History and the people who make it: Byllye Avery – Part 1

Byllye Avery [BA], feminist health activist, and her son Wesley [WA] were interviewed by Deidre Houchen [H] in May, 2012.

This is the 57th in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

BA: I was born in Waynesville, Georgia. I was born at home. My cousin, Ella, was the midwife.

H: What year were you born?

BA: 1937. October 20, 1937. I grew up in DeLand, Florida. I went to Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama. That’s where I met the children’s father. I have two children: Wesley and Sonya. Met him the first day I was there. And I didn’t date him for that whole year, he was always bothering me, and I gave him a hard time. Someone told me not too long ago that’s always a sign, you know? So he and I dated and got married and lived in Jacksonville for about ten years, which we hated living there every single day.

Our escape from Jacksonville was when we got to come to the University of Florida. I was teaching special education. I got a fellowship from the University to get my Master’s. Wesley said, “Girl, I never found out how White people could go to college and be married.” 

We were having a hard time being married and working, and we couldn’t imagine going to school and being married. I said, “I’m going to go down there and figure out how they do it.” I stayed over in northeast Gainesville with a family. They charged me $25 a month, room. I got my Master’s and the next thing you knew we were living in Corry Village. Wesley, I found ways that he could get a fellowship in educational research, and that’s what he was doing.

H: What part of town were you renting that room in? 

BA: Over in the northeast side — 

WA: Lincoln Estates. Let me tell you a little story. Before we completely transitioned out here, they used to come down—y’all heard of Animar [sp?]? They used to come down here, a couple that lived here in Smokey Bear Park. We’d come down here for meetings, you know, to get products and stuff like that. Come to find out, after we would leave, these people would have their house egged, tomatoed every night. Because a Black man came down here. 

H: Wow. 

WA: Now, I think that neighborhood is all Black. It’s just how much Gainesville has changed. 

H: What was your experiences like in DeLand for elementary and middle school? 

BA: And high school. There’s no such thing as middle school. 

H: Ah. [Laughter] Tells you when I was born.

BA: It was elementary and there was high school. [Laughter]

We went to segregated schools. Our school name was Yukon[sp?] High School, and all our books came from DeLand High School. They’d make the White kids use them before we did. Sometimes the pages would be torn out and stuff like that. 

But, we certainly didn’t have the higher illiteracy rates that we seem to have now. Our teachers cared about us, and we got our lesson. And we behaved. If you misbehaved in school, no one questioned the teacher — your butt got whipped when you got home because you acted out. So we got the best education that you can get in that kind of situation. It was grossly inadequate. But it still was the best you could get. 

H: How did you know your teachers cared about you?

BA: Oh, they took time with us. They made sure we understood what we were doing. And they did it with love. Teachers, and doctors, and lawyers in the Black community were very high esteemed. 

H: So you came back to UF, lived in Corry Village, your husband passes—

BA: When Wesley died, I had just started working at Shands in the Children’s Mental Health Unit. I was the head teacher, I ran the unit. Those were the early days of dealing with childhood autism. 

More importantly, the [19]70s were a time of really big change in the country. Our unit was headed up by a Quaker named Paul Adams. He really propelled us into the future. He gave me and Judy Levy an assignment to do a lecture on what was happening with women’s health around reproduction. This was before Roe v. Wade. So we — me, Judy, and Margaret  — became known as women who could help other women get abortions. 

We really didn’t know how to do it, we were only talking. But when women started coming to us, we had to figure out how to do this. There was a group called Clergy Consultation, Catholic priests who helped women get one — once she get to New York. 

We’d give women a telephone number. Clergy Consultation would tell them where to go to get a safe, legal abortion. 

So it worked for White women who had money and could get to New York, but when Black women came, she’d say, “I don’t need no phone number, I don’t know nobody in New York, and I don’t have any money to get to New York.” 

We realized that wasn’t really access. 

After abortion became legal, we were literally taking women to Jacksonville every weekend to get abortions, and going back for post-op and all of that. 

There was a need for abortion services in Gainesville, so four of us came together, and in 1974 we opened up the Gainesville Women’s Health [Center]: first trimester abortion clinic with a GYN clinic.

