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Remembering Ann Evans Guise, Philly teacher who teamed with Black Power icon to turn children into Bright Lights

Guise, who died on Sept. 21 at age 77, was once lauded as "the blackest white woman I've ever met" by the mother of Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture.

Philadelphia teacher and activist Ann Evans Guise and Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, the voice of "Black Power," met in 1963 when both were college students in Washington, D.C. They teamed up again in the 1995 to create Bright Lights, a literacy and cultural program that taught students in North Philadelphia elementary schools about their African heritage. They are seen here in an undated photo at one of the schools with Bright Lights programs in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia teacher and activist Ann Evans Guise and Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, the voice of "Black Power," met in 1963 when both were college students in Washington, D.C. They teamed up again in the 1995 to create Bright Lights, a literacy and cultural program that taught students in North Philadelphia elementary schools about their African heritage. They are seen here in an undated photo at one of the schools with Bright Lights programs in Philadelphia.Read moreCourtesy the Guise Family

They were as much alike as they were different.

She was a white, well-off Southerner, the daughter of a civil engineer and a teacher in a small North Carolina city encircled by cows and corn. He was a budding Black activist, born in Trinidad to a carpenter and a steamship stewardess and raised in the rough-and-tumble environs of Harlem and the Bronx.

In 1963, when both were college students in Washington, their lives intersected, intertwined, and became one of a piece with American civil rights history.

Stokely Carmichael would soon emerge on the national stage as the popular and polarizing voice of Black Power. His signature call galvanized a young generation to stand up against racial inequity and injustice, while its militancy unsettled the movement’s older, more moderate thinkers.

Ann Evans Guise would become a teacher at Alcorn Elementary School in the Grays Ferry section of Philadelphia, and an increasingly familiar face at community protests in downtrodden neighborhoods. In 1995, she found her raison d’etre in Bright Lights, a literacy and cultural initiative to imbue thousands of Black children in the city with knowledge of their African heritage and empower them. She created the program with her old friend Carmichael — who by then had renamed himself Kwame Ture — and devoted herself to it until the Parkinson’s disease that she battled for 30 years overtook her. She died of complications of the neurological disorder on Sept. 21, at age 77.

Carmichael’s mother, May Charles Carmichael, once lauded her as "the Blackest white woman I’ve ever met.”

Guise’s first steps on that road in the early ’60s were rocky.

She was a 20-year-old American University student when she made a trip across town to historically Black Howard University. Fresh off a year of study in Brazil and her eyes opened to unspeakable poverty, she walked into the campus branch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Only a few years into its existence, the SNCC had become the main portal into the civil rights movement for young Black activists such as John Lewis. Prominent in the Howard affiliate was Carmichael, a philosophy major and already a veteran of the Freedom Rides that put federal desegregation mandates to a bloody test in the South.

In a thick drawl, Guise asked to join.

The group was skeptical. Was she a government agent?

Carmichael described meeting her in his autobiography, Ready for the Revolution, The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). He recalled that Guise had difficulty pronouncing the word “Negro” — it came out as “Negra” — and that when the Black students sharply corrected her, she burst into tears.

Finally, he turned to her and said, "Look. Tell you what. You ain’t never going be able to pronounce that word without giving offense. Forget it. From now on, Ann, anytime you talking about us, just say Black people, OK?”

He 'really adored’ her

Guise took part in SNCC protests, learning the pain of a police baton on her head and the fright of a night in jail. After graduating in 1965 with a bachelor’s in political science, she left Washington, but not the cause. That summer, she joined the North Carolina Volunteers, an integrated group of young adults who traveled the state surveying Black people about how their lives could be improved.

It was not work for the timid. One night as the volunteers slept in their trailers, Ku Klux Klan members drove up in trucks, circling them and shooting. Guise and the others hid under their beds until the menace passed. Left behind on windshields were Confederate decals.

Guise and her fiance, Wayne, a music teacher and former Peace Corps worker she met that summer, moved to Philadelphia afterward. They married the next year, settling in Cedar Park, teaching in city schools, and raising three daughters. She also could raise a ruckus. When her children were students at the Henry Lea School, Guise worked with the Garden Court Community Association to protest plans for a fast-food restaurant nearby at 47th and Spruce. Parents and kids blocked the intersection, upending the project. Public tennis courts were built at the corner instead.

Guise left full-time teaching and worked as a substitute, a program coordinator at the Allegheny West Foundation, a community development group, and an adviser at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, where she helped prepare master’s degree students to teach in Philly schools.

Her communications with Stokely Carmichael became sporadic as his star rose and fell.

