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'Mother Grisom' dies, leaves legacy of care
Emily Grisom noted for being a feisty civil rights activist in Albany
By BRIAN NEARING, Staff writer
First published: Tuesday, March 8, 2005


ALBANY -- People who stood to speak at the Common Council meeting Monday night might not have known it, but they had Emily Grisom to thank.

It was Grisom who convinced the council in the late 1980s to set aside a half-hour before each meeting for citizens to say whatever was on their minds. "I think Mrs. Grisom was the first one to address the council with this time," said 8th Ward Councilman David Torncello III.

The legacy of the 76-year-old great-grandmother ranged from shutting down a garbage incinerator to planting streetside flowers. Grisom died Sunday at St. Peter's Hospice after battling diabetes.

"To say my mother was feisty is an understatement," said Gale Samuel, one of Grisom's three children. "For a time, she practically lived at City Hall. She cared deeply about her community."

Grisom, who was born in Alabama and moved to New Jersey, settled in Sheridan Hollow in the late 1960s. In her first civic fight in 1968, she pushed City Hall to clean up a rat-infested junkyard across the street from her home and make it into a park. Two decades later, Grisom bought a burned-out building and renovated it, making that her new home. She was known as "Mother Grisom" for her love of children. Her home was open for children who just wanted to talk.

"My mother would never, ever leave her community," Samuel said. "She attended church five days a week and was a Sunday School teacher there for years."

She opposed the city-run ANSWERS plant on Sheridan Avenue that burned trash and converted it into steam for state offices. In the 1980s, she said the plant was a "death hole" showering soot and illness on the neighborhood. The state closed the plant in 1994.

"Mrs. Grisom was a true, old-guard civil rights activist," said Aaron Mair, president of the Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Corp., which she helped found and which played a key role in the ANSWERS battle.

"She was out there before anyone on this. I was just a young college intern and I remember her talking to me and saying, 'Young man, you've got the college education. You figure this out.' "

In 1996, amid political infighting, she was ousted from the board of directors of the Arbor Hill Community Development Corp., which she also helped found.

She refused to leave the meeting, and police were called to escort her away. "I remember that she got the police to take her down here to City Hall so she could talk to me," Mayor Jerry Jennings said. "She was the real deal."

Councilwoman Carolyn McLaughlin, of the 2nd Ward, agreed. "Emily Grisom set an example for me as an African-American elected official. She was not afraid to stand up for her community and was not intimidated by anyone with a title. She would make you accountable for what you were supposed to do."

Her funeral on Friday will follow a 10 a.m. wake at the Church of Jesus Christ, 562 Clinton Ave., where she was a member for more than 50 years.