Former student honored for civil rights efforts

Tyler McNeil

Creative Editor

From the Montgomery bus boycotts, to running for Albany School Board while a Hudson Valley student in the 1970’s, to decades of community leadership since then, 76 year old Nell Stokes-Holmes has lived the life of an activist.

On Feb. 28, Stokes-Holmes was awarded a congressional medal for protecting civil rights. Stokes-Holmes is no stranger to awards, winning the 2013 Woman of Distinction Award by the Black Women’s Association of Albany, the 2006 NAACP Ella Baker Lifetime Achievement Award, and more.

Stokes-Holmes’s civic activitIes began 60 years ago at the age of 16 when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person. “[Rosa Parks] was the one who sparked me to believe in myself and be the person I wanted to be,” said Stokes-Holmes about Parks’s arrest on Dec. 1.

The day after Parks’s arrest, Stokes-Holmes provided additional support for activists in the Montgomery Bus Boycott,  “I went down to Mr. Eddie Posse’s taxi stand and the people were preparing to help those who were walking so the taxis could give them a ride,” said Stokes-Holmes. “Nobody asked me to do it. I just went over and saw things that needed to be done.”

When Stokes-Holmes turned 18, she registered to vote in Alabama but was denied twice by poll taxes and literacy tests aimed to deter African-Americans from being able to vote. “I knew the answers then and I know the answers now,” she said.

She had to pay $5 twice to vote within a six-month period but eventually $5 would come back to her in November of 1963.

Shortly after Stokes-Holmes moved to Albany in Oct. 13, 1963, she went to vote. After voting, a Democratic committee member offered her $5. “I opened my hand and let it fall on the ground because I didn’t want to be paid to vote,” she said.

Since then, she has gone beyond voting in Albany.

Stokes-Holmes is a member of the NAACP, the African American Cultural Center of the
Capital Region, founding member of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the League of Women Voters, and the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region, but wasn’t always active in the community. Stokes-Holmes’s activism halted at the age of 19 when, after her first marriage, she had the first of six children.

“I wanted to be involved in the community and help people register to vote but life got in the way and I started going in a different direction for awhile,” she said. When her husband left her in 1972, Stokes-Holmes decided to attend Hudson Valley where her community activism reemerged. She attended Hudson Valley from 1973 to 1976 before transferring to the College of Saint Rose.

While at college, Stokes-Holmes became active again, attending PTA meetings within the Albany School District before deciding to run for the Albany School Board. “There were a lot of concerns about service to African-American students and I just felt like [the board] had a different perspective because they were all white folk,” she said.

Her biggest supporters in the campaign, she recalled, was the women’s alliance at Hudson Valley. “They worked cooperatively with me with me in terms of helping me develop the things I needed to develop in order to run for the Albany School Board and support for managing classes with my situation as well,” said Stokes-Holmes. She ran against two other African-Americans in the first free election for the Albany School Board.

“I didn’t win but I didn’t stop being an activist in the community,” she said. When she ran for the Albany School Board, she started a personal campaign after learning that many of her neighbors were not registered to vote.

“When one of the young people on my street turned 18, I would go them with a voter registration, have them fill it out and mail it in myself because I wanted to make sure that they were all voters,” said Stokes-Holmes.

Encouraging voter registration is a high priority for Stokes-Holmes. “I still to this day carry voter registration forms in my trunk so if I meet people who are not registered, I will encourage them to fill it out and I will make sure it gets there myself,” she said.

Stokes-Holmes considered last year’s low voting turnout a prime example of voter apathy, “It’s just unfortunate that the politicians themselves have done their work in manner that discourages their constituents.”

She believes that every individual should read the Constitution and Plessy v. Ferguson. Stokes-Holmes sees a side of America that endangers progress for African Americans in redistricting, recent voter ID laws and the recent killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

“We managed to maneuver through this society and still have people who are extraordinary. If we could take it upon ourselves to learn about our history to know the rules and regulations and how they don’t always apply to black people, we can move forward,” said Stokes-Holmes.

Stokes-Holmes has made efforts to spread African-American pride along with awareness in black history through education. Working with the Albany YWCA in 1980, Stokes-Holmes created the Black American Essay Contest for students aged eight to 18 to write about and understand black history. The contest proceeded for 14 years with 28 excerpts from essays broadcasted on local airwaves during February.

In the ‘80s, Stokes-Holmes took to a different stage. For a Woman’s Day celebration, Stokes-Holmes wrote “Feels Like Going On,” a play about an 100-year-old woman who recollects her life through pieces of black history. Since then, she has written seven plays centered around a religious educational themes.

Stokes-Holmes reads bible scriptures and prays once a day; has previously belonged to three congregations in the Albany area, but does not currently belong to any religious denomination. “Being a member is not necessary at this point in my life but I feel like I should be able to worship with others on a regular basis and I go somewhere different almost every Sunday to worship,” she said.

Stokes-Holmes’s most recent outlet has been poetry. Her daughter encouraged her to write her first poem which was written in 2006 about growing older.

“I’m 76 and I’m so excited to be 76. People look at me like I’m strange because I’m so excited about my age,” she said.

Stokes-Holmes once was uncertain she would live to see her 20th birthday.  Aside from racial tensions in the south, she reported being mentally and physically abused during her childhood, “I had a bad family structure and it was very difficult.”

Despite witnessing racial tensions from Montgomery and Ferguson, the 76-year-old remains hopeful for the future. “There’s still people I’ve seen who open food banks and clothe the homeless. It hasn’t stopped and it never will stop. People care about fellow humans,” she said.

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