Martha Aenchbacher Interview

Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library
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SAMANTHA HARVILL: I am Samantha Harvill, and I am interviewing Martha Aenchbacher. It is November 27th, 2015, and we are at her home on the Isle of Hope in Savannah, Georgia. Can you tell me where and when you were born?

MARTHA AENCHBACHER: Yes. I was born in south central Kentucky. Russell County, which is near Lake Cumberland. I was born at my family home, which is about four or five miles from the town of Russell Springs.

HARVILL: Did you have any siblings?

AENCHBACHER: Yes. My older brother, two years older than I. And then, later, a 1:00second brother. Oh, I forgot, I had a sister, who was born two years later, who died. And then, my brother, John, was born two years after that. And then two more years, my sister, Margaret.

HARVILL: Can you tell me a little bit about what your childhood was like?

AENCHBACHER: My childhood was very interesting and very active. And hope not to talk about it too long, but my brother and I were, like, a pair of twins. We went everywhere together, and he often got me into trouble. But we had a lot of commonalities. My family was musical, and he and I were taught to sing harmony 2:00when we were very small. And we also learned -- he taught me to read from the Sears Roebuck catalog. You know, my family was just an ordinary family that lived on a small farm. My father was a high school principal and my mother was a homemaker. My grandmother, my maternal grandmother, also lived with us. She was a spitfire.

HARVILL: Do you think that influenced you at all?


HARVILL: Your grandmother?

AENCHBACHER: Absolutely! Absolutely! She, quote-unquote, thought she ruled the house and -- as well as my older brother. She was a Republican, and would pay 3:00my brother to tell my father, who was a Democrat, that he was Republican. And so, there was a lot of back and forth going on politically, always, in my family.

HARVILL: Were there any special events or people that you think influenced you to activism?

AENCHBACHER: Oh, of course. My father -- again, the political scene -- he took us to hear President Roosevelt speak. We sat on bales of hay and could barely see the president, but we could hear him. It was in the early ’30s. I don’t recall exactly when. And, of course, my father’s cattle barn was on Highway 80. And he had painted, in black letters -- oh, it was a red barn. He 4:00had painted in black letters, on each side, “Vote for Roosevelt.” And what else was in the question?

HARVILL: Any people or events -- so --


HARVILL: When you were at [Boldoxi?] University, when you went to visit Eleanor Roosevelt?

AENCHBACHER: Yes, I did get to meet Mrs. Roosevelt and shake her hand. She had -- during World War II, she spoke, and our school bused us to hear her. She stood in line and shook the hand of several hundred people -- students, rather -- as we went by. And she said something to each person. The other thing that influenced me in my childhood was church. My father was an ordained minister. 5:00My grandfather was an ordained minister in the Baptist Church. And it was sometimes very scary, because we’re talking about the early ’30s, and a lot of hellfire and damnation, speaking frankly.

HARVILL: Can you tell me a little bit about the first time you went to college and how you met your husband and that period of your life?

AENCHBACHER: Well, I would rather go back to tell you a little more about my childhood.


AENCHBACHER: My mother died in 1937, and for some time, we had an aunt -- we had moved to Georgia, and I think that was real important, because it was like moving to a foreign country. I had been to movies a lot as -- before I was -- 6:00by the time I was seven. But I had never seen a black person in real life. And when we moved to Georgia, we moved to very south South Georgia. Again, we lived on the farm, and this was a cultural shock to us. But we enjoyed it. It was like moving to a foreign country. And my mother died three months after we moved to Georgia. So, I would -- we were without a mother for a short period of time. And then my father remarried to a younger woman who was also our cousin. This is important, because our life changed significantly, and my childhood 7:00years, for a while, were not exactly wonderful. They were in many ways, but there was great difficulty. For me emotionally, I might clarify.

HARVILL: Do you think that could be -- is that a cause of why you wanted to help other women, because you remember your childhood and stuff like that?

