“Beneath the Bars of Justice” is a “historical fiction” novel that takes readers inside a Camilla jail cell in the aftermath of an Albany civil rights march. (Special photo)
ALBANY — For 25 years, Sandra Webb lived with the week she spent in the Camilla city jail along with 66 other young girls who took part in one of the Albany civil rights marches that ultimately helped change American history.
Finally, at the urging of her friends and relatives, she wrote her story, intending to have it published. When that didn’t work out, her story languished, sitting untold, now little more than a personal keepsake.
But the years did nothing to diminish Webb’s story, and it cried out to be heard. Ironically, it was a brief story in The Albany Herald that started the chain of events that brought Webb’s fantastic story to life.
“When I talked about my experience with friends and relatives, they kept telling me I needed to write about it,” said Webb, whose story is available now in her compelling “historical fiction” novel “Beneath the Bars of Justice.” “It took until 1987, but I finally decided to write the story. I set out to have it published in the traditional manner, but I was unsuccessful. I considered self-publishing the book, but at that time, you had to invest around $10,000 just to get it out.
“So I put my book on the shelf. I shared it with a few friends and family members along the way, but I pretty much forgot about it.”
Flash forward to September of last year, fully 50 years after her fateful encounter.
“I saw a story in The Albany Herald about a self-publishing seminar that was being held at Darton College,” Webb said. “A bright light went off. I signed up for the seminar and picked up some wonderful information. It opened up areas of awareness that have allowed me to get my book out.”
Webb, whose “98 percent historic, 2 percent fiction” account of her week long stay in the Camilla jail is the inspiration for “Beneath the Bars of Justice,” will join some significant friends at the Albany Area Arts Council’s 215 N. Jackson St. digs Saturday for the launch of her book. Original Freedom Singer Rutha Harris will sing some of the spirituals whose words are part of the telling of Webb’s tale, and a “New York actor” will present a dramatic reading of selected excerpts from the book.
The event will run from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
“We’re looking for the widest distribution of Sandra’s book as possible,” Thelma Watson, who is serving as the author’s publicist, said. “We feel this is not just a book for adults who might be more familiar with the civil rights movement, it is a book for teenagers as well. It calls forth an interesting question: What would teenagers today do in a situation like the one Sandra and her friends endured?”
Webb attended public school in Albany and earned a degree in Business Education from Albany State College before traveling to Washington, D.C. for a summer job. It became a summer job that lasted 30 years.
“I was planning to attend graduate school,” Webb said. “This was going to last the summer, my position with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Then I decided to stay for ‘a couple of years,’ and 30 years later I found myself retiring. I kept getting promoted (to HUD’s deputy director of human resources and finally to administrator of the HUD Training Academy) and enjoyed the work experience. I just couldn’t walk away.”
Well into her career, Webb re-addressed her stay in Camilla, and she started using her free time to put her memories on paper. She finished with a work much broader than the compelling story that wound up as “Beneath the Bars of Justice,” but she chose to make the time spent in jail the focus of her book. Now those memories are collected and available for public scrutiny for the first time.
“The stuff in the book is real,” the author said. “There’s actually very little fiction involved, but since I didn’t keep the notes I took while interviewing the girls who were in the Camilla jail with me, I knew I couldn’t reproduce our conversations verbatim. Also, I think using (the historical fiction) handle allowed me to embellish some parts and also create a work that enlightens and entertains.
“I found myself every year in July saying, ‘This is the anniversary of the week I spent in jail.’ I finally bought a word processor and started writing. Finishing this story was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done.”
The public is invited to join Webb (whose work is authored under the pen name Bailey-Bankston), Harris and others at the Old Carnegie Library Saturday for the book-signing that will launch the author’s efforts to take her work to a wider audience. Persons looking for more information about Webb or “Beneath the Bars of Justice” may do so on Twitter at twitter.com@bailey_bankston, on the Web page https://sites.google.com/site/beneaththebarsofjustice/ or email email@example.com. Copies of the book may be purchased at amazon.com.
“I hope to encourage as many young people as possible to read the book,” Webb said. “I also hope people will invite me — and I’ll gladly inject myself — to speak to civic clubs or historical organizations. Things have changed considerably in Albany since the day I decided, as a 14-year-old girl, to march for freedom. But we should never forget the things we went through to get to this point.”