John Joyce: Community Leader
Born in Englewood, New York in 1942, John Joyce spent most of his adult years in Wayne County, New York, until he and his wife, Sharon retired to Vermont to be closer to the youngest of their three grown sons, Rashid.
While he was with us here in Wayne County, John was a constant presence and influencer in the effort to make the county a racially just place, and one does not have to travel far in and around our Black and Brown communities to hear the fondness still carried in people’s hearts for him.
As was too frequently the case for Black people in the 1970s, John and Sharon were initially denied housing here, yet they managed to settle in for the long haul, and John dedicated his life to the well-being of others.
John visited the Apple Blossom Festival Wayne County in the spring of 1971 and found himself in conversation with “Shorty,” Laura Means and Phoebe Inglis at Come-Unity in Williamson, discussing human rights, children and things of that nature. They said he was the right person to be the director of the local day care and migrant education center run by the New York State Ag and Markets. John’s background included working in the printing industry and as a butcher in Englewood, Victor and Rochester, but his career path took a turn here and he accepted the position.
Following a training at the NYS Fairgrounds the first week of July, he was expected to have the day care center operating on the following Monday. Unfamiliar with Wayne County and Sodus, he started from scratch, without any staff nor children enrolled, though there was a location and two trained teachers available. Phoebe and Laura suggested a couple of additional people to hire and told him to recruit children from the labor camps. John went along Old Ridge Road where he found a row of cabins. They turned out not to be a labor camp, but a man there named Joe took him around to the labor camps. By 8pm that first day of traveling from camp to camp, he had recruited about 40 children, from 6 months to 6 years old. He then had to arrange bus routes, and for staff members to work on Sunday to bring the equipment into the building and set up the four classrooms.
At the end of the summer, John was called to interview for a 3-month position, (September through November) at the Williamson school to counsel migrant children before they returned to Florida. There were more Black than Hispanic migrants at that time. He told the school that if they just wanted him to counsel migrant children, that was a form of discrimination and he didn’t want the job. They not only relented, but after the first three months asked him to stay for the whole school year. He ended up staying 22 years, assuming additional duties involving audio-visual work, substance abuse programs, classroom substitute, basketball coach, senior class and SADD advisor (alcohol and drug use prevention).
John realized that the families of the black students who remained in the area year-round were not represented among the well-paid jobs in the schools and larger community and he welcomed the opportunity to work for change. And so continued his life of service to those who had been marginalized in our society. It was a time for sharing the truths of bias and discrimination and to try to heal the deep wounds of racism. John carried with him a photograph passed on to him from his grandmother, of two relatives, Amos and Rufus, hanging from trees. Their lynching was a stark reminder of the terrible things that were done to people of color in our nation’s history and how important it is to advance the struggle against racism. John embodied that spirit and lived those values through his work in our community.
In the early 1980s, John, Sharon and their friend, Chris Helmer attended a seminar on race relations at the Bah’ai Green Acres Conference Center in Maine. At the end, each participant was challenged to address racism in their home communities.
The Bah’ais of Sodus Point met in December 1984 to appreciate and recognize the equality of all men, to build racial unity by establishing an independent (permanent) task force to eliminate barriers of ignorance and prejudice. In May of 1985, under the leadership of John Joyce, Kay Embrey and Kathy Fox (aka Kathy Castania), and with help and support from the Cornell Migrant Program, Ibero-American Action League, and Rural Opportunities (now Pathstone) to launch the effort, Wayne Action for Racial Equality, (WARE) was formed. It’s mission was “to improve race relations in Wayne County by acting as an education, support and action group.” WARE, of course, remains an active and vibrant part of our community to this day, and our work has become ever more critical.
Following the birth of WARE, a Wayne County Chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was organized at meetings at the Wayne County Courthouse, and subsequent meetings at the Upper Room Church (Williamson) and Little Bethel Church (Sodus). Recognized for his abilities and experience, John was recruited to become the first President of that NAACP chapter.
In March, 1994 WARE led the effort to create an Intercultural Coordinator position as a resource for seven Wayne County School Districts. Still driven by his Bah’ai faith and compassionate soul, WARE leader John Joyce was hired as the first to hold this position.
During an interview in 1992, John defined racism as “a spiritual illness that manifests itself in individuals in terms of (a) false sense of superiority and inferiority and it actualizes itself in terms of privilege for one group and lack of privilege for another group . . . places itself out socially and economically to the advantage of one group and the disadvantage of the other group, . . .our systems are set up accordingly.”
Today, our community is still working to address this spiritual illness (implicit bias) and the way our systems cause ongoing harm (systemic racism) as described by John Joyce.