By Sophie Dolan
This story is part of a conversation with Thrace Soryn, who lives on the 2500 block of Emerson.
"Looking back, I was naive but righteous," Thrace Soryn recounted when asked about her childhood in Omaha, Nebraska, in the early 1940s. "I really identified with people in the world who were not being treated fairly. I think a lot of us lose that awareness and sensitivity. It’s educated out of us."
Thrace, who is 79 today, had a particular sense of curiosity that drove her to ask every person on the street then. "Hey, mister! Hey, lady! Whatcha doing?" No matter their race or age. Most of the time, Thrace's perceptiveness was met with contempt. "As a little girl, I was so often met with people saying, "You can’t do that, little girls don’t do that."
By age 10, Thrace found herself reading books by journalist Carey McWilliams, who wrote about politics and culture, from racism to labor unions, which she considered deeply formative. "That did not go over so well with adults. The education I got from his books was just phenomenal."
Ten years later, Thrace attended the University of Omaha for her undergraduate degree. This is where she found her heart settled into activism. Not long after, she found herself on a Greyhound bus with her husband and a few precious belongings, ready for a fresh start in Princeton, New Jersey. It was here where she got involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Thrace and her husband went south to Mississippi to focus on voter registration. Hostility toward SNCC volunteers often escalated into violence. "We were very deeply educated about civil disobedience and how to remain calm and stay peaceful yourself, and how not to react," recalled Thrace. "It was quite a training that we went through. It was very demanding. But it was also essential that we were taught how to comport ourselves."
At the time, representative John Lewis was the coordinator of SNCC. "He was remarkable in many, many ways. Deeply spiritual, profoundly intellectual, and kind. John was very supportive of women in leadership positions. He asked me — which was very unusual at the time — if I would take over and be the coordinator of a Northern support office. I accepted right away."
John Lewis died of pancreatic cancer in July of 2020, but his mission lives on. Thrace carries their shared values to this day. "This is my view. Our job as citizens is to take care of each other, and try to create the world and the country that we want for all of us."
Sophie Dolan is a coffee drinker, cat mom, storyteller, and small business manager residing in the Wedge.