AENCHBACHER: Yes, I certainly think so. And I did see, particularly, the differences in how people were treated, how the blacks were treated. And, [well?], we called them Negroes then, or colored. And I recall specifically some instances where we were beginning school one fall, and I think I was in the 8:00fourth or fifth grade. And on the bus, when I got on the school bus -- I rode -- we rode the bus for two miles into [Climateville?], Georgia, to the school. And on the bus was a white woman with a child who was the color of a lemon, with Negroid features. And I had never seen anyone like that before. And then, we rode -- we all got out of school, including the mother and child and a little boy. And in the afternoon, the child was not on the bus. And I asked the bus driver -- we asked about what happened to him. And he said, “Well, he’s not 9:00allowed to go to your school.” And so, over time, I noticed that all of the black children were walking into town. I said, “Why isn’t the bus taking them to school?” And they said, “Well, the blacks do not go to your school,” which I, of course, had just discovered. And they -- we rode by their schoolhouse each day as we went to a modern, 12 grade school. And you could see through the cracks in the wall of that school building.


AENCHBACHER: That was the difference in the society back then. And since I had lived in a completely white area, it was very shocking to me to see these young 10:00children treated like that. My own age. It just was very difficult to understand. And I could speak for a long time about all of that, and how the racial scene affected us, particularly with the way the children were treated and -- by families, different families, abused and so forth. Sexually, particularly. I might add that, on our farm, there were two houses, slave cabins, and in one of the cabins, my father had employed a man to help -- to do 11:00farming with his family. And he had certain crops in the farm and was allowed to have his profits from that. We learned, after they had been -- he had been there awhile that he had brought 18 people to live with him, and that some of the young children were children of his older daughters, and that he was the father of his children. He also beats them, and it was just horrendous. Of course, my father got rid of them as soon as possible, because he just could not condone that kind of behavior. The other thing that happened to me that caused 12:00my life to be different -- [laughs] don’t tell me I’m going to cry, Samantha! Anyway, our house burned a year and a half after my mother died. My stepmother and my brother -- my little brother and sister and I stood and watched our house burn to the ground. My father and brother was -- they were away. They had gone into town. And the end result of that was we moved into one of the slave cabins, and we lived in that for almost two years while my father built -- was building a home for us on the farm. And this really changed 13:00my life, because I had had a very comfortable, spoiled existence. And then we had nothing as far as comforts. There were shutters on the windows. There were four rooms in this house for these -- this couple, my parents, and the four children. And I could go on and on about that, but I’ll stop here and just say that that was a significant part of my childhood. I don’t mean that it was totally unhappy, but I developed a very -- a quiet, sullen attitude for a while and thought this can’t -- this shouldn’t happen. There should be some way that we can have a better existence. But I learned to appreciate exactly 14:00what the black people experienced in living in a slave cabin.

HARVILL: It sounds like, from a pretty early age, you knew that you wanted to help people and that you were very aware of inequality in the world. And that’s pretty admirable.

AENCHBACHER: Well, it sort of all came together that way and -- in the end. And, again, I was not a totally unhappy child. But these difficulties really did form my life. Helped me to appreciate things that I never would have otherwise.

[break in audio]


HARVILL: We took a little minute to gather ourselves. Can you tell me a little bit about the war and how it affected your life back then?

