Althea Sumpter

The question had to be asked, right at the beginning: was she named for Althea Gibson, a tennis player whom I admire greatly? Her response: "My father says I was named for Althea Gibson because she won Wimbledon on July 5, 1957, just two days after I was born. My mother says I was named for a character on The Secret Storm—her favorite soap opera. Whatever."

Althea Sumpter identifies herself by her culture, Gullah, which is different from mainland African American culture. She grew up on St. Helena Island, South Carolina—an autonomous, self-sufficient island, that has its own history. The Gullah coast culture stretches from Sandy Island, South Carolina, to Amelia Island, Florida. Her ancestors were rice growers from the coast of West Africa; they were enslaved and forcibly brought to the islands, and they built the plantations. The traditions of the Gullah culture are readily traced to the area of Sierra Leone.

From her youth, she was interested in how cultures communicate. As a college freshman she knew she wanted to combine anthropology, history, and media. Both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in Media Arts. She worked independently at producing documentaries and then took on the role of assistant director of media at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center where she spent ten years—four as a volunteer and six as staff.

In 1992 she began teaching: first at Clark Atlanta University for about seven years; then Georgia State; then American Intercontinental University. She is now at Georgia Tech, where she teaches in the School of Literature, Communications, and Culture.

While teaching at Clark Atlanta she decided to complete her doctorate. Clark Atlanta offered her the freedom to combine media with a concentration in African and African American studies, thus incorporating history, ethnography, and anthropology. "So I have a doctor of arts in Humanities and Multimedia Technology, with a concentration in African and African American Studies, specializing in the Gullah culture. Put that on a business card!"

Her passion is documenting cultures, and she uses her Gullah culture as a prototype for how people should document cultures. She says, "I’m curious about people. I was living on the island; then I was a ‘desegregation kid’—in 1965 (voluntary desegregation). I was on one of the first three busloads that went from the island to ‘in town’; then going to college, just two hours’ drive away to Columbia, South Carolina. Those experiences of my youth were such a culture shock for me. I realized that I didn’t fit into the category ‘black.’ From island, to ‘in town,’ to ‘mainland’—each was a very different culture."

Althea Sumpter became a Quaker by degrees. Though she knew Friends Courtney and Elizabeth Siceloff from her childhood on St. Helena Island, it was not the Quaker influence in that community and school that penetrated her consciousness. The every-Sunday-Baptist-church experience didn’t work for her. She reacted negatively to the preaching, and she wasn’t interested in being part of what she calls "a fashion show." Furthermore, she says, "I could not accept that there was some God who I had to fear. To me, that was somebody who was a kind of abuser. What does fear have to do with love?" So her religious quest "started from zero" at age 18.

She says she was a Quaker all her life but just didn’t know it. "There were things I wouldn’t do. I wasn’t going to learn to fight. At one point, my three older brothers said, ‘You need to learn to fight.’ They all circled me and pushed one of my female cousins into the ring to try and fight with me. I said, ‘What is this? What’s the point?’ I squeezed my way through their arms and legs, got out of the circle and ran to my grandmother’s, staying there until my parents came home. My world was books. I read all the time. I was a nonconformist from way back!"

She moved to Atlanta in 1981 and soon contacted Courtney and Elizabeth Siceloff, who invited her to meeting for worship. Her reaction was that they were a rather strange bunch of people, but she loved the library! It drew her back to the meeting again and again.

After a time she asked Courtney and Elizabeth, "So what is this Quaker thing? How do you know that this is your spiritual home?" They invited her to lunch, during which Courtney gave her a copy of Quakerism: A Study Guide on the Religious Society of Friends, which she agreed to read. She says, "We had a great lunch. And it started from there."

She kept going to meeting and became a regular attender. In 1992, she wrote a letter requesting membership in which she described how the Religious Society of Friends allowed "a full breadth of possibilities, including that part of me that’s from the islands, where I sense and link to my ancestors when I walk there. The mysticism of it all was something I appreciated." She nurtures her spirit in various ways, including quiet time when she can just sit. She says her body reminds her to slow down. When she obeys, she feels "an incredible sense of connection."

She says, "So many people say to me, ‘I didn’t know blacks could be Quakers!’ and, ‘I thought Quakers were dead!’ I refer them by name to several black Quakers, including Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), who helped survey Washington, D.C., as well as being an astronomer, mathematician, inventor, writer, and pamphleteer. I remind them that there are more Quakers in Kenya than in the United States. People who know I’m a Quaker also sometimes assume that as a pacifist, I’ll be a pushover. As a producer, and also as a teacher, I often have to be both decisive and stern. They probably assume that pacifists are passive or even patsies."

She and her husband, Jerry, met in 1998—electronically, through a telephone dating service. He’s German, from Ohio. He says, "I’ve never been identified as a ‘culture’ until I met you."

Describing her upbringing elicits this description: "It is not surprising that I’m both independent and a nonconformist, considering the example my parents set. They left stable employment and became entrepreneurs, starting their own company together in 1962. My father started building furniture while my mother, who was a fashion designer, went back to school to become an accountant and keep the books for their business. Though my parents are now both deceased, my three brothers and I still own the building they began their business in, on St. Helena Island. My two nieces and two nephews are the first generation in my entire family who were not born and raised on the island. One of my roles as their auntie is to figure out how to manage my parents’ family trust so that they know fully their incredible heritage."

Althea advises, "Save those documents; know your family history; get over the racism—it’s a waste of time!"
© 2003 Kara Newell

Kara Newell

Kara Newell, a member of Reedwood Friends Church in Portland, Oregon, lives in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania.