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Norma June Wilson Davis and the Atlanta Prison Farm

by Luke Gardner

 

In 1940 in Jacksonville, Florida, a baby girl was born and named after her two grandmothers, Norma and June. Norma June Wilson Davis experienced childhood during times of segregation, but nevertheless remembers the fond memories of the parties

her dad would throw for his fraternity. 1 Back then, no one knew just how proud she would make her grandmothers by making their names, her name, forever preserved in the history of the struggle to gain civil rights.

 

Norma’s involvement in the Atlanta Student Movement began when she attended college at Spelman University, where she teamed up with Lonnie King and other black student organizers to create some of the most influential protests in U.S. history. Norma served as a recruiter, a nonviolence trainer, a spokesperson, an organizer and a leader of the movement.

 

Norma was involved in planning the historic sit-in at Rich’s Department store in Atlanta on October 19, 1960. In an interview for the Atlanta Student Movement Project, Davis recalled that day in October, where so many of her peers were arrested. Davis was let off with a clear warning; the judge told her she would go to jail if she was ever in his courtroom again.

 

Just two days later, after being arrested for another sit-in downtown, Norma stood before the same judge. This time, he sent her and six of her fellow female Spellman protestors to the city jail in downtown. After spending only a few hours at the jail, the girls were moved to the stockade at the Atlanta Prison Farm, where Norma served three days of her ten-day sentence, according to “Undaunted by the Fight,” a book documenting the experience of women involved in the Atlanta Student Movement. 2 

 

Norma described her experience in the Spelman Spotlight, the student newspaper:

 

“The stockade [was] frightening. It was a filthy place, with filthy women. The beds were filthy and hard with lumps. Nothing had been disinfected. The bathrooms were unbelievable. The stools had no tops. There was a community sink instead of individual bowls, and one shower bath…. Breakfast consisted of watery grits, sausages, white bread, and dishwater coffee. There were three meals a day…served in dirty dishes…The sleeping conditions were unmerciful. The lights were never turned out. Prisoners and men in charge could walk up and down the Negro women’s quarters…There were approximately 75 women in each room. Most of them were middle-aged alcoholics.”3

 

Norma was motherly; she wanted all of the girls to stay together at the farm so she could make sure they were safe. Norma discussed regretting protesting with girls who had never been jailed before; she worried about their well-being and their ability to cope with the harsh conditions at the Atlanta Prison Farm.

A downloadable clip from the interview can be found here: davis-june-2017-h264

 

In the previously mentioned interview, Norma says that the Prison Farm was investigated and published in the press, but she was too busy catching up on missed schoolwork to get deeply involved. Despite vigorous searching, no news articles have been found on the conditions of the Atlanta Prison Farm.

 

The Georgia Archives has a small collection of documents from state-run public work camps in 1968, and the New York Times and the Marietta Daily journal only ran a few articles on work camps in the ‘60s. Each folder at the Georgia archives had little information, and some contained letters from prisoners detailing abuse suffered at the camps. In some cases, an investigation ensued, only for the investigator to report that all is well.

 

Some news articles detailed protests that occurred at work farms across the country. Others covered the lack of education seen in inmates. Based on these artifacts, it would be fair to assume the conditions at the Atlanta Prison Farm were also poor.

 

Researchers hope to find more specific information on the Atlanta Prison Farm in archives of local newspapers like The Atlanta Journal, The Atlanta Constitution, and The Fulton Daily Report and in legal documents stored in the basement of the Fulton County Courthouse.

As the legacy of the Atlanta Student Movement falls further and further in the past, the bravery of people like Norma Davis, and the willingness of the U.S. government to exploit them,  must not be forgotten.

 

  1. Colbert, Stephana, Dr. Wynell Neece, and Jordiene Petitt. Mar. 6, 2017. Page 146 from  Ordinary Extraordinary African American Women: the elders 
  2. Lefever. 2005.  Page 70 from Undaunted by the Fight  
  3.  Norma June Wilson Davis Interview. https://soar.kennesaw.edu/handle/11360/2399  

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