AENCHBACHER: It was very significant in the life of everyone. And I’ve not seen anything pull people together more tightly than the people in the United States. Everyone was involved in the war effort. It was -- there was propaganda over the radio and in the movies. So, we were all just petrified. We young people were petrified at how the Germans treated their youth, and how the atrocities against the Jewish people and others early on -- I had a cousin, my dad’s first cousin, actually, who was married to -- who was married. Was 16:00captured in the Philippines. He escaped once and then was recaptured. After that, he was missing for four or five years. He had joined before the war started, by the way. Anyway, his wife worked in -- on -- in Moody Airfield Base in Valdosta, Georgia, as did my father. My father was a -- not a -- his college major was not engineering, but it was math. And he had helped build a lot of the construction of that base. So, we went to school, and everyone’s efforts 17:00-- all of the young people -- were directed toward helping the troops. And there was a lot of suspicious stuff going on. We were very aware that there just might be spies anywhere, which -- just ridiculous. My dad was always interested in airplanes, so my oldest brother was fascinated with them. Dad had taken us flying when we were young. He -- not as a pilot, but as -- and so, Pete was one of the men who manned the skies and monitored the airplanes, day and night, from this little tiny hut that was built. They were built all over the country. And my brother would do that. And when my brother went, I went, 18:00too. So, I sat in the hut with the brother, and we counted and learned to identify all the airplanes. We did all sorts of work in mobilizing -- I’m losing my voice -- in mobilizing the country everywhere. It was an amazing thing to think back on and hear about, some of it. We were horrified later at what had happened to the Japanese and what the United States did with them during World War II. I was a volunteer, along with others in my senior class, to entertain the wounded at one of the hospitals, which was near us, in our 19:00senior year. We would go and sing, and then we had -- we would walk around to talk with the wounded soldiers. I was absolutely stunned -- and, again, to use the word, petrified, almost -- at seeing them. And it just was crushing to look at their wounds and then sing, but we did it. And again, I knew that I would never want to be a nurse. But I just wanted to do something that was useful, to 20:00be helpful. My voice is giving out, it seems. I’m only 85 years old. [laughter]

HARVILL: Do you want to talk about meeting your husband your kids a little bit?

AENCHBACHER: Well, you’ll have to keep me at a minimum, because I have a lot of kids.

HARVILL: [laughs] This I know.

AENCHBACHER: In 1946, at the age of 16, I went and entered college at Georgia Southwestern, in Americus, Georgia. Again, there was an unusual thing happening there, because the United States had discharged all these military people and 21:00the college had changed its enrollment from 200 and a small number to over 600 students, overnight. So, the campus where I enrolled was teeming with all these men who had been in the war. And it was there that I met my husband, Louie. His nickname was Dicky, because he had been called Dicky-Bird when was a tiny child. He would be upset if he knew that I was saying this, but he -- you know, I met Dicky. And for some reason, he began to focus on me. And over time, he 22:00wore me down and I gave up my other boyfriend, who was perfect. And we were married at Spring Break our sophomore year. Following that, I did the practice teaching with the second grade and finished college. We then went to the university where we -- Georgia, where we -- in Athens, where we were to enroll. And by the time it was time to enroll, I was very violently nauseous with my first pregnancy. And to make the story short enough, I had five children in a short period of time. My husband graduated from college. We moved to Savannah and I became -- perfect housewife, of course. I’ll skip -- I ultimately had 23:00two other children that I chose to have, and I had the one and I thought, you know, she’s all by herself. The other kids were in school. So, I had the second child to be with her. Anyway, where was I?

HARVILL: After you had the last two children -- so, you ended up with seven kids.


HARVILL: What did you do after you had finished having those children?

AENCHBACHER: Well, I just -- I lived next door to a wonderful woman who had been 24:00attending Armstrong College. And she kept telling me, despite the fact that I had two children at home, that I could put them in daycare in the mornings and go back to college and finish my degree. She was from, I think, New Jersey. She was not the typical Southerner. She painted murals on her living room wall, just for fun. And so, anyway, I decided to go back to college. But there’s one important thing I want to go back to. Maybe you’ll ask me about it later. But during the time I was having the early children, I was attending Bull Street Baptist Church in Savannah. And by -- one of the projects of my Sunday School class was to work with the Crittenton Home. And we would go to visit 25:00them. And I remember how shocked I was when I took my two older children and we went to the Crittenton Home to provide a holiday for these pregnant white girls, because those homes cared for pregnant girls who had no assistance or had to be hidden away -- 14-year-old, 19-year-old. It was -- to see it in actuality is different from reading about things like this. Of course, we know that now. Anyway, I wanted to mention that that was a huge influence in my life, that I had been pregnant and so well cared for and that these girls, many of them would -- their life -- they would be ostracized forever, and probably not treated 26:00terribly well. And then, there were many, many other girls who were not able to even be allowed to be in the Crittenton Homes because of their color, their lot in life. So, next question?

