Eleanor Brownfield and Shannon Turner

Recorded February 13, 2018 Archived February 13, 2018 38:02 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: atl003767


Shannon Turner (42) interviews her friend Eleanor Brownfield (71) about Eleanor's life, particularly her childhood as an adopted child, her life in the theatre, and her activism.

Subject Log / Time Code

Shannon (S) asks Eleanor (E) when her love of theatre began.
E talks about her first experience in the theatre as a sound tech and stage manager.
S asks E about the Atlanta group, The Sisters of No Mercy, from the early 1980s. It was an evolution of the Atlanta Ad-Hoc Womyn's Theatre.
S ask E to talk about her early life and being adopted.
E goes into detail about her stepmother, who was cruel, and how they were a mis-match.
E goes into detail about her 4th birthday, which was a horrible experience in which she had to call friends' mothers to cancel her own party.
S asks E to talk about the suitcase that E's stepmother kept packed for her in the attic to send her back to the orphanage if E was bad.
E talks about her time in Boston and Nashville during the 1960s as an activist, and how it was to be a white woman and a civil rights activist at that time.
S asks E about her time with Alternate Roots in Atlanta.


  • Eleanor Brownfield
  • Shannon Turner

Recording Location

Atlanta History Center

Venue / Recording Kit


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00:04 My name is Shannon Turner. I am 42 today is February 13th 2018. We are at the Atlanta History Center, and I am speaking today with my friend Eleanor.

00:15 My name is Eleanor Brownfield. I'm 71 years old. Today is February 13th Mardi Gras 2018. We are at the Atlanta History Center and I'm with my friend Shannon Turner.

00:31 Thank you for joining me here today Eleanor. I'm really excited to have this conversation with you. You have so many great stories and I even love that you mentioned that today is Mardi Gras because you forced me to wear purple green and I really appreciate that costuming and honoring holidays is something that's important to you. Which brings to mind the first thing that I want to talk about which is costuming Into Your Love of theater. Do you remember when that started for you?

01:03 In the broadest sense of acting out stories it began when I was five or six Maybe.

01:14 I made paper dolls, and I acted out stories with the paper dolls.

01:20 When I was 7 I made eggshell puppets and costumes help with muffin cups does paper crinkly cups make great collars for an egg puppet and I made up stories and act in the mail.

01:37 I don't know about past lives. But as far back as I can remember theater was comprehensible and desirable.

01:48 And I think you've told me once that when you were a little girl you had an active imagination in the number of ways that you read a lot of books and that you would even lay outside and just look at the cloud.

02:02 I taught myself to read when I was four because

02:07 I was in a world of adults who were reading and I wanted to do at the grown-ups. We're doing being an only child. I had a lot of time to read and imagine and think.

02:21 I was a tomboy. So some of that cloud watching was inside a tree or Buena up in a tree.

02:28 But yeah, always.

02:31 Always making up stories. So when was the first time you really got to participate in a full theater production?

02:40 Full production would have been my junior year in high school before that was a skit for assembly in the 8th grade.

02:53 I know I was one of the writers. I don't remember who else helped write it but it was a sort of parody of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

03:05 It was instead of a poison apple. It was a poison Pizza.

03:10 Pizza was a big nude thing in in the culture about the time. It's in 8th grade. So we wore Berets and somebody had bongo drum. We performed for assembly, but that was not an actual production. So, what did you do in junior year?

03:32 The summer before my junior year. I was bored out of my mind.

03:40 The few friends that I felt close to wear on trips with their families or whatever and I was just pacing and I read everything I wanted to read.

03:51 With my bicycle everywhere I could think of to go bored bored bored my father mentioned to our neighbor that he had this board daughter at home. Will the neighbor happened to be head of the theater department at the college. So he said,

04:10 Does she know anything about sound technician work sound technology and my dad said well, yeah, she can run a tape recorder. My father's cousin had a giant reel-to-reel wollensack top-of-the-line, excellent machine. She had taught me to record and erase and splice tapes and all of it. So he needed somebody to come and be the sound tech for the summer play. I had the skill set.

04:44 My father reluctantly agreed to drive me to rehearsals because I wasn't driving yet. And that was that was just jump in the deep end and go and so then you were just in the theater world will yeah because

05:06 A week after I started the assistant stage manager fell and broke her leg. So in addition to being soundtech all of a sudden, I was also the assistant stage manager.

05:21 It was like a duck to water.

05:24 It just did fit cuz stage manager is a role that you continue to play throughout your life. So important to you that it's even part of your email address. That's exactly in 2000. I had to pick an email address.

