like they had in other cities, but we wanted to get ahead of that,” she said. “I feel like we did, for a while.”

Alice said she never expected to see that many protesters downtown, but she said she didn’t think they were there for the right reason. She added it was unnerving to see alleged white supremacists attending the rallies, too.

“There have been pockets of racists here, but it’s unnerving to see them reemerge. We worked hard to make this a place for people just to live and be recognized, to be equal,” she said. “We just want to live here, and it breaks my heart to see people out there who might threaten that. I don’t know what we can do to help.”

“We want people to recognize we’re all the same, just with some uniqueness to us all. We have to have people to do what’s right, but we need it done peacefully.”

Going forward

Over the years, Alice said she did have to deal with people that wouldn’t want to listen to their side of life. And she expects there will be more for other people fighting for equality in the future.

“You just have to say okay, it is what it is. If they won’t listen, then you just have to tell people to avoid them and to stay safe. You just have to inform folks the step back,” Alice said. “But despite all the threats we got, we had to just keep on keeping on. And you do too. We couldn’t allow ourselves to be intimidated, because we were fighting for future generations.”

And for Alice, those future generations are her family. She’s heartened to see the progress that’s been made, locally and abroad. She said there’s more work to be done.

Hollie said she’s also happy with the progress being made, especially seeing the nation’s first woman and person of color as the vice president.

Lancaster resident Alice Saunders is honored Thursday with the Cultural Awareness Award at the 2009

“When I saw Kamala Harris was running for president, I was so excited. I’d seen her work, and I knew she’d do great. And now that she’s the vice president, it’s exciting,” she said. “The thought that people with the ability to help stems from my dad. He said if you’re educated, use it to help someone, to push forward.”

“Better yourself to help better everyone. With that thought, it’s exciting to see what people can do as we go forward.”

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