Rosemarie Freeney Harding, (1930-2004) worked for more than forty years with her husband, Vincent Harding, in movements for radical social change in the United States.  Born in Chicago, a child of the Great Migration, Rosemarie returned to the south as a young woman to work in the freedom movement in the 1960s.  Following more than a decade of activism based in Atlanta, Georgia, she and Vincent moved their family to Philadelphia (and later Denver) where they continued their work in a wide range of national and international peace and justice struggles.  

Rosemarie was a widely-respected counselor, teacher, historian and social worker who authored several essays with her husband and a book with her daughter, Rachel.  Bringing a strong intellect and keen powers of observation, reconciliation and hospitality to all aspects of her life and work, Rosemarie intertwined her activism with ancestral traditions of mysticism and healing, and with an inclusive spiritual practice that included Islam, Buddhism, contemplative Christianity and the Afro-Brazilian religion, Candomblé.   Rose infused the Veterans of Hope Project with a wisdom about hospitality, kindness, healing and the unflinching determination of love that we hope will shine through the cracks of our imperfect efforts to reflect it.

Rosemarie Florence Freeney Harding was born July 24, 1930 to Dock Freeney, Jr. and Ella Lee Harris Freeney. She was the youngest of nine siblings, a sweet and keenly intuitive child who was deeply loved by all of her family.

When Rosemarie was born, the extended family had recently moved to Chicago from the southwest Georgia towns of Macon and Leesburg. Her father, an expert farmer, worked in Chicago steel mills, stockyards and railroads, and owned a moving business. Her mother, a former schoolteacher, did occasional domestic work and later supervised the Freeney family grocery story at 4160 South Wentworth.Rosemarie attended McCosh Elementary School, Englewood High School and graduated from Carver High School in Altgeld Gardens. After high school Rosemarie attended Chicago Teachers College for two years. She graduated from Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana in 1955 with a major in sociology.

After completing her bachelors degree she returned to Chicago and worked as a social worker and teacher, during which time she served Bethel Mennonite Church as a lay counselor. In 1959 she met her future husband, Vincent Harding, at a Mennonite Church conference. Rosemarie and Vincent married in 1960 and moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1961 as representatives of the Mennonite Central Committee where they founded the South’s first interracial voluntary service center, Mennonite House. The center, which was also their home, was an important gathering place for movement activists who found respite, hospitality, encouragement and stimulating dialogue around the hand-built wooden dining room table.

From their base in Atlanta, Rosemarie and Vincent were counselors, reconcilers and activists in the Civil Rights movement – working with such organizations as the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. The couple was often assisted in their work by Rosemarie’s nephew, Charles Freeney.

Also in Atlanta, after her children — Rachel and Jonathan — were born, Rosemarie worked as a substitute teacher and helped found the city’s first interracial preschool as well as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community School, one of Atlanta’s earliest independent black day schools. She was also a founding member of the Guardians, an advocacy group dedicated to ensuring that black parents had a voice in the desegregation of Atlanta Public Schools.

In 1974, Rosemarie and her family moved to Philadelphia where she continued her involvement in progressive political activism and helped raise several grandnieces and nephews as well as her own children. In 1978 she earned a masters degree in history and women’s studies at Goddard College where she completed a pathbreaking thesis on the life of Ida B. Wells Barnett – a major African American anti-lynching crusader and newspaper editor active in the early 20th century. While in Philadelphia, Rosemarie served in various volunteer capacities at the American Friends Service Committee and was chosen to travel to Brazil in 1980 to evaluate the organization’s support for faith-based social justice initiatives in that country.

From 1979 to 1981 Rosemarie worked as a counselor and teacher at the Pendle Hill Quaker Study center in Wallingford, Pennsylvania where she and her husband developed a series of courses on connections between spirituality and social justice. When the couple moved to Denver in 1981, Rosemarie continued to co-teach these courses with Vincent at the Iliff School of Theology. Increasingly, the couple traveled throughout the United States and internationally, conducting workshops, giving lectures and sharing insights and resources of compassionate social change with educators, activists, religious leaders, students and others.

After receiving a masters degree in social work Rosemarie worked for the Family Crisis Center of the Denver Department of Social Services. As a social worker in Denver (just as in her early years in the profession in Chicago), Rosemarie was known for treating both colleagues and clients with great respect and care. She would graciously serve tea and gourmet pastries to the individuals and families on her caseload and often find gentle and creative ways to resolve even the most intransigent conflicts.

As the first member of her family to finish college, Rosemarie was a mentor and example to all of her nieces and nephews; always assisting and encouraging them in their own educational development. She helped with homework, shared her love for writing and reading, and provided opportunities for her younger relatives to travel and broaden their horizons.

