a man of letters (3) – prejudice by any other name is still prejudice


While the war took center stage in everyone’s mind in 1942 and my dad noticed that his hunting and fishing buddies in Richards, Texas had a younger sister, apparently hormones were also raging in my dad’s brother Ray who would have been almost twenty years old in April of 1942 when he received a surprise letter in the mail from his mother. It was dated April 27th.

“Dear Ray,

Your daddy and I were tickled with your surprise visit this past weekend. You always have to work, and it was a treat for us to have you home for a whole weekend. I am pleased to see that your appetite is still good. I’ve never seen anyone love chicken and dumplings the way you do!

Now, son, I need to have a serious talk with you about Geneva Walkoviak. I know that you had two dates with her while you were home. We can’t have you getting too serious about Geneva. And, I’m sure you know why. Even though she is pretty and seems sweet enough, the facts are that she is Polish and Catholic and those are two things that don’t mix in our family. You may not be able to appreciate the problems with that, but take my word for it. You stay with your own kind. Now, let’s leave it at that. I know you wouldn’t want to let us down.

Try to make it home for your daddy’s birthday this summer.

All our love,

Mama and Daddy”

Polish. Catholic. Prejudice takes twists and turns through the years, decades, centuries. The names change, but the sentiments do not. Polish people in Richards at that time had a distinct accent – they were often first and second generation immigrants who farmed the contrary Texas land. The children rode a small yellow school bus to the red brick schoolhouse in town carrying the hopes and dreams of their families in tiny brown paper lunch bags. The men and boys got their haircuts at my grandfather’s barbershop. Their money, as is always the case in prejudice, was evidently neither Polish nor Catholic.

Today bigotry is often based on what language is spoken, skin color, or country of origin. Hispanic refugees and others seeking asylum in this country are subjected to inhumane treatment that is unacceptable to all of us who respect the values our nation was founded on: everyone is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We do not separate children from their mothers and then put them in prison camps. We’ve done that before to African-American slaves whose families were ripped apart and scattered to the four winds. That is not who we think we are. That is not who we are, is it?

Catholics – Jews – Muslims. The religion roller coaster ride continues with death-defying speed and mind-boggling ticket prices.

What a tangled web we weave in a small rural southeast Texas community consumed by the thought of a war in 1942, and yet my grandmother decided to set aside time to write a letter to my uncle which sadly exhibited the same kinds of prejudice that created anti-Semitism in Germany which was the impetus for the war in the first place, where a name like Walkoviak and a pretty Catholic girl named Geneva could become the target of pointed prejudice.

I am ashamed and saddened by this letter. I do not find it surprising, however, because I remember my grandmother as a wonderful strong funny woman – but flawed. She would have been 39 years old when she wrote that revealing letter to her son. I’m not sure her positions changed during the next forty-five years of her life. She agonized over voting for the Democratic candidate John Kennedy in 1960 because of his Catholicism, for example; but I do recall she relented in later years when her grandson, one of Ray’s sons, married a Catholic girl.

My dad, on the other hand, must have been blissfully unaware of the family drama because three months after his mother’s letter to his brother, he wrote to his parents following a visit  for his father’s birthday on July 29th. His father turned 44 on that birthday. This letter is dated August 1, 1942.

“Dear Mama and Daddy,

It was good to be home for Daddy’s birthday this week. I’m back at work today, and the grocery store is still standing. And, I’m still stocking shelves. Talk about boring. At least, it gives me money for school and to help Lucy and Terrell with the bills. It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Beaumont for a whole year.

The War is the big topic on campus and off. Doesn’t look like we’re doing very good against the bad guys. Daddy, you better go up to Washington and see Mr. Roosevelt. I think he needs some good advice for a change. You could get things going in the right direction.

I didn’t see much of Ray while we were home. He spends a lot of time with Geneva Walkoviak. She’s the only one he likes to spend money on. Of course, I guess you didn’t see much of me, either. Selma and I went to see the same movie three times. I’m beginning to like her more than her brothers.