I was really excited by it. It was exhilarating, wonderful work. Women all over the country were doing things, and opening up facilities and doing stuff. We wanted to do an abortion clinic and a birth facility. 

Things started changing at Shands. Paul left, and they didn’t like our whole division because it was very radical. People were chanting and smoking pot; I mean we were way out there. The University did not like that, so they hired a psychiatrist who became the head of the unit. He started systematically getting rid of everybody. 

Judy passed the division, and at the department level, they denied her tenure because we opened up that clinic. See, the doctors did not want uppity women opening up facilities. 

I figured we would make it, and we did. The only thing I regret now is that I didn’t keep my retirement plan, now that I’m seventy-four years old. So hold on to your retirement, no matter what you do. Idealism is one thing, money works.

H: You said you got a master’s degree.

BA: In Special education. I finished in [19]69. We were about thirty [Black] students here, among 30,000 White students. It was a bit intimidating. 

Understanding the culture, and when people didn’t speak to you, you know? There were like five or six White women who all bonded together and I became a part of that group. I was just amazed at some of the things — that they had apartments, and money. Credit cards had just started coming out. They had credit cards. 

I was shocked when the first class I attended was in a big auditorium with about three hundred people. Most of my college, there was seven or eight people in my classes. Over in the School of Education, especially in special ed, we had smaller classes and I was able to feel some of that bonding that I need to learn effectively. 

I started working at Shands in September, and [my husband] died in November. I had a 10 year mourning period actually — but before he died, he was a ferocious reader. He’d say, “Byllye, I want you to read this book.” 

He and I would have a little back and forth because he loved to read all the time, and I needed him to help with the children, there was clothes to be washed. So sometimes when he’d want me to read things, to spite him, I wouldn’t. He had been dead not quite a year. And I say, “Let me see about this one book he talked about.” It was Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. I read that book, and it really started to change my whole life. The second wave of feminism was happening, Gainesville NOW was just developing. 

At this time, I wasn’t really connected to Black people in Gainesville ‘cause I was just on campus. After we opened the Gainesville Women’s Health Center, we made special efforts to go out and meet people. What I learned is that Black women and their husbands came to the Center for abortion services — but they were not coming for the well woman GYN services. It all became an alternative for the students at the university, but we were not getting those Black women in, except for the crisis services. That was a real lesson. Sort of a disappointment, but also very instructive as to how we take care of ourselves, and how we don’t have the luxury sometimes of doing the preventive stuff. 

We’re so busy trying to keep our lips above water, that we bypass the prevention and end up doing most of the crisis. So that was very instructive, but it really propelled me to understand why. It put me on a quest. 

Then we opened BirthPlace in [19]78, and we found out that a lot of Black women couldn’t come. We only charged fifteen hundred dollars for a birth, and the hospital were charging three thousand. 

But the women didn’t have the cash. That became a barrier. However, we had many families who came. I spent a lot of time talking with them, helping them understand the whole birthing process, and learning that what works for White women doesn’t necessarily work for Black women, a lot of approaches need to be different. 

I assisted in probably a hundred births. But I knew that I needed to do work with Black women. I’d done a lot of work with my White sisters, and it was time for me to take what I’d learned and see if I could apply it to the lives of Black women. That’s when I moved to Atlanta and started the Black Women’s Health Project. 

H: You were at some point here teaching Black young girls at P.K. Yonge.

BA: Before Sonya got her period, I started preparing her. So, I ended up creating a workshop. I did the workshop with the kids, boys and girls, and talked to them about menstruation, and they were squirming all over the place. But I knew they were hearing me. 

That workshop ended up being a film, On Becoming a Woman: Mothers & Daughters Talking Together. It’s not a video, it’s a film, because we wanted it to last forever. It was the first Black film done talking about menstruation between mothers and daughters. When I got established in Atlanta, I changed it all up from what I learned. When Sonya got her period, I got this big cake that said “Happy Birthday” and “Happy Menstruation.”

More excerpts from the SPOHP Byllye Avery transcript will appear in the April Iguana. A recording and full transcript of this interview can be found by entering “Byllye Avery” at https://ufdc.ufl.edu/oral.

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