05:40 And I thought profession initials room.

05:45 Do you have an estimate for how many Productions you stage-managed at this point?

05:52 I had not thought of that.

05:56 Know the last time I worked with Craig rafuse was

06:03 The memorial concert for Joyce Brookshire and Craig and I are estimated at that point.

06:10 That he and I have done at least 300 shows together.

06:15 So music with Craig is a small part of everything I've done.

06:21 I don't know probably somewhere over a thousand. Wow, and then there's the costuming angle as well. Oh, yeah, my dearly beloved faculty advisor. Bob Baldwin is largely responsible for that.

06:41 Back up a bit again 8th grade. That seems to have been a big year. I learned to so our neighbor Betsy Davis taught the girls in her her daughter's Friendship Circle to so-and-so or sewing machine both. Okay, cuz you not really good on a machine. If you can't do the hand finishing Betsy was a professor of home economics at the college. So it really was good teaching for a bunch of teenage girls. So I started like a crazy thing. I loved it. It goes right back to the paper dolls designing and making clothing.

07:22 I made a lot of my own clothes in high school. Probably not as accomplished as I thought I would but I loved it.

07:33 So fast forward to my senior year in college trying to figure out graduate school.

07:42 Bob Baldwin my faculty advisor at Vanderbilt

07:48 Using his understanding of the world told me you can't make it as a professional stage manager in this world women aren't aren't going to be doing that work.

08:00 Well, he was wrong, but he didn't know it and he was I think acting out of what he thought was my best interest. So he said next stage managing. What have you enjoyed most costuming? So I went to graduate school as a costumer.

08:18 And you also played that role for a number of different organizations different production companies here in Atlanta as well. Yep. I used to do a good bit of it. I was the queen of the thrift stores been everybody I worked for was on a tight budget and it was cheaper and faster most of the time to find something and alter it rather than to build a whole costume from scratch. So what was the most fun and exciting thing that you ever got to create for?

08:54 There's so many.

08:59 I did a brilliant job costuming the birds at the Academy Theater in 1972 or three something like that. I say it was brilliant. I don't know if I looked at it now. I might not think that but at the time I was very proud of that.

09:21 Stage managing

09:25 Deluxe Waterville Orchestra at the Kennedy Center would have to be way up at the top of the list on my I can only imagine. Yeah, that would did it fill the Kennedy Center.

09:38 We were one of the summer for it wasn't like the big space. I don't remember the name of the hall. But yeah. Wow. Yeah, we're there any Fiasco's or behind-the-scenes kind of noises off type moments that piece of the story is that I had a broken arm and the band let me go anyway.

10:00 Part of the stage management job, you know helping move instruments and stuff. I was completely useful but the mental part 2 keeping time. I could still do.

10:17 So you also spent a number of years with a group that was a pretty profound part of the Atlantis artistic history called The Sisters For No, Mercy.

10:27 I love it that you think we were up on a profound part of History.

10:33 It started out.

10:37 As the Atlanta ad hoc women's theater women's spell w o m y a n because apostrophe all the time.

10:51 There was a woman named Michelle Rubin who is on faculty at Clark Atlanta University?

10:58 And I don't know that she sounded but for a while she ran the Atlanta Street Theater, which was a protest group that also aspired to

11:10 Some serious theater skills

11:14 Leslie fredman had been working with Michelle and Atlanta Street Theater

11:20 I don't remember how the rest of the group came together but

11:28 And I don't remember what year early 80s.

11:33 Ann Maloney of the

11:36 Atlanta Women's Union asked Leslie to put together some kind of a cultural programme for international women's day, March 8th.

11:49 At what was then I think still Phoenix Unitarian before it became the first existentialist, but the Old Stone Church.

12:01 So it was a benefit for the women's Union. I don't remember who else was on the bill. Leslie convened a group of women.

12:11 Jesse Harris bathrick Maria Helena, Dolan

12:18 Lehigh Yurman

12:22 Noel aulier now Noel Martz

12:27 And me

12:28 I think that was the original group.

12:32 So we we we were the Atlanta ad hoc women's theater.

12:36 We had a blast people appeared to love us. We kept saying you will do the benefit for caution. Stop the road without the Freedom Parkway movement Metro fair housing wrsg. Basically. We were doing a lot of benefits. We went through a brief. Lunatic. Of B&D Atlanta Women's quilting.

13:08 Something and Bauman Society b a l m i n g know it was the Marthasville because Atlanta used to be named Marthasville Martha's Marthasville quilting baking embalming Society to abstruse to ridiculous.