Probably won’t be home again until Christmas. The classes are a little harder this year. But, you’ll see that my grades are hanging in there really good. I want you to be proud of me.

Your son,

Glenn Morris”

Obviously my uncle Ray rejected his mother’s ultimatum and continued to date the pretty Polish girl who happened to be Catholic. That made me smile.

Throughout 1942 the impact of the war came closer and closer to home as more  young men enlisted – teenage boys were leaving their farms, day jobs, and classrooms to join the armed forces. They would soon cross oceans by sea and air to defend their country from the Axis powers.

Stay tuned

Ray and his mama

my grandmother

 

 

 

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a man of letters (2) – beyond Pearl Harbor


When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Sunday December 7, 1941, America was shaken out of its apathy toward the war in Europe and the Pacific. The country was irrevocably changed. My grandmother, who routinely wrote letters to her family on Monday mornings, had this to say in one of those letters to her daughter, son-in-law and younger son who was living with his sister in Beaumont, Texas on Monday, December 8, 1941.

“Dear Lucy, Terrell and Glenn,

Well, we are in total shock this morning after the news yesterday! We can’t believe the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. How in the world could that even happen? So many killed and wounded. We just can’t begin to understand it.

But, we all know now that Mr. Roosevelt will have to protect us and that we’ll be caught up in the thick of all this fighting. I’m worried sick for all my boys, including you, Terrell. Your daddy and I are grateful that we have a good Democrat in charge of the country in times like these.

It really is old blue Monday today, the bluest of them all for me. I feel so helpless. But, I’ve got to get to stirring around.

We love you,

Mama and Daddy”

A week later on December 15th my aunt Lucy wrote her parents:

“Dear Daddy and Mama,

We are all so upset here, too. It’s all any of us can talk about. Terrell and Glenn and I just wonder what’s going to happen next? We’re trying to keep going on with our everyday lives, but it’s hard to do when you’re this worried and upset about everything. Thank goodness for President Roosevelt. He keeps us believing that we can win against all odds.

We can’t wait to get home for Christmas – especially this year. We’ll plan to drive up Christmas Eve after work and spend the night. Terrell has to work the day after Christmas, but we’ll stay as long as we can after lunch on Christmas Day.

I love you both dearly,

Lucy”

My dad turned seventeen in October of 1941. He graduated from high school the previous May and worked in a grocery store to be able to attend Lamar College in Beaumont. The first exchange of letters I discovered between my mom and dad occurred early in 1942 following his Christmas visit home to Richards. Even the dark clouds of war couldn’t totally prevent raging teenage hormones. He wrote this letter on January 6, 1942.

“Dear Selma,

I am back in classes and taking a full load, as we college men say. I still have my Weingarten’s job, too. What would they do without me?

I just wanted to say that I enjoyed seeing you and all of your brothers while I was at home for Christmas. Ray and Daddy and I had a fine quail hunt with Marion and Toby. Charlie must have been courting Sue Ellen. I didn’t see much of him.

Speaking of courting, I was wondering if you knew who that girl was who I saw watching me walking home the night I took Betty Jo Lund to the movies? She looked a lot like you. Not nearly as cute as you, though.

I guess you’re so happy being a junior this year that you don’t have time to write an old friend of your brothers. Just in case you do, I wrote my address at Lucy’s on the envelope.

Cordially,

Glenn Morris”

I just love that “cordially, Glenn Morris.” My mom finally responded to the letter more than a month later. On February 12, 1942 she wrote…

“Dear Glenn,

I was glad to get your letter after Christmas. I am nervous about writing a college man, and that is why it’s taken me a while to write you back. Plus, everyone is so upset about the war. Mother is worried because Marion and Charlie are thinking about signing up for the Navy. Our cousin, C.H., is talking to them about it. He says they should come with him. He doesn’t have any brothers of his own. I know Mother won’t like it if they go.

I think your sister, Lucy, is the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen in real life.

Well, I’m sorry this isn’t a very good letter, but I don’t know what else to write.

Sincerely,

Selma

P.S. I think you must be mistaken about the girl waiting up for you.”

