Warrior Moms: Mattie L. Humphrey, advocate for prisoners (1926-2001)

Posted: February 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

On a Friday evening in 2001, Mattie L. Milner Humphrey waited for a bus on a corner in Germantown, after her weekly volunteer visit to Graterford Prison, a maximum-security prison, 31 miles west of Philadelphia. Suddenly, a shot is fired; a man pulled Humphrey into the safety of a nearby building.
Shaken by the incident, the following Monday Humphrey went to the Hospital for the University of Pennsylvania, where subsequently she underwent heart surgery. Afterward, according to her sister, Frances Lloyd, “She hovered between life and death for months.”
On November 12, 2001, at age 75, Humphrey’s extraordinary life of service ended.
Brilliant, iconoclastic, and outspoken, Humphrey earned degrees in nursing, hospital administration, and law. (She passed the Pennsylvaniabar, on her first try at age 62.)
Humphrey waged a vigorous life-long battle against what she considered the triad of evil–economic deprivation, racism, and political apathy–in courts, on the streets, and in the media.  
On her two-hour Sunday morning radio program, “The Breakfast Show,” (on WDAS-FM since 1969), Humphrey was tough, sometimes abrasive, when interviewing guests on topics ranging from racial disparities in health care to local politics.
Once a candidate for the state legislature, Humphrey’s activism dated back to 1968, when along with other civic-minded black Philadelphians, she founded Degrees of Captivity (DOC), in the wake of riots at The State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill (often called “Camp Hell”). “The difference between our condition in the larger society and…our family members within incarcerated society is in degrees of confinement,” she wrote in the organization’s newsletter.
In 1972, when her only son, Milton, began serving his sentence at Camp Hill,” Humphrey experienced firsthand the toll of having a loved one prison. Lloyd said, “I am not sure about his crime (only that) he was with group of boys when he got arrested. 
“Cops were picking up black boys then. None of them got as much time as Milton.
In November 1989, according to The Philadelphia Tribune, Humphrey and two others filed a suit “accusing the state of violating (mothers’) rights by cutting off contact with their imprisoned sons,” after an uprising at Camp Hill in October 1989.
In 1996, Miltondied in prison. Asked how Humphrey coped with her son’s death, Lloyd said, “What matters is (Mattie’s) legacy, “not how (mothers) feel, but what they do.”

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