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  • I’m a single mother of two children born out of wedlock—my choice.

    My son, Ade’yemi, my first child, was a year and a half, maybe two years old when I realized that I had never received a notification of his birth. Everybody else I knew, they had all received notifications of birth and subsequently birth certificates. I asked my mother why I hadn’t received a notification.

    My mother was working for the Philadelphia Bureau of Vital Statistics at that time. She issued birth certificates all the time. She told me, “He’s a bastard. He’s illegit. You don’t get notifications for children born out of wedlock.”

    And she’s looking in my face and said, “I don’t believe what I see in your eyes! Do you think you’re going to fight that white man’s law? That you’re going to change that white man’s law?”

    I didn’t say anything. I was stunned. It was inconceivable to me that this was the law, that children were designated as illegit.

    I was a student at community college at the time. I was a Library Tech, so I was learning how to do research. And every place I went, I just was looking in the law books. I just wanted to see how children born out of wedlock were being looked at.

    But the thing that bothered me the most was that the men were never involved! The question of the father’s never came up. So therefore, there were the mothers who were considered “whores,” or “illicit women,” and there were the children who were called, “bastards,” “illegit.”

    I just couldn’t accept that.

    And so I started doing a campaign. I knew Edie Huggins, and she had a show called Morning Side. Edie said… she let me come on to tell my story along with some other guests she had on her Morning Side show. And the things started rolling. I started going on video shows and going to churches, community groups.

    I remember, I… for some reason Hardy Williams. He wasn’t my State Representative. But one day I decided to write Hardy a letter, “Did he know about children born out of wedlock how they were called?” But I never heard from him.

    But I ran into him one day on the street and I asked him, “Had he received my letter?” He looked at me. I guess out of all the hundreds of letters he might have seen, “He didn’t remember,” he said. So me being me – crazy – I pulled a copy of the letter out of my bag and said, “Here this is it. And I want to know, what are you going to do it about it? When are you going to answer me?” And he said, “ I’ll get back to you.”

    And so, just like he said, a couple weeks later, he sent me a letter. Said he was going to introduce legislation that would prove to be the forerunner, or perhaps one of the most humane legislations that there would be in the State.

    It took seven years to win the rights for children born out of wedlock here in Pennsylvania - from 1971 to 1978. With the folks who helped me, which was the Urban League, and then the Community Legal Services, and the Women’s Law Project - these were all the legal folks that came to our aid because we didn’t have money for legal counsel.

    We filed a lawsuit during that time, suing the state of Pennsylvania: Fernandez vs Shapp.

    We finally won, with an Attorney General’s opinion saying that all children born out of wedlock were legitimate. And it was the greatest victory we could have had!




    Lois Fernandez is the founder of the Odunde Festival held annually, since it's creation in 1975, on South Street in one of Philadelphia’s oldest, historically African-American neighborhoods.
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