She was the mediator in the family – the one who, in the midst of tensions or arguments, could calm the storm. She didn’t teach by dictate, but by example. As one of her nephews recalls, beneath a sheath of composure and elegance, she was a “fierce Freeney female warrior” – with a strong sense of her convictions and a profound ethic of justice. She also loved to laugh and dance and was most happy when those around her were also enjoying themselves.

In addition to her work as a counselor and activist, Rosemarie was also a healer. Although she did not call herself by that term, in her healing ministrations to family and friends she was clearly following in the footsteps of her great-grandmother, Mama Rye (Mariah Grant) an African-born herbalist; her grandmother, Mama Liza (Liza Grant Harris), a midwife; and her mother, Mama Freeney, who kept a pantry filled with herbs and home remedies for all kinds of ailments. Rosemarie studied a wide variety of healing therapies – gaining certifications in Macrobiotic nutrition, Naikan psychology, Therapeutic Touch, Feldenkrais bodywork and shiatsu massage. Rosemarie’s many friends, students, family members and clients benefited, in large and small ways, from the rejuvenative and compassionate instinct that underlay all of her formal training in nutrition, herbal medicine, counseling and bodywork.

Always a deeply spiritual person, Rosemarie consistently brought profound grace, caring and encouragement to all of her interactions with others. She believed in the essential unity of all great spiritual teachings and strove, in a quiet, unobtrusive way, to understand and experience that unity in her own life. She converted to the Mennonite Church in the early 1950s after witnessing the faith, devotion and deep kindness of her eldest sister, Alma, who was herself a convert to the Mennonite faith. (Not long before her death, Rosemarie proudly remarked that she never gave up her membership in Bethel Mennonite Church.) While living in the Philadelphia area she often worshipped in Friends’ Meeting houses, where she especially appreciated the meditative quiet of that tradition and the practice of waiting on the call of the divine before speaking. She was, in that period as well as later on, deeply influenced by the writings of the Irish Catholic priest, Gerald Heard; the Yoga master Paramahamsa Yogananda; as well as by the teachings of the great Sufi mystic Bawa Muhaiyadeen. In 1990 she traveled to Dharamsala, India to study with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and was blessed to meet privately with him and to become a student of Lama Zopa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader. She also often accompanied her daughter Rachel to ceremonies of the indigenous Afro-Brazilian religion, Candomblé, and developed a warm and mutually respectful relationship with several of the leading priestesses of that tradition in Salvador, Bahia Brazil. In 1997, Rosemarie and Vincent founded The Veterans of Hope Project which continues their life-work of teaching about resources for compassionate social change from the experience of older activists.

In the decade before her passing, Rosemarie struggled with a series of extraordinarily rare complications of adult-onset diabetes – rebounding in seemingly miraculous ways at several times. However, in the winter of 2003, her strength was declining significantly and she was doing her best to gently prepare her loved ones for a transition she knew was imminent.

On the night of February 28-29, 2004, as she sat with her husband and sister Sue, Rosemarie suffered a seizure followed by cardiac arrest and although she was revived and transported to a hospital by local paramedics, she never regained consciousness. She died on March 1 just after 11:00 p.m., surrounded in her hospital room by friends and family who prayed and sang her passage to the other side.

She left many in her wake to mourn her death and celebrate her life: Vincent, her husband of 43 years; Rachel, her daughter; Jonathan, her son; her adopted son, Geshe Thupten Kunsang; her sisters Alma Campbell, Mildred Dozier and Sue Verrett; her nieces and nephews Louis, Maxine, Frank, Robert, Lottie, Carmen, Thomas, Francetta, Nataleen, Eileen, Anita, Tommy, Donna, Jimmy, James, Jean, Gloria, Phillip, Rose, JoAnn, Harvey, Walter, Felicia and Claude; and many other dearly beloved relatives and friends.

In spring 2015 Rachel Harding published Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism and Mothering (Duke University Press), a project begun before Rosemarie’s death. The book combines Rachel’s and Rosemarie’s voices in an exploration of compassion and mysticism in southern African American activism.

Rosemarie Freeney Harding’s remarks upon receiving the Goshen College Culture for Service Award (October 6, 2000)

Freedom’s Sacred Dance (October 27, 2000)
Vincent and Rosemarie Freeney Harding

Radical Hospitality: How Kitchen Table Lessons in Welcome and Respect Sustained the Black Freedom Movement (August 2003)
Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Rachel E. Harding

There Was A Tree in Starksville (February 2012)
Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Rachel Elizabeth Harding  

Reflections on the Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (February 12, 2002)
Rosemarie Freeney Harding 

A Tribute to Rosemarie Freeney Harding (2004)
Jim Wallis, publisher of Sojourner Magazine

Hospitality Haints and Healing (2006)
Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Rachel Elizabeth Harding

Mobilizing the Forces of Hope. (Vincent and Rosemarie Freeney Harding) Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1989.

Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism and Mothering. (Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Rachel Harding) Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 2015