A mayor's wife with her own commitments

DURING the formative years of the civil rights movement, Sybil Morial and her husband, Ernest N. Morial, would sometimes team up to challenge segregation laws. He'd be the attorney; she'd be his client. Mrs. Morial recalls one such suit against a Louisiana law that barred a public employee from belonging to any organization that advocated integration. She was a teacher in the New Orleans public schools at the time, and active in civil rights work. The Morials won, and another piece of the segregationist temple fell.

Since those embattled days of the '60s, Mrs. Morial has raised five children, continued to teach, and devoted many hours to attacking such social problems as illiteracy and teen pregnancy. She's now director of special services at Xavier University here, a job that involves identifying and helping low-income students who have high academic potential. Her husband has gone on to serve in the state legislature, sit on the bench of the circuit court of appeals, and become the first black to be elected mayor of New Orleans, a post he still holds.

Taking a break from her busy schedule on a typically balmy spring morning in New Orleans, Mrs. Morial explained how her husband's career and her own have meshed over the years.

``He did his thing and I did mine, but they complemented each other,'' she explains. Though they were often laboring in different spheres, she continues, it was ``for the same cause.'' That cause -- a push for social equity backed by a commitment to public service -- has deep roots in her family. She smiles, recounting how her father, a physician, examined thousands of poor children for free.

Being the mayor's wife sometimes makes demands on her time, but she tries to keep those responsibilities within bounds. ``I have more important things than to be an appendage of the mayor,'' she explains with a laugh. One of those things has been her participation in the local battle against illiteracy, a campaign spearheaded by United Way. She has been a spokeswoman for the effort, being present at gatherings to ``honor the volunteers, and the people who are gutsy enough to say, `I can't read, but I want to.' '' New Orleans, a city whose public schools are burdened with an inadequate tax system and an enrollment that's now 90 percent low-income minorities, has 50,000 adult illiterates, notes Mrs. Morial. Those people ``can't function in society,'' she says, since even the most simple reading tasks -- a job application, for instance -- are major hurdles.

The city's high infant mortality rate -- a problem linked to teen pregnancy -- has been another of Mrs. Morial's concerns. She recently co-chaired a program designed to get at this difficulty by strengthening care and counseling facilities and letting more people know about them. Radio and TV public service announcements were on her agenda, as well as visits to the city's public housing projects to enlist the aid of residents. ``You know these girls, you can tell them there's help for them,'' she told the people she met there.

Mrs. Morial didn't launch into such undertakings as a society matron yearning for good works. After getting a master's degree in education at Boston University, she taught from 1952 to 1955 in the public schools of Newton, Mass., a Boston suburb that's long been known for its educational excellence.

Not long after that, she returned to her hometown, New Orleans, to teach for nine years at a public school near the city's Desire housing project, its largest and roughest. Those years brought her very close to this community's social problems, and, more than once, forced her to wonder if she was ``having an impact.''

Through her teaching and her more recent activities, she's become a familiar figure to many poor New Orleanians.

``They call me here,'' she says, indicating with a sweep of the hand her none-too-spacious office in Xavier's Deporres Hall. One reason for the calls, she suspects, is that ``lots of people can say things to women they can't say to men.'' Some young people want to discuss personal dilemmas -- ``where am I going, and am I going to be passive or be in control of my life,'' as she summarizes their concerns. Some want to thank her for the good her civic efforts have done. Still others, she wryly admits, ``try to get to the mayor through me.'' That's when it's time to back off a little, she says.

Concurrent with being a civic activist and wife of an up-and-coming lawyer and politician, Mrs. Morial has had the considerable responsibility of raising five children, three daughters and two sons. The oldest is a physician in Chicago; the youngest just started high school.

When did she have time for being a mother? That's a query that has bothered her at times. ``Now I know I did it all right, but I wasn't sure at the time,'' she says. Mrs. Morial distinctly remembers the plaintive question, ``Mother, do you have to go to another meeting?'' and acknowledges that it sometimes ``put a guilt trip on me.'' Above all, she explains, ``I told them, `I hope when you're an adult you'll have commitments, too.' ''

And apparently that sunk in. She can now cite a range of volunteer work her offspring are involved in -- helping out in a pediatrics ward, coaching basketball at a settlement house, tutoring inner-city kids in math. She's also heartened that one has participated in demonstrations against South Africa's apartheid system, since she's sometimes been concerned that the younger generation of American blacks could lose touch with the personal commitment needed to fight for and preserve civil rights.

And then there was the son who insisted on coming home from college to participate in her husband's first race for mayor. She advised against it, but, looking back, now wonders whether they could have endured the campaign without him.

``He had that staying power,'' she says. As Mrs. Morial recalls, her son's response to her doubts about the wisdom of taking time off from school was simply, ``But I've got to do what I have to do.''

That, one suspects, must have had a very familiar ring.

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