HARVILL: While you were in school, can you tell me about your work at the Comprehensive Mental Health Care --


HARVILL: -- Center?

AENCHBACHER: -- OK, I did finish two years, just two years of college, and participated in the marching against Vietnam Wars, watched the streakers go across the campus, and met many young women -- most of them were 12 to 15 years 27:00younger than I -- who were very, very interested in women’s rights. We all read the book, The Women’s Room, and many more things that were interesting. My advisor was a feminist, and she was very helpful to me. I had changed my major to social work, and so I had a work study the last quarter of my college at this walk-in clinic, the Comprehensive Mental Health Walk-In Clinic in Savannah, Georgia, on Bull Street. And it was filled with young people, with their doctorates and other education in social work and psychology. And, of 28:00course, we had our psychiatrist there, as well. We were crammed into an old run-down building, and I did three months of very exciting time, learning about all sorts of crises. [coughs] Excuse me -- including [inaudible] and we all had -- all worked in the crisis area. And particularly, in interviewing people. There were crowds of people coming in the door. The Vietnam veterans, addicted to heroin. Other people who could not afford care. People who were pregnant and needed help. Abused women. You name it, they came in the door. And so, 29:00after the three months of my practicum was over, they hired me to work there in the intake area and do counseling and work on the help line. And it was during that time -- we’re in the ’70s, now, the early ’70s. And we had all sorts of calls, particularly from people who were in the process of committing suicide, threatening suicide, you name it. And the rape victims. One day, there was a call from a woman, and she said -- no, I’m sorry, it was a call 30:00from the Memorial Hospital, and they said they had a rape victim there, and could they send her to us? And I said, well, she can call or she can come tomorrow. Why -- not tomorrow, but she can call. And so, when she called, they -- I went -- I got -- let me go back. I’m sorry, I get a little mixed up, here. But the doctor in the emergency room called the county physician, who was supposed to come and treat her, because she had no funds and no family. They called him and he said -- well, it was a Friday, by the way. Friday, late. He told Memorial Hospital to have her come to his office on Monday and he’d look 31:00at her. Well, that just inflamed all of us. And we -- I was a member of NOW, as were several of the young women on the staff, and met women in the community who were in NOW. And they had -- they were very interested in women -- issues of all sorts. And they invited -- two or three women came down for the -- from the University of Georgia, and they were invited to come and speak to us, because they had started their own little pod of counseling and looking after rape victims on the campuses of UGA. So, they came and spoke to those of us on 32:00the staff and some in the community at a NOW meeting. And out of that, over time, we developed an ongoing plan to do something about rape victims in Savannah, because they were increasing in number. The clinic was multifaceted. There was a methadone office, where those heroin victims could come. We -- anything and everything came in the front door. It was quite a life experience for me, and I was just inflamed with the idea of improving the health and care 33:00of women. Because the abused women would come in and there would be nowhere for them to go. It was just unbelievable, what the needs were. And the population was increasing and Vietnam War was still raging. Anyway, I’m getting off track again.

HARVILL: No, you’re perfectly on track.

