SWAMPSCOTT — A life-changing experience doesn’t always present itself in a way that we expect. It often comes in the form of a challenge or a struggle, and it is only up to you whether to take it or to pretend it never happened. Susan Korper could do nothing more but to move forward after learning that her daughter was allegedly murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1971.
“The only good news was that the community was shocked into improving civil rights policies after my daughter was murdered,” said Korper.
At that time Korper lived in Virginia with her ex-husband, George Korper, and her 3-year-old son Geordie, and her 4-month-old daughter Terra Rachel. Korper’s mother died when she was 11, and her father put Korper in various boarding schools, only allowing her to live with him in her senior year of high school.
Upon graduating, Korper was accepted to Goucher College in Maryland, but she only studied there for three months, after which, her husband persuaded her to marry him. She gave birth to two children and worked in a children’s daycare funded by the Head Start program that required the parents to participate in the kindergarten board meetings. The majority of the kids that went there were African American.
Korper said that she did not know it then, but found out later that the demographics where they lived was a little weird, as it had some “rich white people,” “some poor white people,” and “a lot of poor black people,” and “a tiny middle class.” She said that some of the wealthier white people had already resented the human rights movement growing in the country, which she had also been unaware of at the time.
She advocated for the Black parents to be represented at the daycare center meetings, and one day she went to a meeting with the board and a local reporter to talk about the situation concerning why Black parents were not allowed to attend those meetings, although it was a requirement of the Head Start funding program.
“Very many people were getting very upset that I was getting Black parents of ‘those pickaninnies’ to come to those meetings,” Korper said.
Suddenly she got a call from the police, and they asked her to drive to the hospital, and there she learned that her daughter, whom Korper left at home with an 18-year-old nanny, was found strangled in their house.
The death certificate Korper received stated that the cause of death was unknown. She asked the sheriff to investigate the case, but he said that he would put the blame on Korper herself if she pushed him for the investigation.
“I will say you did it,” Korper quoted the sheriff.
This caused her to not push for the investigation, but two weeks later she was pulled over by the police for an expired inspection sticker, and the policeman said that he ticketed her, but he did not give her the ticket itself. When Korper went into town, she realized that there was no ticket issued under her name.
Two weeks later two police cars came to her house on a weekend in the middle of the night, frisked Korper, and arrested her for the unpaid sticker, and they didn’t let her out on bail. In court, it turned out that the ticket was issued under the wrong name, and that was why Korper didn’t pay it. The judge acquitted her after Korper paid a $10 fine for the expired inspection sticker.
“They just wanted me to leave and stop rabble rousing,” said Korper. “But I wasn’t rabble rousing.”
She finally left the town and moved 60 miles away, and split up with her husband, because she “did not trust anyone,” Korper said. The good thing was that, after briefly working for Shirley Chisholm’s campaign, Korper decided to go back to school, and she graduated from George Mason University where she majored in chemistry and biology.
After graduating, she became involved in democratic politics through her boyfriend, got several jobs in the environmental protection industry, realizing that people hired her to advocate for the environment and water quality. She eventually founded her own company to work as a consultant and facilitated meetings between parties in violent conflict and taught a class on Racism, Sexism, and Prejudice at Boston University.
Finally, she decided that she wanted to learn more about conflict resolution and got a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution from George Mason University and also received a scholarship for a social psychology doctoral program at Harvard, where she got her ABD (all but dissertation) in 1994. Korper said she was unable to write her dissertation because she had developed severe PTSD.
However, she taught conflict resolution workshops at Yale, Stanford, and Harvard, as well as at the American University of Armenia, and participated in Israel-Palestine conflict resolution. Today Korper lives in Swampscott and says that she is still engaged in civil rights work.
Ralph Edwards, a human rights activist, said that he met Korper at a racial justice event in Marblehead, and the thing that surprised him most about her was her youthful spirit and energy.
“I tell her that she erases 40 years of my life, because she still has that energy and dedication to change that so many of us had like 40 years ago,” said Edwards.
Edwards said that Korper has expertise in conflict resolution, and she is brilliant in analyzing historical, cultural, political, and emotional conditions that divide groups, and that helps longtime adversaries see and hear each other.
Her friends at the Swampscott Public Library said that Korper had told them her story, and that for them she had always been a great person and friend. Alyce Deveau, former Swampscott Public Library director, said that Korper was one of the smartest people she knew.
“For me she has certainly been a good friend, always open, always smiling, and greeting people. When we worked in the library, she was a greeter to the people,” said Irene Curran, former librarian at Swampscott Public Library.
Korper’s story ignited change in a community her daughter was murdered in, causing some people to leave, she said.
To survive we have to pretend that “things are better than they are sometimes,” said Korper.
Oksana Kotkina can be reached at [email protected].