Selma in high school

In January, 1942 American troops were sent to Samoa to try to stop the Japanese advance in the Pacific, the first American forces landed in Europe in Northern Ireland, Hitler threatened the Jews with annihilation and blamed the failure of the German army in the Soviet Union on the weather. Twenty-six Allied countries signed a Declaration by United Nations on New Years’s Day in 1942 that became the foundation for the United Nations. Strangely, Japan declared war on the Netherlands on January 10, 1942.

WWII cast long shadows of fear and uncertainty in the lives of families everywhere around the globe, including my own that was tucked away in a small town near the entrance to the Sam Houston National Forest. My family’s faith in Mr. Roosevelt was unwavering. As Lucy said, “he keeps us believing that we can win against all odds.”

My grandmother’s  worries that “we’ll be caught up in the thick of all this fighting” proved to be true. Many of the boys in the little town of Richards would enlist in the armed forces including her own two sons and Selma’s brothers who  signed up in the Navy with their cousin C.H.

Stay tuned.

 

 

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a man of letters – 1941 before Pearl Harbor


My dad and eight classmates graduated from Richards High School in rural Grimes County, Texas on May 22, 1941. He was 16 years old, the smallest and youngest boy in his class – but chosen to be class president. On graduation day he delivered the “welcome” to a small group of families and friends sitting inside a hot gymnasium on wooden folding chairs that were always used by the school for assemblies and special occasions.

My grandmother was an archivist when it came to her three children, particularly for her youngest, my dad Glenn, and had preserved a copy of his speech on graduation day. The welcome was full of the biggest words he could think of and/or make up. Have a listen.

“…In recognition thereof, I do hereby proclaim it as a day to be set aside from the rest for universal celebration, in the making of speeches and the lifting aloft our voices in praise and jollification, and the pouring forth of songs of subtle and diverse significance that the air may bound with the echoes of our tongues’ rejoicing…”

I’m trying to picture this little 16-year-old blonde headed boy coming up with such big words and actually reading them to the farmers, cattlemen, shopkeepers, wives, mothers, other children gathered there. What were they thinking, for example, when they heard the word jollification.

One person in that audience for sure loved it and wrote this letter a few days later on May 27, 1941 to her eldest child, my aunt Lucy, who was 22 years old at the time.

“Dear Lucy,

I’m so glad that you and Terrell  were able to drive up from Beaumont for Glenn’s graduation Friday night. I was so proud of his speech, weren’t you? He had wanted it to be memorable, as he phrased it. Isn’t that something? A sixteen-year-old boy wanting to be memorable. I’m sure that being the youngest and smallest in that class made him try so hard to be good at whatever he does. It certainly seemed like his other classmates were paying attention to all those big words anyway.

I can’t believe my baby boy has graduated from high school. Do you remember when we moved to Richards in 1925 in the old Model T? Glenn wasn’t even two years old. Ray was five, and you were seven. Your daddy took a big chance moving us all here and opening his own barbershop. I can tell you I was afraid. But, things have a way of working out the way they’re meant to, I guess, and I couldn’t see us living anywhere else again.

I had the funniest picture in my mind when Glenn was giving his speech. All those years ago when you and I were in the kitchen and I had sent the boys to bring the wood for the stove. You looked out the window and pointed at Ray pulling the wagon with the wood stacked up so high, and Glenn was riding on top while Ray struggled. You and I got so tickled. We laughed until the tears rolled down our cheeks.

Well, give our love to Terrell. You are lucky to have that fine young man. Your daddy and I really think the world of him.

It’s old blue Monday, and I’ve got to get moving.

                           We love you,

                 Mama and Daddy”

My uncle Ray, always the most practical and industrious of my grandmother’s three children, had this advice several days after Dad’s graduation..

“Dear Mama and Daddy,

I forgot to tell you when I was there for Glenn’s graduation last week, but I believe you need to raise your prices, Daddy. They’re getting 75 cents for a haircut in Houston these days and a whole dollar for a shave. And, nobody does as good a job as you do. I’m prejudiced. Got to go. I’m working overtime this week to make some extra money.