In 1966, he had replaced Lewis as national chairman of the SNCC and delivered the Mississippi speech that put the term “Black Power” into the civil rights vernacular. The exhortation created a backlash among many white Americans, who saw it as a shift in the student movement from nonviolence to Black militancy and separatism. And moderate Black leaders worried that Carmichael’s words had harmed their cause. His ever-more-strident rhetoric led the SNCC to sever ties with him after one year. Even the Black Panthers, having anointed him honorary prime minister, distanced themselves.

In 1969, Carmichael moved to Guinea, West Africa, claiming later that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had hounded him into leaving. He changed his name to Kwame Ture and began to espouse Pan-Africanism, a struggle by Black people worldwide for self-determination. His call to global revolution didn’t gain traction, but he never abandoned it.

In the early ’90s, Guise went to New York City to hear him speak. She had an idea for uplifting elementary-age students in North Philadelphia’s distressed neighborhoods and wanted Ture’s collaboration.

She envisioned a program that “empowers children ... to develop high standards of literacy, cultural awareness, and citizenship,” she once wrote. “By establishing a ‘society’ of Bright Lights, where students aspire to become members, a sense of community is created that inspires [them] to be lifelong learners, avid readers, critical thinkers who always use their knowledge to make a positive contribution.”

Ture agreed to help.

“He really adored my mother,” said one of her daughters, Kimberly Guise. “They worked really hard to start the Bright Lights.”

‘Read, read, read’

In 1995, the Bright Lights Initiative was officially launched as part of One Giant Step, an academic-enrichment program under the Allegheny West Foundation. To inaugurate it, Ture visited T.M. Peirce Elementary in North Philadelphia — the first of three Bright Lights schools including John G. Whittier and Wakisha Charter.

Over the years, thousands of children became Bright Lights by reaching reading benchmarks and attending assemblies with their parents. Among them was Mark A. Savage, now 35, a Los Angeles filmmaker, photographer, director, and children’s book author, who remembers the wonder of discovering writer Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, activist W.E.B. DuBois, poet Phillis Wheatley, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

The Bright Lights “showed me how to love myself, love my heritage, and love my past,” said Savage. It “helped me to stay on the path. It helped me have that moral compass to do good.”

In a video Savage made about the program, Guise described the children as struggling in schools “ignored, forgotten, and abused by the central Philadelphia School District. … But the thing they have is heart, and that’s what we have tried to capture with the Bright Lights. The children can all make a difference. Read, read, read, and then you will have the tools.”

Guise took the students far — sometimes very far — afield of the classroom. Through her Penn connections, she got blocks of tickets to the Annenberg Center for cultural events. She led them on field trips to New York when Ture was speaking there and to Washington for African heritage celebrations in Malcolm X Park. They went to museums and authors’ readings by the monumental likes of Sonia Sanchez, Angela Davis, and Toni Morrison.

Some even went to Africa. Guise raised money for three trips there for small groups of students and parents: to the Gambia in 1996 and 1997, and Ghana in 2000.

In 1998, when the program was barely three years old, Ture died in Guinea of prostate cancer at age 57. The New York Times obituary noted that, until the end, he answered his phone, “Ready for the Revolution!”

Guise, herself diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1990, carried on with an activist primer for her Bright Lights. Periodically, she took them to City Council to testify on issues ranging from increasing school funding in poor neighborhoods to strengthening gun laws. They protested at a Kensington gun shop after a Peirce third-grader, Faheem Thomas-Childs, was caught in a gunfight and killed while walking to school in 2004. And they raised money for earthquake-ravaged Haiti in 2010.

Patrina Ross, now 32, and a nurse, was 8 when she and her mother joined the first trip to the Gambia. Guise, she said, taught her charges “to go out and create change in your community and to learn as much as you can, to never stop learning, and to use those resources to go back and help someone else coming up behind you.”

Ami Anderson, who began volunteering with Bright Lights in 2010, recalled some Black adults in the community questioning why Guise, a white woman, was so involved — an eerie echo of her activist beginnings. They didn’t know her, Anderson said: “Ann was passionate about justice and humanity and treating people as people ... She could be, in many ways, more progressive than your most conscious African person.”

Since 2015, Anderson has been the Bright Lights director, after Guise, in failing health, stepped aside. Parkinson’s had slowed, before finally stopping, what daughter Kimberly simply called “a force.”

In addition to her daughter and former husband, Guise is survived by two other daughters, Jennifer Ruggles and Quyen Tieu, two sisters, six grandchildren, and a constellation of Bright Lights.

A public memorial is being planned for next year, the pandemic willing.