Ethel is from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, but grew up in Chicago, where she moved around often as her mother worked caring for other people’s children, and sometimes worked in hospitals. Ethel’s roots in Mississippi also run deep; she comes from a family of mixed race, hardscrabble farm-types, but she was most influenced by her aunt, who was the Treasurer and Dean of Women at the unique Piney Woods school in Piney Woods, Mississippi.
In August 1963 Ethel was living in Chicago and working for a steel company, but says she really didn’t consider going to the march. She has never been fond of crowds, and didn’t know anybody in Washington, D.C. She also didn’t have the money. No one she knew had either the money or the accommodations to travel to D.C.
Despite living in the North, Ethel remembers that there was lots of controversy about the racial situation at that time. Only one person she knew, an attorney who had been a Tuskegee Airman, went to the march. She remembers complaints about black people from her white co-workers, and little support for the movement was expressed publicly.
The violence of the civil rights movement hit Ethel’s Mississippi family in 1966 when her mother’s first cousin, Vernon Dahmer, a business owner in Hattiesburg, was murdered. Mr. Dahmer owned a local grocery store, sawmill and 200-acre farm, and served several terms as the president of the local NAACP chapter, leading voter registration drives in the 1960s. In January 1966 his home was firebombed and shot up, destroying both his home and grocery store. He died from the gunshots and injuries from the fire. Fourteen men were indicted for the murder, several of whom were found guilty, but the main suspect’s many trials ended in mistrials. The State of Mississippi reopened the case in 1998, at which time the jury convicted the main suspect and sentenced him to life in prison. Mr. Dahmer has been posthumously honored at several sites in Hattiesburg, as well as at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Dahmer was survived by four sons, all of whom served in the U.S. military.