Picture: Sunny and Ashley Osment
Ashley Osment, Sr. Attorney at UNC’s Center for Civil Rights and columnist for the Chapel Hill News, died in her sleep on Friday evening, May 28th. Since July 2007, Osment had been trying to hold off the inexorable progress of a rare type of ovarian cancer. She was determined to put her life over the cancer, so she could enjoy her daughter, Sunny, her job, and her family and friends as long as possible. She refused — to her last breath — to let the cancer control her life.
Osment grew up in Sylva, N.C., the daughter of Luther and Barbara Osment. Rev. Osment was the Director of Baptist Missions in Western North Carolina. Barbara Osment, a music teacher, taught hundreds of mountain kids, including her own, to love and play mountain music. Ashley was in the middle of the Osments’ five children–Tim and Jane were slightly older, and Joe and Matt were slightly younger. Her brothers and she played basketball all the time, and Ashley was a high scoring guard on her school’s basketball team with a sweet jumper and aggressive drive. Toward the end of her high school junior year, she wrote an essay called "No Better Gift" about the history of mountain music, which won a year’s scholarship to Western Carolina. She skipped her senior year, parked cars at a Highlands N.C. restaurant, and bought three acres of beautiful land in the mountains about 8 miles south of Highlands. With the help of her grandfather and many friends, she built a cabin on her own land, a magical place she treasured and shared with her many friends and family. After her freshman year at Western Carolina, she caught a ride to Chapel Hill and it became her home for her rest of her life.
Osment was a student activist and history major at UNC. She helped coordinate solidarity educational actions with indigenous liberation movements in Central America and Iran. After graduating from Carolina in 1987, she worked in the Washington, D.C. office for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She tried to educate congressional staff members about the negative aspects of the Reagan-Bush policies in Latin America. In 1990 she returned to Chapel Hill to resume her studies in history. But in February 1991, Bob Sheldon, owner of Internationalist Books on Rosemary Street, was murdered and Osment quickly became the unanimous choice of Sheldon’s friends and family to manage the new cooperative they had formed to keep alive his progressive bookstore. Osment met Al McSurely, a civil rights lawyer, who had been asked by the Sheldon family to help them honor their only son’s legacy. Osment and McSurely clicked. While working on getting the new bookstore cooperative off the ground, Osment also managed the McSurely Civil Rights law office. She helped McSurely win major civil rights victories, including the Keith Edwards case, the Housekeeper cases, a major Title VI complaint against the Chatham County Schools on behalf of all children of color in the County, and many others. While working on these cases, Osment completed law school at UNC in 1995, and helped raise McSurely’s three children, Caitlin Swain-McSurely, Walker Swain-McSurely, and Erin Swain-McSurely. McSurely and Osment married in 1995, and in September 1996, they settled the Housekeeper’s case and Quinn Soleil ("Sunny") Osment was born.
When Sunny was born, Osment’s balancing of her pasions for justice, her children (Sunny, Caitlin, Walker and Erin), and music challenged her creative feminist genius. In 1997, when Sunny was about 8 months old, Osment met Maria Palmer, who had just started a small day care center on Cameron Avenue, exactly halfway between the Osment-McSurely home and their law office above the Rathskellar. Within a few months, Sunny had been accepted as a full-fledged member of the Mi Escuelita Spanish Immersion child care center, which Palmer and Osment organized. Mi Escuelita became the pilot for Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools’ Dual Language program, which Sunny is still enrolled in as a rising eighth grader. During this period, Osment took a difficult case of a Granville County high school secretary, Ms. Mary Cash. Granville Schools refused to pay Ms. Cash for any overtime work, such as spending hours on the phone each night recruiting substitute teachers. Osment sued on behalf of Ms. Cash in the U.S. District Court. But the Court ruled Granville Schools were immune from being sued under the Fair Labor Standards Act. About the same time, in 2000 the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals had upheld the dismantling of the creative measures that NAACP lawyer Julius Chambers had helped put in place in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools since 1971, and had turned loose the tide of lawsuits by suburban white parents against special programs designed to further racial integration of schools and classes. This blow to civil rights caused many lawyers to advise Osment against appealing the Cash case to the 4th Circuit. Osment, however, took her case into this hostile forum and, in early 2001, won a resounding decision for Ms. Cash and similar school employees in all five states in the Circuit. In 2004, UNC’s Center for Civil Rights, headed by Mr.Chambers, began looking for an experienced civil rights lawyer to head up its new Education section. Osment applied, and when the lawyer who had opposed her in the Cash case wrote a strong recommendation, she was hired in early 2005. Her surpising victory in Cash was not lost on many education lawyers who believed the rightward tilt of the federal appellate courts was part of a larger right wing strategy to use tactics of resegregation to divide white voters through indirect appeals to racial fears.
