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Willie “Mae” Mallory (1927 – 2007) was the founder of and spokesperson for the Harlem Nine. The group of nine Black mothers sued the New York City Board of Education for the poor conditions of Black schools. Mallory took action after her children, Patricia and Keefer, Jr., informed her of the deplorable conditions in their segregated school, P.S. 10, in Harlem. She joined the Parent’s Committee For Better Education, becoming a dedicated and vocal advocate for Black children to have safe environments and high-quality education.

Founded in 1956, the Harlem Nine demanded improved conditions and school integration. The group encountered many obstacles in bringing the lawsuit. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to jail the mothers during the case. The Harlem Nine received support in their efforts from the local NAACP and civil rights activist Ella Baker, and political activist and clergyman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Remember that the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which called for school desegregation, had been passed three years before this case. During this time, a group of high school students known as the “Little Rock Nine” attempted to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas as well. Both of these desegregation efforts took place in the south. The Harlem Nine case took place in the north, thus highlighting that school segregation was still occurring even in the supposedly more liberal north.

Mallory and the other Black mothers were determined and relentless. Reflecting on the deplorable conditions in her daughter’s school, she said, “I represented the Parents Association in Albany and spoke about the miserable condition of P.S. 10. They were not prepared for this angry Black woman. Brand new toilets were put in immediately. We needed a new school. Getting that school gave me so much confidence that you can fight City Hall and win. … We finally boiled down to nine that stuck all the way. We were known as the Harlem Nine.” (“Letters from Prison,” by Mae Mallory. Monroe Defense Committee, circa 1962).

A pivotal moment in the legal proceedings came when Mallory addressed the New York School Board’s Commission on Integration, stating that P.S. 10 was “just as Jim Crow” as the school she attended in the 1930’s in Macon, Georgia. Her testimony played an integral role in forcing the board to construct a new school building and hire new teachers. The Harlem Nine won their lawsuit in 1960, paving the way for thousands of parents to move their children to racially integrated schools. With the help of a black lawyer, Paul Zuber, the Harlem Nine continued their fight for school desegregation. Their strategy included organizing a boycott of the black junior high school. Zuber knew that doing so would bring action against the group for truancy violations, forcing the board to respond more quickly.

Mallory met Robert Williams of the Monroe, North Carolina NAACP in 1959. Williams’ black nationalist beliefs about self-defense and self-reliance deeply resonated with Mallory. She went to Monroe, North Carolina, in 1961 to help Williams host a group of Freedom Fighters (a group of non-violent interracial activists who rode interstate buses to challenge compliance with desegregation laws). While there, on August 27, 1961, a group of white residents attacked the Freedom Riders. Following the attack, groups of white residents roamed through black neighborhoods. Concerned about the threat of potential violence, many black residents began to gather at Williams’ home. Mallory was also there. During the day, a white couple, Bruce and Mabel Stegall, drove into the neighborhood to “see what defenses” were being planned by Williams to help keep Black residents safe. Concerned or their safety, Williams, permitted the couple to remain at his home until the crowds dispersed. When the couple returned home, they informed their local sheriff’s office that they had been “kidnapped” by the Williams and Mallory.

Certain that the Stegall’s allegations might result in an attack from the Klu Klux Clan, Williams, and Mallory fled. Williams went to Cuba, and Mallory fled to Cleveland, Ohio. She hid there for six weeks before being captured and imprisoned. In 1964, she was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to 16-20 years in prison. Once imprisoned, she worked tirelessly to publicize her case. She also continued to promote black nationalist/liberation principles and spoke out against certain black leaders who did not embrace self-defense and self-reliance.

Throughout her imprisonment, she continued to advocate for black separatism, socialism, and self-defense. Mallory insisted that black people wanted to be “masters of their fate” and wanted liberation just like other oppressed groups in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Mallory expressed that middle-class and religious Blacks did not understand the principles of self-defense and black liberation. She asserted that these groups did not support her because she desired “freedom” rather than just accessibility. 

Mallory was also a staunch advocate for elevating women’s voices in the fight for black liberation, asserting that male-dominated emancipatory efforts were incomplete. She continued her activism until her death in 2007. 

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