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Obituary: Ashley Osment


Ashley Osment, senior attorney at UNC’s Center for Civil Rights, died in her sleep on Friday evening, May 28, 2010. Since July 2007, Osment had been trying to hold off the inexorable progress of a rare type of ovarian cancer. She was determined to put her life over the cancer, so she could enjoy her daughter, Sunny, her job and her family and friends as long as possible. She refused – to her last breath – to let the cancer control her life.

Osment grew up in Sylva, N.C., the daughter of Luther and Barbara Osment, the middle of five children – Tim, Jane, Ashley, Joe and Matt. In her junior year of high school, she wrote an essay called “No Better Gift” about the history of mountain music, which won her a scholarship to Western Carolina University. After her freshman year, she caught a ride to Chapel Hill and it became her home for the rest of her life.

Osment was a history major at UNC and a student activist, coordinating solidarity educational actions with indigenous liberation movements in Central America and Iran. After graduating in 1987, she worked in the Washington, D.C. office of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, trying to educate congressional staff members about the negative aspects of the Reagan-Bush policies in Latin America. In 1990, she returned to Chapel Hill to resume her studies in history.

But in February 1991, Bob Sheldon, owner of Internationalist Books on Rosemary Street, was murdered and Osment was the unanimous choice of Sheldon’s friends and family to manage the new cooperative they had formed to keep alive his progressive bookstore. Osment met Al McSurely, a civil rights lawyer who had been asked by the Sheldon family to help them honor their only son’s legacy. Osment and McSurely clicked. While working on getting the new bookstore cooperative off the ground, Osment also managed the McSurely Civil Rights law office. She helped McSurely win major civil rights victories, including a Title VI complaint against the Chatham County school system on behalf of all children of color in the county and many others.

Osment completed law school at UNC in 1995 and helped raise McSurely’s three children, Caitlin Swain-McSurely, Walker Swain-McSurely and Erin Swain-McSurely. McSurely and Osment married in 1995 and in September 1996 they won a case on behalf of UNC housekeepers and Quinn Soleil (“Sunny”) Osment was born.

When Sunny was born, Osment’s balancing of her passions for justice, her children (Sunny, Caitlin, Walker and Erin), and music challenged her creative feminist genius. In 1997, when Sunny was about 8 months old, Osment met Maria Palmer, who had just started a small day-care center on Cameron Avenue, exactly halfway between the Osment-McSurely home and their law office above the Rathskellar. Within a few months, Sunny had been accepted as a full-fledged member of the Mi Escuelita Spanish Immersion child-care center, which Palmer and Osment organized. Mi Escuelita became the pilot for Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools’ dual-language program, in which Sunny is still enrolled as a rising eighth-grader.

In 2005, Osment joined the UNC’s Center for Civil Rights and quickly became an expert on the tactics and strategies – both in the courts and at the ballot box – of resegregation.

For five years, even after her cancer had been discovered in 2007 and its recurrence in 2008, Osment litigated, organized conferences, created educational materials and trained hundreds of black and white educational leaders about the rising threat of the resegregationist tactics in the courts and in relatively inexpensive elections.

She was in great pain after the cancer spread to her hip, and she had to use crutches to get around for the last six months. But she remained direct, honest and exquisitely graceful in her efforts to deal with cancer and its ruination of her life and hopes. She was able to enjoy many good times with Sunny over this last period, when she knew she was dying. She was also comforted by her three step-children’s unqualified commitment to their sister and their father, McSurely, during the terrible suffering she endured the past few months.

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