13:28 We went back to ad hoc women's theater for a while. We were at a rehearsal at Maria's apartment. I remember there was a bottle of red wine involved and we're trying to think of a better name.

13:43 The movie McCabe and mrs. Miller was current.

13:48 And the Leonard Cohen song The Sisters of Mercy was playing when the wagon load of whores comes into town.

13:59 And somehow we were thinking.

14:04 The Sisters of Mercy were there to minister to the needs of men we are here to uplift women regardless of the needs of men so the sisters of No, Mercy BK

14:21 And for a while, we had a logo of black and white cartoon of nuns and we didn't use it for long. But I remember it very clearly as a graphic image did anyone ever talk about the fact that it was inappropriate or that, you know talk

14:46 So what kind of pizzas did you do? It was all company developed. We wrote or adapted.

14:54 There was always musically Ormond was our music director.

15:01 One of the first ones was called labor pains and it was women and work.

15:09 With labor unions songs a reading from Tillie Olsen as I stand Here ironing.

15:21 I don't remember what else was in there.

15:24 A week or so ago. I found a folder of old scripts and I did not.

15:30 Dig into it cuz I was trying to find something else, but I'm curious after all this time weather.

15:40 When I look at it, whether it'll still be fun.

15:44 Let it go back and talk a little bit about your earlier life. If I made you know, there's a lot of being talked about right now here in Georgia because of the laws that Up For Debate around adoption and that always makes me think of you because I know that's a part of your story. So you are born here in Atlanta. I bet you you were here in Atlanta you but you don't remember that time after you were born.

16:15 I don't think I do there might be a murky imager to but no and do you know much about your birth parents? Not a sin.

16:26 I truly don't know how much My adoptive father knew.

16:32 My adoptive mother preferred to know nothing, so he pretended that he knew nothing until after she had died

16:44 He got pretty drunk one night and let slip that my birth mother was an RN.

16:52 I started following up with questions and he clammed up immediately. So I don't know how much else he may have known.

17:03 But that OMP also said

17:08 Your birth name was Elizabeth Johnson, which is great. I love the name Elizabeth Johnson is probably the most common name in the United States. So it's not really narrowing the field but you know that you serve knocked around here in the foster care system for a little while not clear. It may have been here. It may have been in Alabama. Why did question is how I got from one state capital to the other because the next

17:42 Documented fact that I can lay hands on is being adopted in Montgomery. And how old were you when you were adopted almost three, we said two and a half but as an adult when I look at it, I was closer to 3, it was September and my birthday is the 1st of December.

18:06 So the the people who adopted you as you mentioned you were an only child, but they didn't always act like they had wanted you and that was really difficult. I I know how you told me a story once about your 8th birthday and how hard that was always the fourth birthday.

18:28 I don't remember anything much about the 8:20 at Moses.

18:34 Will ya?

18:39 My mother wanted children or wanted to be a mother. It was hugely important to her.

18:48 Is damaged her badly that she was physically unable to conceive?

18:55 I don't believe my father actually gave a hoot. I think he went along to please her. I think he would have been happy. Either way once I was in the picture he loved me, but I think he could have had a pretty good life being childless if it had worked out that way.

19:14 I was told that it took eight years from their initial application.

19:21 So they got me in 1949. That means they started before the war.

19:29 And they went through the whole War still keeping up with the bureaucratic whatever demands to keep the adoption process alive.

19:41 Why do you think after trying so hard then they acted so disappointed after you would and will?

19:53 When you want something too much, it can never be good enough. That's one thing.

20:00 And my mother was a very damaged person long before she

20:06 Got me and I think Innovation and we were doomed because

20:12 The expectations were such a mismatch.

20:16 If she had adopted an infant.

20:21 Who had no experience it might have worked out much better.

20:27 But they didn't want an infant. I don't know why I didn't ever ask too closely about that what she thought was a little girl with a strong personality.

20:38 And already a habit of fending for herself. I don't remember to tales of the foster homes. I don't know for sure. How many I was told at one time 4 at another time. I was told 6 so clearly more than two.

21:00 I was self-sufficient in in some ways already and I think that was so out of her imaginings.

21:09 That she was almost instantly frustrated.

21:14 And then she was a perfectionist to an unbelievable degree part of the alcoholism. I think but part of her personality in general.

21:27 And I've always been messy untidy.

21:32 Coloring Outside the Lines. It was just such a mismatch. She wanted a dainty princess and she got a tree-climbing tomboy.

21:45 I dress now the way I dressed when I was four t-shirts and jeans and I was happy with it. Then I'm happy with it now, but it didn't suit Catherine's desire 4th birthday was gruesome. What happened? I have been promised a train trip.