Your son,

Ray”

Two months after the graduation, Lucy writes in July, 1941.

“Dear Daddy and Mama,

Glenn made it down here safe and sound, and he’s going out to the college to get registered for summer school today. Don’t worry, Mama. He’ll be fine staying with us. Terrell really likes him, and I think Glenn thinks a lot of Terrell, too. I know it was sort of a hurried up decision, but he really didn’t have anything else to do this summer in Richards so he might as well go on to school and get a job here. He’s such a mess — says he’s going to borrow the money from Ray for his tuition. I told him to get a job. We’ll work it out as we go along.

Saw an article about small towns in Texas in the paper the other day. Gosh, Richards is booming compared to most of them. Daddy, we can thank you for all that prosperity in Grimes County, can’t we? Your barbershop and dry cleaning business are the center of Main Street activities. Mr. McAfee’s drug store, Batey and Lenorman garages, the Borings’ picture show and café, Dr. Sanders – where would any of them be without Daddy to bring folks to town every week?

Daddy fought the Depression with a razor and a pair of scissors. He didn’t need a sword. I’m so proud.

I love you both dearly,

Lucy”

Toward the end of that graduation speech in May, the youthful Glenn spoke of his hope for a future he had no way of knowing was going to be permanently altered for him and his classmates before the end of the year.

“Therefore, as we look back over the past, with all its great and wonderful victories and achievements, and look forward to the future, with all its yet more wonderful promise of great and glorious things yet to come, and mighty and marvelous deeds awaiting our hands for the doing…”

This boy with his youthful optimism would find himself engaged in mortal  combat as a navigator on an airplane carrying bombs for 35 missions over Germany before he was 19 years old. However, prior to his enlistment to serve his country on a battlefield in the air, he moved to Beaumont to live with his sister and her husband following his graduation from high school.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to be home for his dad’s birthday on July 29, 1941. Beaumont was 90 miles from Richards.

Instead, he wrote a letter to his dad:

“Happy Birthday, Daddy!

I wish I could be there in person to help you celebrate today. It’s the first birthday I’ve missed with you. Lucy and Terrell had planned to bring me home, but my boss at the Weingarten’s wouldn’t let me have the day off. I guess he was afraid the grocery business would go bankrupt if I wasn’t there to stock the shelves. Just know that I am with you and Mama in spirit, though.

I’m sure a bunch of the old men at the barbershop kept you busy with their gossip and whittling away. How’s Mr. Howard McCune doing? How about Chili Caldwell? He’s the best one for carving animals. I fully expect his hewn cows to moo.

How old are you today? I think Lucy said you were forty-three. You’re really my old man now!

I love you, Daddy, and hope that I’ll be as good as you when I’m old,

Glenn

P.S. I made a 95 on my first math exam at Lamar College. Pretty good, huh?”

Sunday is Father’s Day and while I think of him every day, the holiday prompted me to spend this week with my daddy and our family through the letters they wrote. He died from colon cancer when he was 51 so I am grateful for the history my grandmother preserved.

Many years ago I collected the remains of my grandmother’s and aunt’s letters, pictures and assorted papers which I planned to use in a project called A Man of Letters. The project fizzled and languished, but I always planned to return to it because for me, this is more than a story of one man – it is a glimpse into the experiences of what family life was in rural America and how that environment nurtured the sons and daughters who became known as the Greatest Generation.

Our family survived the Great Depression with a razor and a pair of scissors but they would be tested again by the end of 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor creating a chain of events none of them could have foreseen. Stay tuned.

Daddy with his mother in Richards

my grandfather before he became a barber

Lucy, Ray and Glenn

 

 

 

 

 

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book club bonuses


The pub was packed as Pretty and I followed the hostess to a small room in the very back of the Main Street tavern known as O’Hara’s in Lexington, SC. Sounds of busy bartenders slinging ice into cocktail glasses and pulling levers for draft beer mixed with the heavenly aromas of bbq wings drifting from the kitchen –  good signs for a place we’d never visited before. The day was a Thursday, and people were hooking up after work to prepare for Friday and the weekend. No inside voices inside this bar for sure.

