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September 11, 1987|HILLIARD HARPER

May Chinn (1896-1980) attended medical school against her father's wishes and, despite the resentment of black male physicians, practiced medicine for 50 years in Harlem, often as the only black woman physician there.

Olivia Pearl Stokes, recognizing that black men did not take kindly to the idea of female ministers, deferred her own ordination for 25 years. Instead, Stokes elected to earn a doctorate in religious education and achieved her professional objectives as a Christian educator. Now an ordained Baptist minister, Stokes has served as the National Council of Churches' associate director for urban education and is a co-founder and executive director of a social service agency in New York.

Lives of public service, often in the face of social and family opposition, form the theme of "Women of Courage," a photographic exhibit opening Sunday at the Educational Cultural Complex, 4343 Ocean View Blvd., San Diego

This exhibition was developed as part of the Black Women Oral History Project of the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College. From 1976 to 1981, 72 women from across the United States who had made "substantial contributions to improving the lives of African-Americans and all peoples" were interviewed for their oral memoirs.

Most of the photographs were made expressly for the Oral History Project by Judith Sedwick. While the portraits, made at a woman's home or office, tend toward a slick, "color snapshot" look, the quiet strength of the subjects often overrides the commercial color tones and the photographer's lack of artistic artifice.

In a photograph of Eunice Rivers Laurie, a nurse for more than 50 years among the rural poor in Alabama, "her arms, the way her hands are folded over her breast, you can see the calmness, and you know she's been through a lot," said Sylvia M'Lafi Thompson.

Thompson, the cultural affairs officer for the Educational Cultural Complex, is responsible for bringing the traveling photo exhibition to San Diego. Thompson said the exhibit--the first real art show to hang in the complex's halls--means a lot to Southeast San Diego.

"There's a lack of facilities in this part of the community," Thompson said. "We don't even have a movie theater in Southeast San Diego, much less an art gallery. This is setting a precedent for people coming into our hallways at ECC. When this show goes on, others will take its place."

A 4-8 p.m. grand opening benefit at the complex Sunday will honor actress Beah Richards, the National Council of Negro Women and the Mexican American Women's Assn. Richards, a film and television actress for more than 30 years, has appeared in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "In the Heat of the Night," "The Little Foxes" and "Purlie Victorious," and is working in the television series "Hunter," "Frank's Place" and "227."

California Ballet principal dancer Denise Dabrowski will perform a special solo tribute to women, and Bernie Casey, former football player and now a painter and actor, will make a presentation.

Thompson hopes the benefit (tickets are $25) will raise $9,000 to cover the cost of shipping the photographs to San Diego and buying the permanent exhibition walls.

"Women of Courage" will be open through Sept. 28. It will be joined Sept. 26 by "Up From the Soul," an exhibit of paintings by local artist Jihmye Collins.

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