AENCHBACHER: Sorry about that. And -- but going back to developing the Rape Crisis Center, there were two women that were not employed at the center. One was a homemaker in a rather -- and an activist with a -- she was young, with a 34:00couple of children, and then her husband was a lawyer, I believe. And the other woman was single, and she worked for the Labor Department in the United States Government Building. And they were on fire. They were just energetic and had time that they took to foster this small group of women that continued to meet. And we added more women. You didn’t have to be a member of NOW to come and meet, ultimately, with the group, because the needs seemed to be so pressing and the attitudes in the community were often, “Well, she probably asked for it.” Or, “What was she doing out at two o’clock in the morning?” Or, 35:00“Where was the mother when this child was” -- you know, whatever. And then, we had -- well, I won’t go off to that direction about families. But the meetings and efforts continued. And Sandy [Mitzell?] and Helen [Roninger?], who were named -- she remarried. She divorced and remarried and has another name. I apologize, Helen. Anyway, they went after the legal needs to getting laws changed in Georgia so that raped women could be cared for properly. Legally, as far as crimes were committed -- counted. And in the course of a couple of 36:00years, they did achieve that. And the Rape Crisis Center was able to become established. In my work and in this clinic, walk-in clinic, I had been trained by some specific psychologists, and they and I and other volunteers trained in the -- how to respond to victims of -- and needs, crisis needs. And so, we set up, over time, that the Rape Crisis Center would have a telephone so that when the help line, which actually took the calls for a long time, did -- and didn’t operate all night -- so that we had the -- an operator that we hired. 37:00We all donated money, that’s how we got -- paid for this one line to have an operator answer, “Rape Crisis Center.” And we were listed in the phone book. And we in our homes would say to our family, “Do not answer this phone from X time in the evening ’til eight o’clock in the morning.” And so, I would answer the phone if it rang on the nights I was on duty in my home. And the 20 -- about 20 women, we were a small group of women in the beginning. And so, we began to answer the phone in our home, at night, and ultimately added 38:00more people to be able to make that work. And the people in the community were continuing to be educated by people who -- in the group, who spoke out. Dr. Susan [Lamb?] was another advocate. She was one of the psychologists at the walk-in center, where I worked. She and I and one of the police officers -- a woman, a black woman -- attended a conference at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The first women -- may have been the last one, I don’t know -- was amazing. People from all over came to this conference, and we learned how the word was spreading that rape victims would be cared for. And, as a result, 39:00many -- abused women, as well. The head of the clinic where I worked, the psychologist that I worked under, was Dr. Dan Johnson, the psychologist. And, of course, our psychiatrist, Dr. [Strada?], they were very -- and they and all the staff were very, very helpful in these efforts. Am I running off track, here?

HARVILL: No, you are perfect. So, with all of this activism that you were involved in, do you think you would consider yourself a feminist?

AENCHBACHER: Well, yes. I have six daughters and one son. And that makes it really a majority in the family.


HARVILL: Do you think that you’ve tried to impart your beliefs and your feminist values onto your children and their later generations? Is that something that’s important to you?

AENCHBACHER: Yes, of course. And I may have been better at it with -- boring my granddaughters and -- with my stories than I did -- but I do hope that the things that I did -- to rub off on them. And I ultimately worked in other settings, continuing to work in the field of psychology. I did go to Georgia Southern University to get my master’s degree in psychology. And I continued to do a lot of work in counseling and training women and men, both in the 41:00agencies under which I worked and in private practice.

HARVILL: What other activism were you involved in around the time of the Rape Crisis Center?

AENCHBACHER: Well, the other movement that was going on was Hospice Savannah. And in the same walk-in clinic, Ann Stuart, a woman who was convinced, after dealing with her two parents dying of cancer, that hospice was needed. We had heard about hospice in Europe, and we all went to hear the -- oh, gosh, her name escapes me -- that came over to lecture us. We attended her conference at -- not her conference. It was one-day thing -- to hear her describe the hospice 42:00work in England. And over time, that became part of the work of this same mental health center was to -- training and people -- hospice volunteers. So, I did train volunteers for many years and worked in that with some of the board of directors. And, you know, they give you a little title and you keep doing what you want to do to improve the health and care of people in the community. By the way, the Rape Crisis Center, other than the little bitty Athens group, was the only -- was the first Rape Crisis Center in Georgia, and the hospice was the first hospice in Georgia. And it was an amazing thing to do, and even more 43:00amazing to look back and see how some of the barriers and attitudes were flung in our faces. We attempted to improve the health and care of women in particular and people in general.

HARVILL: Well, can I say that you definitely did improve how people are treated? It definitely spread all over, so --

AENCHBACHER: Well, it’s a good thing to be an activist.

HARVILL: Thank you very much.