When the hostess indicated where we were to go, we stepped into a little room with eight smiling people waiting for us. They were the book club we had been invited to meet with that night to talk about Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement: Committed to Home, the anthology I edited that was published by the University of South Carolina Press earlier this year. One of the members, our friend Tony, had selected the book for his club meeting during Pride Month and, judging from the warm welcome we received, the book had been much appreciated.

I always love an opportunity to talk about Committed to Home and getting to discuss it with book clubs is a bonus because book club members are more likely to actually read books. I love them for it.

Everyone had a beverage and food while I answered questions, offered extra information on the book cover, little tidbits on rejection letters from other publishers and also discussed a few of the contributors. Pretty and I sampled the delicious wings we’d sniffed on the way in. They were as good as they’d smelled.

While we ate, Pretty chatted away with Tony and a couple of other members who were close to us. I heard her talk about joining the club so I knew she was having fun. Pretty belonged to a book club many years ago that she still misses very much.

The noise from the bar outside our small room gradually reached a crescendo which made the larger group interaction more difficult so we began talking in smaller groups of twos and threes to the persons we sat next to or across from. One of the book club members, a woman about my age, leaned across the table to talk directly to me. I was completely enthralled by her story.

Connie moved to the Columbia area from Missouri in the early 1990s and discovered Traxx, the lesbian bar discussed in Committed to Home by contributor Deborah Hawkins who opened Traxx. On one of her visits to the bar, Connie picked up a magazine called In Unison in which she saw an advertisement for a group called Lesbians without Partners. Since she was single and interested in meeting other lesbians, Connie decided to give it a try. She discovered the group had been started by an African American woman named Kat who had a single lesbian daughter. She asked me if I knew Kat or the group, but I told her regretfully I’d never heard of it.

One of the other women she met in the new group was Nancy who had moved here from New York. Nancy asked at one of the meetings if anyone liked to go fishing; Connie said that she did. Nancy had a boat and a place at Lake Murray but nobody to fish with. To add to her woes, she told the group she’d been stood up several times by people who promised her they would go but then never showed. Connie assured her she wouldn’t be in that category so they agreed on a day and time for the fishing trip.

The night before Connie was to meet Nancy, a terrible thunderstorm brought tons of rain and much colder temperatures for the day afterwards. The last thing she wanted to do was go fishing, Connie thought. But she didn’t want to be one of the women who disappointed Nancy so she dressed warmly and spent the day on a fishing boat on Lake Murray talking nonstop with her “singles” group friend and found that neither had any real interest in the lines they threw in the water that day.

Connie knew that Traxx was having a Beaufort stew night at the bar that night and promised to introduce Nancy to the people she knew if she would like to come. Nancy did go and met Connie there. Apparently as the night wore along Nancy was more interested in Connie than in the other lesbians she met that night. The rest, as they say, was history…but not quite.

Both Connie and Nancy loved their singles group which had a rule prohibiting dating among the members. In order to maintain their membership, they asked Kat if they could still belong by alternating meetings. Connie would come to one meeting, Nancy to the next. Slightly unorthodox, but Kat agreed. I can imagine she was happy for her two singles to make a double.

Twenty-seven years later these two remarkable married women sat across from me in a tiny room at a pub in Lexington, SC as members of another group: a book club formed with friends from their church. I felt their story was another bonus for me that night. They lived the early days of the LGBTQ movement in our state – and tonight they could read about a few of the leaders of our movement, people who had worked to provide support to them by changing the political landscape of a conservative southern state.

Thank goodness for Deborah Hawkins’s taking a leap of faith to start what she hoped would be a community center for lesbians, thank goodness for Tige Watts and Nigel Mahaffey for publishing a community magazine called In Unison, and a special thank you to Kat wherever she is today. If anyone knows her, please tell her Connie and Nancy haven’t forgotten her or the singles group she started.

