100 years of fortitude: Iconic activist Frances Crowe reaches another milestone 

  • Frances Crowe, in wheelchair, leads a march through downtown Northampton in celebration of her 100th birthday on Saturday.  STAFF PHOTO/LUIS FIELDMAN

  • Frances Crowe, a longtime social activist, leads a march through downtown Northampton in celebration of her 100th birthday on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/LUIS FIELDMAN

  • The Expandable Brass Band provides the soundtrack for a march celebrating longtime social activist Frances Crowe’s 100th birthday on Saturday.  STAFF PHOTO/LUIS FIELDMAN

  • Frances Crowe, a longtime social activist, leads a march through downtown Northampton in celebration of her 100th birthday on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/LUIS FIELDMAN

  • Frances Crowe, a longtime social activist, leads a march through downtown Northampton in celebration of her 100th birthday on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/LUIS FIELDMAN

Staff Writer
Published: 3/16/2019 9:07:28 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Inspirational. Unrelenting. Passionate. These are just a few of the words commonly used to describe the longtime social activist and peace icon Frances Crowe. As she turned 100 years old Friday, Crowe’s birthday wish was for 100 signs to mark the century milestone.

On Saturday, the community she has inspired for decades temporarily shut down Northampton’s downtown with a raucous and energetic march. Her wish was fulfilled twice over as nearly 250 people chanted, sang and danced their way down Main Street.

“I love your signs — they were all so good,” Crowe said at a post-march reception at the Center for the Arts on Hawley Street. “It was a wonderful march, and I see so many young people, which gives me great hope … So many people have said, ‘Why is Northampton so special?’ And I say, ‘It’s not in the water, it’s in the air.’”

The march, called “Celebrate the Struggle: 100 Signs for 100 Years,” was organized by friends of Crowe and in collaboration with Historic Northampton and Smith College’s Special Collections, Sophia Smith Archives Collection.

Prior to the march, a large crowd gathered by 1 p.m. in front of the arts center, with people holding signs bearing messages that ranged from support for the Green New Deal to calls for an end to wars and gun violence.

The rap-tap-tapping of a snare drum accompanied by brass instruments was the soundtrack of the afternoon as the Expandable Brass Band played songs like “When Frances Crowe Comes Marching In” and “We Shall Overcome.”

Crowe arrived to a warm welcome, and the march took off with family members pushing the activist in her wheelchair, leading the march with a bright smile on her face.

Walking in the march was Sheila Garrett, who traveled from Vermont to celebrate Crowe’s birthday. She has known Crowe for nearly the past 40 years and said she admires Crowe’s lifetime commitment to helping others.

“She is such an inspiration,” Garrett said. “She’s made such a commitment to social justice issues all her life.”

Rick Gaumer, who has known Crowe since the early 1970s, said he found an ally in Crowe when he first met her. At the time, during the Vietnam War, he came to Northampton to participate in draft resistance activism, and Crowe helped in the cause.

“Frances always encourages people to do what they could,” said Gaumer, of Norwich, Connecticut, “and even stretch what they thought they could do by the example she sets.”

The sidewalks could hardly contain all the marchers as the large body of peace activists made their way downtown, overflowing and spilling into the streets. Impromptu traffic signalers Mayor David Narkewicz, state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and state Sen. Jo Comerford directed traffic around marchers.

The march turned around approximately 50 yards in front of City Hall, and a reception at the arts center followed, with signs placed in front of a statue of Crowe inside the building.

An organizer of the event, Claudia Lefko, praised Crowe for her life spent calling out the “issues that plague this world” and “articulating a vision for a better world.”

“Frances is about action,” Lefko said. “Frances sees what needs to be done, and then she goes out and she does it. We are here today to pay tribute to you, Frances … and to promise, to reassure you, that your work will go on because we here are committed to action.”

Caltha Crowe, Frances’ oldest daughter, called her mother a “picture of courage and commitment.”

She said her mother had been a force of resistance during the 1940s, “when it was not popular,” and in the 1950s during the McCarthy era, “Frances stood her ground and stood for what she believes in.”

“In the 1960s, she paddled in canoes out to nuclear submarines to pour blood on them,” Caltha Crowe said. “Her arrest record is shockingly long, and she has always stood for what she believes in.”

Frances Crowe’s papers are part of the Sophia Smith Collection. In 2007, she received the Courage of Conscience Award from the Peace Abbey in Sherborn. In 2009, she received the Joe E. Callaway Award for Civic Courage from the Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest.

The march was the kickoff for a series of events celebrating Crowe’s 100th birthday. Amy Goodman of the news program Democracy Now! will give a talk on Thursday at Smith College, and two exhibits at the Mezzanine at 33 Hawley St. will run until the end of the month.

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com




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