22:07 The train is 7 miles from Auburn to Opelika and the deal was.

22:16 Parents were going to take me and three or four little friends.

22:22 In the car to Opelika and we would get on the train and ride to Auburn and get off and have ice cream and cake.

22:33 So I was thrilled I've always been fascinated with Transportation. I've also always been motion sick. So that doesn't well, but I was thrilled with the idea of going to the train.

22:47 We were talking earlier about anemia I have been diagnosed with anemia.

22:53 I had to eat a lot of iron rich foods and take naps.

22:59 So a couple of days before my birthday Mama came in to check and see that I was taking my nap.

23:08 And I was not asleep and I tried playing possum.

23:13 And she could tell that I was pretending and so she got really angry and yelled at me to get up and come to the telephone.

23:26 So she made me call the mothers of the little girls who had been invited and tell them.

23:36 I'm so sorry. Mrs. McGee, please tell Susan she can't come to the party because there won't be a party.

23:45 I am a disobedient deceitful little girl who doesn't deserve a party.

23:57 Unbelievable

24:00 My mother had a degree in early childhood education

24:06 Everybody defer to her about dealing with me because she was the expert unbelievable.

24:14 That she made me do that. It is unbelievable. I mean that's incredibly cruel and I'm very sorry. I just want to State on the record was wrong amongst many other things. Also. Remember you telling me about a suitcase. She kept in the Attic. Yeah.

24:32 Yeah, I I have one from that set of still. I don't think I have the exact one, but that manila folder colored.

24:43 Like pasteboard with a fake leather brown trim and Brass. What do you call it latches?

24:53 Brown satin interior pockets and lining

25:00 She kept it in the attic and there were two pairs of socks two pairs of underwear and two dresses and the

25:12 Quotation was that is what you came here with that is what I will send you back with if you don't like the way I run this house. You can go back to the orphanage.

25:27 And every couple years we pull out the suitcase gives the old close to the Children's Home and put in new ones that were the right size.

25:38 Well

25:40 And I didn't know until I was sixteen that she couldn't do that. I was going to ask that wondered what age you had figured out the deli call Ally ridiculous that it didn't become clear sooner. But no it was my it was my English teacher Lois Miller. Mrs. Miller heard me in the hall one day.

26:05 Talking to a friend saying

26:09 I'm in trouble or I'm afraid I'm in trouble.

26:14 I did something. I had broken curfew or something. And my mother is going to send me back to the welfare home and mrs. Miller pulled me aside in the hallway and said what are you talking about? She was genuinely puzzled.

26:32 Because everybody in town knew it was a legal adoption. Boom Case Closed except me. I believed that she could my mother could send me back if I made her angry enough.

26:45 This is Miller.

26:47 Bless her heart. She was so shocked. She was so appalled.

26:53 Just the way it struck her when I said that made me totally convinced that she was right. My mother had been basically telling me a lie, all these years that you don't do what I want. I'll send you back o boy in did you ever throw that back in her face?

27:15 No, but it gave me the courage to quit her hitting me to make her quit hitting me. It was not long after mrs. Miller told me that that was an empty threat.

27:30 Mama raised her hand to slap me she was yelling at me cuz she hated my hair. I didn't do anything except put my hand up and stop her. I just put my fingers around her wrist.

27:46 And we stood there it felt like forever. It was probably 30 seconds, but we just stood there with me holding her wrist and it was crystal clear to both of us.

28:00 I am bigger than you are I am stronger than you are you don't hit me anymore.

28:06 Not a word was said, but that was absolutely clear.

28:11 And she didn't know what a day that your relationship must have really changed after that.

28:19 Not materially the patterns were too deeply set but at least that piece of it was off the table. You can't threaten me with eviction.

28:35 Yeah, so have in Chile you escaped.

28:42 And you made your way back here to Atlanta?

28:46 Which was Serendipity my friend feryal Feldman who you know used to live here.

28:53 Cereal was part of the University players when I began working there and we became good friends.

29:03 After my mother died, I was not invited back to graduate school. I had taken too many Cuts going home for her funeral and couldn't make up all the incomplete. It was not a good fit for me. Anyway I have but I hated to leave the way I did. I went back. I did The Good the good Southern daughter thing and took care of my dad for that year.

29:31 He was pretty devastated. He blamed himself for her drinking.

29:36 And

29:38 Kind of fell apart. So I spent a lot of that you're bringing him back to himself. We travel some which was great my taste on his his budget. I did some good cooking that year too. Yeah, but he was the one who looked at the situation and said I appreciate you I appreciate your help. But this is not your life. There is no theater work for you here. Most of your high school friends are gone somewhere else. You don't need to stay here. Go have a life. I have no idea where I was going.