Many thanks, also, to Tony Roof for choosing Committed to Home for his book club during Pride Month and for his ongoing support of our LGBTQ community. Pretty and I had a special night with you and your friends.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

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HAPPY PRIDE!


Thanks to my Wells Fargo ATM machine for wishing me a Happy Pride Month when I stopped by today to make a cash withdrawal. My first thought was to wonder how the machine knew I was a lesbian? Seriously. I stared at the screen for a few seconds in disbelief.

I mean, I knew technology now did wondrous things, but had “gaydar” been installed in ATM machines…then I noticed instructions to hit Print if I wanted to see more information on the subject after my transaction receipt was printed. So, of course I did, and this is what rolled out.

Standing together with the LGBTQ community

It’s a commitment we made 30 years ago. Since then we’ve contributed over $50 million and countless team member volunteer hours to organizations that are making a difference…

…including the important work done by GLSEN, Point Foundation, SAGE and The Trevor Project…

Naturally my cynical self said well, this bank has had so much negative press in recent years they are grasping at straws to attract and keep customers.

But, then my old lesbian activist juices kicked in and I broke into my imaginary version of a Happy Dance which shouted Hallelujah! I just witnessed an ATM of a major financial institution recognizing Pride Month in 2018 and I couldn’t wait to get home to tell Pretty about it. She was equally impressed.

Please know that I share this with my cyberspace friends not as an endorsement of Wells Fargo or any of its various services – I’m simply “paying” it forward to wish all of you a Joyous June as you reflect on the progress we’ve made in our quest for equality during the past 50 years notwithstanding the setbacks in recent months of the policies of a new administration in the executive branch of the federal government, the apathy of the legislative branch for social justice as evidenced by a Congress mired in a bog of disputes unrelated to those issues and the judicial decision this week by the Supreme Court that will encourage the No Gays Allowed signs like the one posted in a hardware store outside of Knoxville, Tennessee following that decision (which must have been printed in advance with high hopes of the chance to place it in the window asap).

Harriet Hancock ended her essay in Committed to Home with a blessing that I love. I wish I’d written it.

May you be blessed with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep in your heart. May you be blessed with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people and the earth so that you will work for justice, equality, and peace. May you be blessed with tears to shed for those who suffer so that you will reach out to comfort them and change their pain to joy. And may you be blessed with the foolishness to think that you can make a difference in the world, so you will do the things others say cannot be done.

Happy Pride!

Nothing says PRIDE like a PARADE!

(SC Pride March in October, 2015)

 

 

 

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Dimples, Butch, Buttercup, Sissy… Sissy?


Pretty, the great Treasure Hunter, occasionally brings home items that fascinate. One such find this week was two versions of a board game I played as a child growing up in rural Grimes County, Texas. Before the television set took over as our main form of entertainment, my family played all kinds of games from dominoes to gin rummy to board games Santa Claus left for me under the tree at Christmas. One of our family favorite board games was Go to the Head of the Class which was supposedly “educational” as well as fun. With school teacher parents, I played tons of “educational” games.

fifth series copyrighted in 1949 by Milton Bradley, publisher

The game was originally played with tokens that were cardboard images of children attached to wooden bases. Each game had 8 tokens, and their pictures were on the book that contained the questions.

(top row, l. to r.) Sissy, Dimples, Liz and Butch

(bottom row, l. to r.) Sonny, Buttercup, Susie and Red

Sissy

I can’t find the edition when publisher Milton Bradley eliminated the unsmiling player named Sissy, but I can assure you it would have been the last token picked in my family. Buttercup would have run a close second to the last.

Take a good look at Sissy, the little boy whose two obvious distinguishing features were that he wore glasses and parted his hair down the middle like the little girl tokens.

I remembered Jim Blanton’s essay in Committed to Home where he talked about growing up in Gaffney, South Carolina and being called “sissy” as a child and teenager by bullies in school. Words, labels that cause pain.

