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Civil rights advocate, 103, dies

Floretta Gunn would see wrong and prod for change through her pen – never bullying, but always with a touch of eloquence.

Her letters to the editor regularly appeared in the Observer during the civil rights movement, expressing her dissatisfaction at the disparity between races.

“Her pen was her sword,” said longtime friend Allegra Westbrooks of Charlotte. “She had a diplomatic touch to it, but you always got the point.

“She was never afraid of repercussions.”

Last Thursday, the retired Charlotte teacher of 43 years died at Charlotte's Brian Center, where she'd been a resident since 2001.

She was 103.

Her funeral is noon Thursday at Little Rock AME Zion Church, where her late father, the Rev. William Douglas, was a pastor and in 1911 oversaw the building of the brick church that has been home to the Afro-American Cultural Center since 1986. Visitation is 11 a.m. to noon.

To the end, Floretta Douglas Gunn observed life and wasn't shy about delivering her brand of thoughtful commentary.

“She wasn't the type you'd see out marching with protest signs,” Westbrooks said. “She wrote to the newspaper with regularity. In those days, that took great courage. For those of us who didn't perhaps have the bravery to step forward, we'd read her writings and say, ‘Amen. Didn't Floretta tell it like it is?'”

Gunn was born in Hickory. She moved with her family to Charlotte when her father took charge of Little Rock AME Zion on North Myers Street uptown.

She grew up in uptown's First Ward, and like her father and siblings, graduated from Livingstone College in Salisbury. She later earned a master's degree from the Teachers College of Columbia University in New York, and married Theodus Gunn, the first trained librarian at Johnson C. Smith University.

In 1925, she began teaching in Charlotte, first at Morgan School in the Cherry neighborhood. She didn't retire until 1968.

Her commitment to students never wavered. In 2003, she told the Observer: “I knew that everybody, no matter where they came from, could learn something … To me, the greatest thing about teaching was to feel that you can help somebody be better than they had hoped to be.

“I've had some tell me I stretched their horizons.”

At her 103rd birthday party in August, her friends and relatives marveled at how she could still recite Bible verses from memory.

She made it a lifelong mission to memorize scripture and poetry. She'd recite Lincoln's Gettysburg Address with passion, or a Milton sonnet and other classic works.

“She always said it kept her mind sharp,” said Daisy Stroud of Charlotte, another longtime friend. “And it did.”

Frances McClain met Gunn when she was a teenager at the Little Rock church. After Gunn's caretaker died, McClain took over.

“I always admired the care that she showed her students,” said McClain, retired Queens University of Charlotte music therapy director. “She was engaged in life to the end and knew exactly what was going on in the world.

“She was a real model for aging and aging gracefully.”

Gunn had no children. But her walls were full of family photos. Relatives came long distances for her birthday parties.

One was 81-year-old nephew William Branch of New Rochelle, N.Y. On Monday, Branch was back in Charlotte presiding over funeral arrangements.

He said the family was relieved that Gunn didn't suffer from a prolonged illness. She'd had a minor heart attack and was being evaluated Thursday when she stopped breathing.

“She will be greatly missed,” Branch said. “But we rejoice in the fact that she was of right mind and even joking right on until the minute she died.”

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