by Matt Cooper
stephens-sarah-2018-h264_1 (link to Sarah Stephens interview clip. Needs to be embedded)
Sarah Stephens, born Sarah Howard, is an Atlanta native, a Grady Baby, and was an important figure in the Atlanta Student Movement as well as civil rights from a business perspective. She attended David T. Howard High School and it was there where she met Dr. Lonnie King, who was still a student at the time and who would later go on to be one of the main leaders of the Atlanta Student Movement. Her friendship with him, along with her personal drive for racial equality would drive Stephens to become involved with the student movements in the 1960s.
After high school, Stephens studied at Savannah State and later went on to attend Woodrow Wilson Law School. Despite not being able to complete her time at Woodrow Wilson Law School, Sarah decided to shift gears and went into the workforce.
After college, Mrs. Stephens went to work for Atlanta Life where she was asked to support the students involved in the Atlanta Student Movement, led by her former classmate, Dr. King. During the movement, she picketed Rich’s and other downtown
businesses supporting segregation and arrests of protesters.
“ This is not going to last forever, but I need to do something to make a difference”
“We were asked to picket the businesses downtown,preferably Rich’s. That is where I was picketing, and that was quite an experience. We were told that we could only walk so many feet from each other, so many feet from the curb, otherwise we would be arrested.” 1
After passing the US Civil service exam, Mrs. Stephens became the first black female hired by the General Services Administration (GSA) Atlanta region. Despite this, the lunch counter in the building was not yet desegregated. Mrs. Stephens was unable to eat her food in the lunch cafeteria, but she was able to order food and pick it up at the back door of the cafeteria.
Once her probationary period was up, Mrs. Stephens requested an extra hour for her lunch once or twice a month, so she would be able to walk someplace else where she would be able to order a hot lunch. GSA agreed and apologized that she was unable to eat at the Sprayberry’s cafeteria on site. Instead of feeling discouraged by the segregation, Mrs. Stephens was determined and reminded that this was what the mission was all about.
Eventually, the federal buildings and schools were integrated, but being the first, and for a time the only, African American had its challenges. Some of her coworkers weren’t nice to her and were uncomfortable working with her, but she remained positive and saw everything as an opportunity for her to help people. When she first moved into a leadership role, some of the women in the office refused to accept any work delegated to them.
Despite the negativity, her bosses were supportive of her and recognized the contributions and hard work she dedicated to the agency. One of her bosses even went as far as to say that if employees were not willing to work with Mrs. Stephens because of the color of her skin, then perhaps they needed to leave the administration.
In 1967, President Johnson established the United States Federal Information Center (FCI) in an attempt for the government to increase accessibility with the public. The GSA was requested to help the staff with the new agency. Mrs. Stephens was selected to represent the GSA for the FIC shortly after. Eventually, she applied and was hired for the FIC and later became the manager of the FIC, and later retiring from her career.
Sarah Stephens, Interview date 8-25-17, Sarah Stephens interview from SOAR
Stephens, Sarah. Interview date 8-25-17, Sarah Stephens interview from SOAR