I’m sure my parents were oblivious to the subtle cultural messages being sent to me in our educational games, but for me this game was one more nail in the coffin of internalized homophobia and intentional segregation in my childhood. Never any people of color as the tokens. No one wanted to be known as a “sissy,” and how could I explain to anyone why I always picked “Butch” first?

Be aware of bias and labels that hurt. Be kind to each other. Be safe this weekend.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

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in conclusion (3) and oh yeah, about roseanne


The Alabama River was a picture of calm and serenity that stood in sharp contrast to our day filled with turbulence and uneasiness. The colorful cocktails, merriment of the partygoers on our riverboat cruise and the blaring upbeat music of the band on the boat lifted my spirits and those of my sister Leora who had been with me on what I called Pretty’s Civil Rights tour. Pretty missed her calling – she should have been a tour guide.

The boat ride was the perfect end to an intense three days of fun, sharing family stories of our mothers who had an unbreakable bond that was the original reason for our connection and, of course, our trip that none of us would ever forget.

Too much commotion to talk, but not too much to reflect on the journey, as the riverboat glided slowly through the water.

my sister Leora on our riverboat cruise in Montgomery, Alabama…

thinking her own thoughts

We squeezed in under the wire for the last tour of the day for the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church following our visit to The Legacy Museum. The church was rich in history but was usually identified by its connection to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was its pastor from 1954 – 1960. Dr. King was recognized as one of the co-founders of the Civil Rights Movement during his tenure at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The meeting to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott was held in the basement of the church on December 2, 1956.

What an incredible experience we all had with our tour guide Wanda – her joy in sharing the history of the church was infectious…her storytelling made the history come alive. She provided opportunities for our personal interactions within the sacred surroundings. Two moments from the church basement tour stood out to me as I settled into my thoughts on the riverboat ride late in the afternoon.

The original lectern Dr. King used in his meetings was still standing in the basement of the church. Wanda allowed each of our small group of six (another married couple from Kansas had joined us) to stand behind that lectern and repeat his words: “How long? Not long.” I put both my hands on the lectern as I repeated the short phrases, how long? not long. I felt a crack in the veil of shame for an entire race that I had worn since The Legacy Museum visit earlier that day. If Dr. King could say “not long,” then surely time was meaningless; redemption was still possible for all who repented. How long? Not long.

I wanted to add “too long.”

As the basement tour came to an end, Wanda asked us all to feel the Dexter Avenue love by forming a circle, holding hands and encouraging a volunteer  from the group to lead us in prayer. That someone turned out to be our Carmen, Leora’s daughter and Willie’s granddaughter, who spontaneously led us in a very powerful spiritual moment of love and affirmation of goodness that moved me to tears. Carmen’s prayer was my second memory maker of the church basement tour.

I was still lost in the day when our cocktail waitress asked if we wanted to start a tab at the bar on the riverboat. Sure, I said, as the lady with the band began to sing along with her husband who was the lead singer and guitarist. Leora and I both knew all the words to Polk Salad Annie so we joined in with the rest of the riverboat guests – making a joyful noise with exuberance.

We reluctantly said farewell to the Alabama River when we docked two hours later and had only one minor mishap that occurred when we made it back to our car. No keys. Someone was supposed to be taking care of the keys Pretty dropped on our table while she and Carmen climbed to the upper deck. Luckily, the responsible person had knocked them under the table in her slightly inebriated state, and there they remained for Pretty to retrieve with minimal delays. Too much Polk Salad Annie.

As The Red Man was fond of saying, all good things must come to an end, and the next day Pretty drove us back to Louisiana where Leora’s son and niece met Leora and Carmen to take them home to Texas. Many tears were shed that afternoon…we vowed to do better about keeping in touch in person…texting wasn’t good enough. Life is too short, we said as we hugged and cried.

