It is not the first time the nonagenarian civil rights crusader has battled the cops. A little more than a year ago, when New Times first wrote about Miss Liberty ("Mudslinging Matriarchs," December 11, 1997), she was a spunky 93-year-old fighting for control over her life. The passage of time has been unkind to both her struggle and her physical condition. Today her body is more stooped and shrunken with age. Though gnarled arms and legs contribute to her gnomish appearance, her watery eyes still gleam and her mind retains much of its sharpness. On January 9 she turned 95 years old at the Hampton Courts nursing home in North Miami Beach. Miss Liberty was distinctly unhappy to celebrate her birthday in a place she considers a jail.
It took two policemen and a locksmith to remove her from her Liberty City home. They came for her on New Year's Eve. They only gained entry to her house after the locksmith picked the front door deadbolt. The black pioneer, once president of the Miami chapter of the National Council of Negro Women, did not go quietly. "This little lady fought. I had to physically lift her from her wheelchair," Miami Police Ofcr. Lunnon Sears recalls a little sheepishly. "She tried biting and scratching, but she left."
The officer, who stands around five foot nine, has almost a hundred pounds on Miss Liberty, who is 45 years his senior. He also had the help of his partner Ofcr. April Hardemon. Still, subduing her was no easy task. "She's a strong old lady," he says, sounding surprised.
Miss Liberty's forced departure for a nursing home is just the latest twist in her two-year struggle for independence. She is losing the fight. The drive that fueled her many accomplishments now seems to be working against her.
Her indomitable will led to a storied career on behalf of her community. She started a debutante ball for young black women in 1950 and a writing program for women prisoners later. In some city precincts she is still known as the "voting lady" for her efforts delivering neighbors to the polls. (In her present status Miss Liberty is not allowed to vote.) Many even credit her with persuading the school district to add black history classes to the curriculum.
Miss Liberty planned well for her retirement. She amassed three houses and more than $100,000 in savings, and even made her home wheelchair-friendly. She covered the walls of her house with memorabilia from her rich life. But she could not anticipate outliving her immediate family nor a judge's declaration that she is unfit to care for herself.
Early in 1997 a neighborhood policeman, concerned about Miss Liberty, notified Adult Protective Services. The agency recommended that a judge appoint a legal guardian for the elderly woman. Georgia Ayers, another well-known activist in the community, volunteered for the job. The two strong-willed women quickly clashed when Ayers's take-charge attitude interfered with Miss Liberty's independence. In December 1997 Ayers resigned.
Before Judge Arthur Rothenberg could order Miss Liberty to a nursing home, Willie Whisby, a pastor at Our Lord House of Prayer church, agreed to help. "I had been hearing about her situation through church members," recalls the pastor. The judge appointed a private company called Comprehensive Personal Care Services to officially replace Ayers. Whisby and his congregation were to be intermediaries. For a while the arrangement seemed to work.
Care began to break down shortly before the New Year when Whisby briefly left town, says Comprehensive executive director Frank Repensek. Whisby insists that his parishioners never left Miss Liberty, whom he affectionately calls "mother," unattended. Citing concern that she was without supervision, Comprehensive obtained a court order to remove her to a nursing home.
"This lady is made out of iron," says Repensek. "Sometimes that's a positive. Other times you take it to a point and they won't accept anything. That's the problem to some extent with Miss Liberty."
Repensek notes that Miss Liberty needs constant supervision because she suffers from damaged heart valves, severe arthritis, and incontinence. He believes the activist does not realize the peril of her condition.
Miss Liberty says she accepts the idea that she needs around-the-clock help, but desperately wants to make decisions for herself again. "I challenge [Comprehensive] to find someone who can live up to what both they and I want," she says, sitting in a metal chair in the room she shares with another elderly woman at the nursing home. The fully equipped facility seems clean and pleasant. A full-time nursing aide, who stays in the room during the day, says her charge has refused to take medication or accept medical tests.
Miss Liberty says she just wants to return home and pay her own bills again. She worries that her money is being wasted on the nursing home. "You wouldn't want other people to spend the money you saved either," she says.
"They call her stubborn because she is 95. If she were 45, they would call her strong-minded," says Whisby. "She just wants to take care of herself." Whisby believes Comprehensive doesn't realize her importance in Miami's black history. Unfortunately, he says, other black leaders have not responded to her plight. He worries that Comprehensive, which normally charges $75 per hour from their charge's assets (a judge ultimately determines the fee), will spend all of her savings. "The only thing [Comprehensive] knows is that she has assets and they want to deplete her funds," he alleges.
Repensek thinks the nursing home experience might convince Miss Liberty to cooperate. She might be permitted to return home, he allows, if she accepts an agency-approved, full-time caregiver. "A lot of it will depend on if we can come up with a workable support system again," he says.