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Margaret Burr Leonard
Outstanding Alumna

Ms. Leonard grew up in Macon and Atlanta, Georgia, in a family writers or editors on southern newspapers. In 1959, she enrolled at Newcomb College with a scholarship and a federal loan. In her sophomore year, she became active in the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and began to participate in lunch-counter sit-ins and demonstrations at Woolworth's and McCrory's in New Orleans. She is credited as one of the first Southern white women to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Rides. The Freedom Riders challenged the status quo of the Jim Crow South by riding interstate buses in mixed racial groups. The Freedom Rides, and the violent reactions they provoked, called national attention to the disregard for the federal law and the local violence used to enforce segregation in the southern United States. Police arrested many riders, including Leonard. Of that time in her life, she recalls, “ I was aware that the administration of the college—primarily the dean and my dormitory's housemother—opposed my involvement in the movement. The dean, for example, told me at one point that I would be expelled if I ever again brought a black student onto the campus. (I had done that once, just me and a black student from another college in New Orleans. We had coffee in the student center and I took her to see my room in the dormitory.) The dean explained to me that the school was working on a plan to desegregate the student body, and I would be endangering the success of the plan if I brought black students onto campus. I didn't understand his objection, but I was unwilling to give up my chance to study in Paris on the junior year abroad, so I obeyed that order from him. Otherwise, I ignored his attempts to persuade me to drop my civil-rights activities. On the whole, though, Newcomb took good care of me even when I was embarrassing the school. I had some wonderful professors, made life-time friends, studied for a year in Paris and was never denied my scholarship or loan.”

After she graduated from Newcomb, Leonard worked as a writer and editor for various groups, including a labor union, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a self-help-housing association and a travel-abroad business for high-school students. She says, “Although I did believe in all those causes and enjoyed writing about them, I finally decided to just be a journalist, with the intention of informing people without trying to influence them. I covered and wrote about politics, government, sex and race relations, work and education.” Ms. Leonard is retired now from a career of reporting and editing at the St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald, and Tallahassee Democrat. She is the mother of a daughter and son, whom she calls “more fun and more hopeful than anything else in my life.”

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