Osment quickly became an expert on the tactics and strategies–both in the courts and at the ballot box–of the insidious resegregationist movement. Long before the "neighborhood school" card was played in Wake County, national organizations were watching the backsliding of school systems’ commitment to racial integration, backed by extreme right wing judges in federal courts who had been appointed by Reagan and the Bushes. For five years, even after her cancer had been discovered in 2007, and its recurrence in 2008, Osment litigated, organized conferences, created educational materials, and trained hundreds of Black and White educational leaders about the rising threat of the resegregationist tactics in the courts and in relatively inexpensive elections. Her last year of life was particularly frustrating, because she knew her expertise and national contacts would be critical to building a strong, grass-roots resistance movement in Wake County, in Wayne County, and other areas of the State where resegregation is openly condoned by elected school boards.
She was in great pain, after the cancer spread to her hip, and she had to use crutches to get around for the last six months. But, as readers of her Chapel Hill News column know, she remained direct, honest, and exquisitely graceful in her efforts to deal with cancer, and its ruination of her life and hopes. She was able to enjoy many good times with Sunny over this last period, when she knew she was dying. She was also comforted by her three step-children’s unqualified commitment to their sister and their father, McSurely, during the terrible suffering she endured the past few months.
Family will receive friends on Sunday May 30
Memorial Service Wednesday, June 2nd
We are all doing well, and Sunny has her best friends, siblings, and Osment family holding her literally and figuratively. I’m on automatic pilot, organizing and making plans. One of my plans is to deal with the loss of my best friend in about a week. In the meantime, we are open for visitors and food offerings at 415 W. Patterson from 1-6 p.m. on Sunday. The Osment and McSurely families will be eating together on Sunday evening.
Today we are closed, but we love and are thankful to everyone for your warm prayers, thoughts, vibes or whatever you want to send toward us.
The Ashley Osment Memorial Service will be at the Chapel Hill Bible Church, at the corner of Erwin and Sage Roads, behind Lowe’s, on Wednesday, June 2nd at 11 a.m. Tonya and Nancy (firstname.lastname@example.org) are coordinating an "after-service" reception at the Bible Church, and may need help with pot-luck kind of sandwiches and other things you can hold in your hands, and walk around, and talk with people while eating. Since Ash had so many friends, we are not going to open the pulpit for everyone to remember her there. We ask that you write out your most poignant and funny memories of her and e-mail them to Caitlin (email@example.com), or bring them to the service and give them to me or Caitlin. We will put them in a notebook for Sunny and the rest of Ash’s family to treasure down the road.
Note: I remember communicating with Ashley over the internet long before I got to know her. She had begin to read my newsletters and she would send me comments about how she appreciated my work. And then one day I happen to meet her and we have been friends every since.
I had met Al back in the late 80’s long before she and Al were married. I was tickled to death to find out they were married and from that day forward we all were friends.
I got to meet some of the children as well over the years.
Al always refer to me as his brother and I likewise so therefore you know what that makes Ashley. You guessed it, my sister.
When I got the email on yesterday as I was driving to Rocky Mount that my friend had expired, I immediately emailed Caitlin and Al to let them know I am just a phone call away. And later last night I received the above from Al.
I feel honored and privileged to be able to post this on The DCN Online Blog in honor of my friend Ashley Osment.