Esther M. Nighbert
August 24, 1911 - April 14, 2004
Esther Nighbert died in April in Gainesville at the age of 92. Many in Gainesville's activist community knew her as an outspoken, energetic activist against nuclear weapons, for peace, universal health care, workers rights, and much more. Esther apparently started early, as she had a photograph of herself as a child marching in a woman's suffrage parade in New Jersey. But she was perhaps best known for her leadership locally (and then nationally) in the consumer campaign to boycott GE to force it out of the nuclear weapons business.
Friends gathered at the Unitarian Fellowship Hall in Gainesville on April 24 to remember Esther. Her friend Carol Willis opened the memorial gathering. Here are her remarks:
Esther was born in Hazelton, Pa. in 1911. Her mother died in childbirth and Esther went to live with her aunt Jennie, a seamstress. But when Esther was six her aunt's husband died of tuberculosis and aunt Jennie had to work outside the house-Esther was passed on to another aunt and uncle, who were very strict. She was confirmed at age 13 at Temple Beth Israel. Esther went to public schools and then to Emerson College in Boston. Her father never came to see her until she was 18 years old.
In the summers, she worked for room and board as the director of dramatics at various summer camps. After graduating, Esther moved to New York City and tried to find a job. It was 1932, so jobs were scarce. She ended up as a salesclerk at Macy's. She really wanted to direct plays and tried to talk Macy's into putting on a play, but did not succeed. So she volunteered at a settlement house and involved the teenaged girls in dramatics. She also took classes at the New School for Social Research.
She later moved to Pittsburgh and worked at the Irene Kauffmann Settlement House, again teaching creative dramatics. This was during the Depression and the Federal government supported such artistic endeavors.
Esther moved to Washington, D.C. in the 1950s. She taught school for several years and then went to work for the Anacostia Museum as an administrative assistant. The Anacostia Museum is the Smithsonian Institution's museum of African American history and culture. She enjoyed her work there and stayed until retiring in 1976, when she moved to Gainesville.
Esther immediately involved herself in social justice issues, working with the Farmworkers' ministry and joining CAPE, the Community Alliance for Peace Education. She was active in the nuclear freeze movement. In the mid-80s she took up the cause of Nicaragua's fight against the U.S. supported Contras and participated in many demonstrations and even some street theatre, which of course she loved.
The cause to which she became most devoted was the INFACT's boycott of General Electric. She gathered thousands of signatures to petition GE to stop manufacturing nuclear weapons. She would set up an ironing board to attract people to come over and then would urge them to sign the pledge to refuse to buy GE products. Her tireless efforts put Gainesville on INFACT's map and she was invited to join the national board of INFACT. Esther attended a GE shareholders' meeting and told Jack Welch to get out of the nuclear weapons business. It was through this work that she met Ruth Shy, INFACT's campaign director, and developed a life-long friendship. Indeed, Ruth and her partner invited Esther to live with them in Albuquerque in 2001 and she had eight pleasant months in a home before having to return to nursing care in Gainesville.
Esther was an active member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, serving continually on its Social Concerns Committee. She is well remembered for her passionate appeals to us to write congress and to Take Action!
She retained her interest in creative dramatics and volunteered in the Prairie View Elementary After-School Program. In 1986 she published a book called "Learning Through Creative Dramatics."
Esther also worked with the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice. She demonstrated against the Trident Submarines and against missiles in space. She joined Public Citizen and helped organize a conference in Gainesville. She participated in the anti-war movement during the 1991 Gulf War.
Esther was in inspiration to many of us. When we celebrated her 80th birthday, I recall saying that I found large demonstrations fun, but it was Esther who taught me about the lonelier ones and the necessity to keep on with social action even when popular opinion is not on your side. Her legacy will live on in the activism she created in the generations who follow her.
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