Ita Stocks has left her mark on the history of her time. Not just on local history, not just on state history, but on national history.
The look of the world has changed within Ita’s life span, and she has helped change it. Ita’s weapons have been a trained intellect, a crusading spirit and a compassionate heart.
Every woman who pursues a career of her own choosing, who thoughtfully casts a ballot, who serves with distinction where once only men were allowed to serve, has reason to be grateful to Ita Stocks and other American girls who decided at the turn of the century that the Victorian era was over and done with and that they would identify with the new century and the new challenges.
No onlooker is Ita. By choice, not happenstance, Ita has been part and parcel of every great war, every important movement, and every major crisis the nation has known up through the early 60’s since she finished high school here in Gadsden at the age of 15.
Each step of the way, until their deaths, Ita had the support of her parents, A. T. and Mattie Pruitt Stocks, who came to Gadsden from Mississippi in 1888, and for a long generation made themselves part of the business, civic and religious life of the community.
Mr. Stocks soon owned acres of property in the Haralson Avenue/Reynolds Street area, erected the town’s most impressive office building at Fifth and Chestnut streets and served in a volunteer capacity as secretary of the Chamber of Commerce. The entire family was active in the First Christian Church.
Mr. and Mrs. Stocks agreed with Ita that college was just as important for her and her sister, Pat, as it was for the boys, 0. J. and Tom – a daring notion indeed in 1901.
So off went Ita, not yet 16, to Hamilton College in Kentucky. After receiving her degree, she taught school for eight years and continued her studies in the graduate schools of University of Chicago, University of Alabama and Columbia University in New York.
World War I was the turning point in Ita’s life. None of the conventional channels of service for women seemed sufficient in satisfy her burning zeal to help Woodrow Wilson make the world safe for democracy.
To the dismay of her conventional friends, but with full parental approval, Ita volunteered for ambulance service in 1917 and set out for training at Camp Martin in New Orleans, one of the two training camps in the United States that accepted women. It was a man’s world.
Ita made ‘A’ in mechanics and a ‘B’ in military tactics. She wore dungarees, fought mosquitoes and coped with Delta mud when it rained, Delta dust when it didn’t and Delta heat no matter what.
None of the girls complained. How could they? They were proving something to themselves, to their sex and to this whole male-arranged scheme of things.
Ambulance quotas were full when Ita completed her course and received her uniform, but she was not to be denied her bit in global conflict. Ita was transferred to the YMCA and sent overseas to operate a hut and canteen in France near the Swiss border.
Like all other American girls in service, Ita found herself fiercely protected and unmercifully teased by the soldiers.
With the Armistice, Ita and millions of her contemporaries were jubilantly sure that the world was safe for democracy. They had seen to that and now could turn their attention to other problems, of which there were plenty.
In 1919 the Woman Suffrage Amendment passed Congress and began the slow process of ratification by the states. Despite the superb record of women during the war years, state legislatures still insisted that woman’s place was in the home.
They heard from Ita Stocks.
If she could man a canteen, she could certainly cast a ballot, Ita reasoned. She lobbied indefatigably for the amendment. One of Ita’s co-lobbyists in Montgomery was Marie Bankhead Owens, who knitted as she lobbied, to prove that “though she believed in women’s rights, she was nonetheless a lady.”
“As if that needed proving!” Ita scornfully exclaimed.
The amendment was ratified, though Tom Heflin continued to protest that women had sold their birthright for a mess of pottage and would henceforth be besmirched in the grubby maw of politics.
Ita in later years competently ran her florist shop in the Stocks building on one of the busiest corners in town, with streetcars clanging by every few minutes. Ita and Mrs. E. T. Schuler organized the Tuberculosis Association and started a small camp in a house donated by John Inzer on Lookout Mountain. She and Robert Schuler built the septic tank with their own hands, and got up at 3 a.m. to transport patients to camp in order not to alarm the fanatically germ-conscious neighbors.
Ita was a charter member of the local Business and Professional Women’s Club, and its second president. In 1921, she became second state president of BPW.
Ita joined with Mrs. Alexander Greet, Mrs. W. T. Murphree, Mrs. Tyler Watts and Mrs. C. A. Kittredge in organizing the local Girl Scouts. For years Ita was volunteer director of the Girl Scouts’ summer camp.
The carefree ‘20s caromed into the Depressed ‘30s, and there were other needs to attend to. For instance, hunger was rampant in Etowah County.
Ita Stocks helped organize the first welfare board, which later developed into the Department of Pensions and Security.
When national supplies were sent in, Ita used her own car to deliver the supplies to the remotest corners of the county.
Ita was instrumental in setting up the farmers curb market, located then on Sixth Street, and became its first curb master, another job that required early rising.
During two Depression summers, Ita organized and ran a camp for malnourished children, enlisting the aid of the PTA, the curb market, dairies and civic-minded individuals. She had 45 children the first year, 50 the in second. The medical examinations Ita insisted upon uncovered 15 cases of childhood tuberculosis. These cases were treated, and all the patients recovered.
Ita assisted in organization of the Crippled Children’s Society, and for years helped the county nurse at the clinic and in the rehabilitation center.
Ita donated a park to the city, a wooded ravine at Reynolds and Randall streets, where children play and a community tree wears lights at Christmastime.
Ita organized Junior Audubon Societies and was a charter member of the Woman’s Club and Altrusa. She is an honorary member of the VFW.
Ita was a member of the League of Women Voters, and heartily endorsed their objectives.
“So many interesting things to do, so many fascinating people to meet,” Ita once said of a world that, to her, never seemed humdrum.
Perhaps it is never humdrum to one famous lady who had stars in her eyes and steel in her backbone.