Juanita Morrow Nelson was born on August 17, 1923 in Cleveland (Ohio). She began her life of activism while a student at Howard University, where she participated in some of the earliest sit-ins of the civil rights movement. She was arrested as a nineteen-year-old sophomore for her action at a drugstore lunch counter in downtown Washington (D.C.) Juanita was a journalist and reporter for the Cleveland Call and Post from 1941-194_, reporting particularly on racial bias and other issues. Juanita worked on desegregation campaigns in Cincinnati (Ohio), Washington (D.C.) and elsewhere, and was an organizer for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). She co-founded the Cleveland Committee of Racial Equality in 1944, an affiliate of CORE, which was successful in desegregating two local schools. In 1959, Juanita was arrested for war tax refusal. She made a court appearance in the bathrobe she was wearing when apprehended at her home. She was released the same day, but the incident was reported on in Philadelphia newspapers. Juanita was an activist throughout her lifetime, as well as a writer. A Matter of Freedom and Other Writings by Juanita was published in 1988, and she also published articles, particularly regarding gardening and farming.
Wallace Floyd (Wally) Nelson was born on March 27, 1909 to Lydia and Duncan Nelson. He was raised in Little Rock (Arkansas), a younger son in a large family of sharecroppers. Later, he went north to join his brother, working odd-jobs, and trying to get a higher education. He attended Ohio Wesleyan University for three years, majoring in sociology. He participated in 1934 in the student strike on the campus of the University of Chicago. Before WWII began, he was the director of the Liberty Community Center in Delaware (Ohio). Wally was a conscientious objector and absolute pacifist. He spent one year and four days in Civilian Public Service (CPS), but became dissatisfied with it and illegally walked out of Camp No. 23 near Coshocton (Ohio) in the summer of 1943. As a result, he was imprisoned for three and a half years at county jails in Detroit (Michigan) and Cleveland (Ohio) and in four federal prisons in Milan (Michigan), Chillicothe (Ohio), Lewisburg (Pennsylvania), and Danbury (Connecticut). Toward the end of his imprisonment, he went on a hunger strike for 107 days. Officials fed him forcefully with a tube down his nose for 87 days until Wally was finally released from prison. In 1947, Wally participated in the Journey of Reconciliation -- the first freedom ride bus trip in the South -- and was among 16 who were arrested. For 15 or more years he was one of the main coordinators for the Peacemakers Summer Orientation Program in Nonviolence.
In the 1950s, Wally was the first full-time travelling secretary for CORE (Congress for Racial Equality), also called the National Field Representative. For this job, among other duties, he directed Summer Interracial Workshops on non-violent direct action in Washington D.C. Wally was a founder, and for many years a board member, of Operation Freedom. He worked as a traveling salesman for the Antioch Bookplate Company from 1964 to 1969. In 1968, Wally fasted for 21 days in front of an Acme supermarket to protest their handling of boycotted lettuce, in support of the United Farm Workers campaign for just wages and working conditions for farm laborers. He participated in the annual war-tax protest in front of the Greenfield Post office on tax day for many years.
Juanita met Wally in 1944, when she was investigating prison conditions and he was in the Cuyahoga County Jail as a conscientious objector. In 1948 they joined Peacemakers together and became tax resisters the same year. They planned and participated in the first Freedom Rides in the late 1940s. As African-Americans, Juanita and Wally were always working for racial equality, though their main attention turned toward promoting tax resistance and protesting war. In 1950 Juanita and Wally lived communally with Marion and Ernest Bromley in Cincinnati (Ohio), and then moved to Philadelphia (Pennsylvania). They spent four months at Koinonia Farm in southwest Georgia in 1957, where the intentional and integrated community was the target of nine shootings.
The Nelsons chose to live very simply, in Ojo Caliente (New Mexico) from 1970-1974, and later at Woolman Hill in Deerfield (Massachusetts) from 1974 on. They cut their expenses dramatically, living on less than $5,000 a year, building a house with salvaged materials and without electricity or plumbing, and maintaining an organic vegetable farm on a half-acre of land. In her later years, Juanita instituted harvest suppers in nearby Greenfield (Massachusetts), at which 700+ locals ate together at tables set up in the Town Common.
Wally and Juanita were founding members of the Valley Community Land Trust in western Massachusetts. A no-interest loan fund is now held by the Trust in Wally's memory. They also stimulated the organization of the Pioneer Valley War Tax Resisters, and co-founded the Greenfield Farmer's Market.
The Nelsons received the Courage of Conscience Award from The Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Massachusetts. Juanita and Wally were very well known and admired by many for their peaceful living that consistently reflected their beliefs. They never married officially, but were wed in their complete devotion to each other and shared vision for the world. After Wally's death in 2002, Juanita wrote letters to him, telling of her activities and her terrible sense of loss without him at her side. She lived until 2015, still active in her community and beyond.