Civil-rights lawyer dies at 46

She shared cancer fight in column

From Staff ReportsJune 1, 2010 

  • Ashley Osment wrote about living with cancer in a regular column for The Chapel Hill News. Here is an excerpt from her first column.

    "Before my diagnosis I was a happy mom and a workaholic civil rights lawyer. Now I am a pretty happy mom whose priorities have changed. For the most part I am busy figuring out three things: parenting as a mom with cancer, cancer treatment and the meaning of life.

    "No, cancer is not the best thing that ever happened to me. I cannot believe it when people say that. But the deeper level of consciousness where I regularly find myself is definitely new. I notice more. More about myself. More about other people. More about life, culture, religion and the natural world. The special brilliance that life assumes when it's made suddenly precious is the flipside of every tragedy."

Ashley Osment, a civil-rights attorney who shared her fight against cancer in a regular column in The Chapel Hill News, died in her sleep Friday night. She was 46.

She will be remembered at a memorial service at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Chapel Hill Bible Church, at the intersection of Erwin and Sage roads.

Since July 2007, Osment had been trying to beat 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," her husband, Al McSurely, said.

"She refused, to her last breath, to let the cancer control her life."

A 1995 graduate of the UNC School of Law, Osment was the senior attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights.

In a letter, Dean Jack Boger recalled "this strong though petite woman, who never fully lost her charming mountain twang, the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister father."

"With an inimitable cheerfulness, candor and open personal style, joined with a brilliant mind and relentless use of sophisticated legal and social scientific tools to redress injustices, Ashley led the UNC Center's advocacy efforts in public education for nearly five years,"Boger wrote.

Osment was born in the North Carolina mountain community of Sylva. After graduating in 1987 from UNC-Chapel Hill, she worked in the Washington, D.C., office of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

In 1990, she returned to Chapel Hill to resume her studies. But in 1991, Bob Sheldon, owner of Internationalist Books, was killed, and Osment became the unanimous choice to manage the new cooperative formed to keep his progressive bookstore alive.

While working on the cooperative, Osment also managed McSurely's civil rights law office. She helped him win civil rights cases for then-UNC police officer Keith Edwards and a group of university housekeepers, as well as a Title VI complaint against the Chatham County Schools.

In 2004, UNC's Center for Civil Rights began looking for an experienced civil rights lawyer to head its new education section. Osment was in charge of building a regional hub for advocacy, litigation and research on school desegregation.

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