30:21 Happened to talk to Sarah on the phone and she said I'm the office manager of this business in Peachtree City Center, which was in a new building in Downtown Atlanta and my office girl is going on vacation. I will hire you as a temp for 2 weeks. Come take a look around and see if you want to be in Atlanta.

30:48 Well, yep here. I still had a brief visit to living in Sarasota and I came back. Yep. And what year was that?

31:01 That I first came

31:04 Mama died in 70. So it was New Years 71.

31:10 I think that's right. Yeah, so you just missed a lot of the the Civil Rights era here in Atlanta.

31:19 Yeah, my civil rights was in Nashville and Boston.

31:25 DeYoung

31:28 I'm smiling because now it's funny but the Summers the two summers I spent working with the New England resistance.

31:38 Dodging cops and tear gas on the Boston Common

31:43 And yes, I did smoke unfiltered camels for many many years. And yes every city I've ever lived in has bad air.

31:54 But I think the teargas had something to do with my developing lung cancer. I think it's a cumulative thing and that New England resistance chapter is part of it. What what were the the fights happening in Boston in that time? It was still voting rights voter suppression. I mean still we're dealing with that.

32:23 But mostly it was Vietnam and beginning of of seeing women's issues as something to address in addition to civil rights in general.

32:39 You told me a lot about what it was like to be a white person as an activist in the 60s and curious, you know, we're coming up on the 50th anniversary of dr. King's Den. Can you tell me about what what that was like for you?

32:55 Heartbreaking obviously devastating Nashville is physically very close to Memphis. So it was almost like we could feel it.

33:06 I remember that we stayed up all night arguing.

33:14 Lord help me pacifist to the core. I'm the one saying no, let's not burn down the ROTC belt. Let's do something to honor him in a peaceful way. We ended up having a March of the julena March. Nobody destroyed anything at least on our side of town.

33:36 And there was a brilliant Coda to an earlier story. You've heard me tell it I told it at alternate routes one year. It's on video.

33:47 The Epiphany moment of my first black friend the the woman I met my freshman year our freshman year.

33:57 Her name is Diane white. She was on scholarship. She did not dare be an activist because she was afraid of losing her scholarship.

34:08 The day we marched for dr. King's vigil.

34:14 Out of nowhere. I was not at the very front. I was close to the front.

34:20 Out of nowhere comes Diane

34:24 We had not been close friends. We had stayed friendly after that initial encounter freshman year. She was the first black person who ever spoke to me as a peer and so it was just hugely touching.

34:43 When the March was forming up here comes Diane and she came over and put her arm through mine and said I want to march with you today.

34:58 That was special.

35:00 Look at those incredibly meaningful also, because I remember you telling me once that your mom hit you because you said you called someone man that she heard me say. Yes ma'am to the maid.

35:11 Yeah, and my defense was mama you always said carries a lady. She said well, I didn't mean it that way.

35:24 The segregated South was so full of paradox and

35:30 Pitfalls for the unwary

35:34 Yeah, it's hard to believe we actually lived that way.

35:41 So I've been given the high sign that we're going to wrap it up soon. So I'm just curious if there's anything else that you want to say. What is the story of your life? We haven't gotten to tell.

35:52 Oh, well, let's see. We haven't said anything about the Romantic life. Oh, yes. I was married for 15 years then divorced now for much longer than that. No, we've had a lot of high points. I appreciate very much you're asking.

36:11 It would be.

36:14 Would be interesting to listen to this and figure out what I omitted and whether it matters, maybe we can come back and do this again sometime or I'll interview. You don't have nearly as many stories and Tuesday about alternate routes.

36:34 Yeah, alternate routes allowed me to be an activist and an artist without thinking that either one was more important than the other and why was that important to you? Cuz I'm not willing to sacrifice either one up until that point. My theater friends were saying you're not going to get work if the producers know you're an activist. They won't hire you if you've been arrested and my activist friends were saying why are you fooling around with that theater stuff? We need you in the street. So being able to be both without apology is huge and Lord have mercy where else would I have met this range of people. We are at the Wiley bunch and for people who aren't aware. Can you give a very brief description of what alternate routes is

37:31 I can't do it anymore because we've changed the mission statement so many times since I joined in 1982, I'll give it a shot. If it's an arts and Social Justice Network organization that serves the US South. We like to say we are the intersection of arts and activism. Yes indeed. Thank you.

37:54 Anything else

37:56 That's it. Thank you. Thank you.