Barnstable County Human Rights Commission
Pamela and David Purdy are simply an out of the ordinary Cape couple. I walked into the interview not knowing even the general gist of the reason they received a Cornerstone Award from the Barnstable County Human Rights Commission. They were just another name on the list of people to talk to. Right away, I was welcomed with such genuine hospitality that it seemed too good to be true. On the surface, they look like just another retired pair of middle class white New Englanders. Little did I know the story that was about to unfold as I sat down in their quaint living room.
Pam soon presented me with her prepared materials for the interview, naming off 20th century “icons” from the civil rights movement. She read me a summary of their book. Basically, it highlights several notable figures from the civil rights movement, victims and activists alike, with David’s written perspective and Pam’s original art. Stories poured out for hours, husband and wife feeding off each other’s memories like a perfectly synthesized work, confirming or filling in dates and names for each other when one’s memory fell short. Of course I was so intrigued that I was late for my next appointment before I even realized.
Mrs. Chatterton-Purdy’s primary role in the creation of the book is the artwork. It would be an understatement to say she is passionate about art. She remembers her first finger painting. She taught art for 30 years. She got her masters in fine arts. But the icon project is perhaps the most meaningful application of her talent yet. Inspired by a Civil Rights trip to the south in 2004 and a gold leaf art workshop, Pam creates her icons with gold leaf on plywood. With the help of her husband, they are sawed individually into deliberate shapes on her backyard picnic table. She chose the icon form because this technique was traditionally used to commemorate sacred events and people, and the civil rights icons were exactly that. These sacred people knew they could be killed but still walked right into the fray of anger, hostility, and hatred occurring in the South. Her pieces are directly impacted by the powerful imagery that she and her husband witnessed first hand. The artwork is a visual display of how civil rights has played out in their 48 years of marriage through today.
I learned that when she was my age, Pam was one of 2 white employees at Ebony magazine in 1963. I learned that David’s roommate helped the first black man, James Meredith, get admitted into the University of Mississippi. I learned that there was more to the segregation of schools than just physically separating the two races: Pam said, “black schools were horrible.” Black students were given the ripped books and lacked sufficient funding while the white students prospered. I learned that two of the four Purdy children were adopted and one of them had his head smashed against a coke machine to the point of bleeding at age 12 in a suburb of Boston while being called a “half pint nigger.”
Sitting in awe the entire time, I ironically proved Pam’s point completely. I, an intern for the county human rights organization, had no idea who at least half these people were. My oblivion in the presence of such a dedicated, remembering person was humbling. But the reality is that I represent the norm in my generation: we have forgotten, or maybe we never even knew, about these victims of the true “bullying” problem in modern America—racism. I wish every American citizen, alive during the civil rights movement or not, could sit down and speak face to face with Pamela and David Purdy about the terrorism we have chosen to forget about.
The Purdys’ vision for the future is to help provide affordable housing for young families on the Cape. David is a member of the affordable housing committee of Harwich. They want to see more accepted diversity in the County, recognizing that living in an overwhelmingly white community deprives us of the diversity and richness a less isolated, urban environment can provide. They even came right out and asked me, would you feel comfortable living here as a black person?
Pamela and David Purdy (seasonal residents since 1965) have been full time Harwich residents since 1997. They are still working to find publisher willing to invest in their book, “Icons of the Civil Rights Movement: Connecting the Dots.”