And to add one of Pretty’s favorite quotes, life is also too messy. We have been home for one week and yet another white celebrity exposes her prejudice toward people of color in the headlines this morning. I challenge her to go to Selma and Montgomery and Birmingham to witness a sinister part of our American history that continues to plague our culture today. I challenge every citizen to make that tour in Alabama and then believe with me in Dr.King’s hope for all people everywhere:

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Thank you for making this journey with us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Humor, Lesbian Literary, Life, Personal, photography, racism, Reflections, Slice of Life, The Way Life Is | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

notes of two native daughters, a native granddaughter, and a native daughter-in-law (2)


This quotation from Maya Angelou is written on the walls of what is now The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration located on the site of a former warehouse where slaves were kept in prison while awaiting their fate in Montgomery, Alabama before the Civil War and the emancipation proclamation. Pretty, our tour guide, had made reservations for us to visit this museum at 9:30 last Saturday morning so our group of four was up and about very early on a gorgeous warm day. Our motel was right around the corner from the museum so we all walked over – still laughing and teasing each other about the winning and losing from the card games the night before.

The museum itself is open to the public by reservation, but it is not staffed by tour guides. Everyone is allowed to wander at their own pace to read the explanations of the artifacts, documents and jars of dirt collected at verified lynching sites across the country from 1882 to the present. The number of sites is still undetermined but from 1882 – 1968, nearly 5,000 African Americans were reportedly lynched in states across this country. Congressman John Lewis who wrote the foreword for the book Without Sanctuary calls these lynchings the  “hangings, burnings, castrations and torture of an American holocaust…what is it in the human psyche that would drive a person to commit such acts of violence against their fellow citizens?”

Our group split up as we meandered around through the various amazing exhibits. Pretty and I wandered in one direction, Leora and Carmen went off on their own journey through time as we all saw the intimate lives of American slaves come alive through the magic of hologram technology that portrayed the heartache of families savagely separated from each other, the pleas of the children looking for their mother. Interesting fact:  approximately 12 million people were kidnapped over the three centuries of slave trade to America, according to The Legacy Museum. 12 million living, breathing individuals. I felt overwhelmed by the atrocities with each turn Pretty and I made on our visit.

Overwhelmed, ashamed, guilty, angry – those are the emotions that swirled around in my mind with each personal account of my legacy as a white person in America. The pictures that showed cheering crowds of us – sometimes in the thousands – while an African American man was hanged, shot, burned…pieces of his body sold as souvenirs…post card pictures made…popcorn sold. I dreaded looking at the people watching the horrific acts in a party mood with as much fear that I would recognize someone in the crowds as the fear I felt for forcing myself to look at the actual horrific acts perpetrated by the mob violence. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how Leora and Carmen felt.

The museum connects the legacy of slavery with subsequent decades of racial terrorism and lynching. Visitors see the link between codified racial hierarchy enforced by elected official and law enforcement with both the past and the present. Contemporary issues surrounding mass incarceration are explored with interactive exhibits and examination of important issues surrounding conditions of confinement, police violence, and the administration of criminal justice.”  (Legacy Museum – Equal Justice Initiative)

Interesting fact: One in three black male babies born today is expected to go to jail or prison in his lifetime.  One in three. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. In 1979 when Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs, roughly 320,000 people were in prison in our country. Now, the current total incarcerated is 2.1 million people with a higher percentage of people of color.

As Pretty and I were getting ready to leave the museum, Pretty wheeled me to a very large interactive map of the USA. By merely clicking on an individual state, the number of lynched persons discovered to date in that state was highlighted. I foolishly couldn’t resist my native state of Texas. The total number was 338. The interactive map also showed the details by county: the name of the person and the date of the lynching. I made the mistake of going to my home county, Grimes, and saw the names and dates of 10 black men lynched there. Right in my home county. Where were my grandparents on those days, or did I really want to know?

Shortly thereafter, Pretty and I left the museum. Leora and Carmen were not far behind us. We were all truly lost in our own thoughts and the walk back to the hotel was very quiet.

As usual, Pretty saved the day by encouraging us to finish packing for checkout, finish the leftover food in our room, and call for our car. We were headed for what turned out to be redemption for us all at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and a woman named Wanda who helped us shift our focus from evil to good. Hallelujah!

 

 

 

 

Posted in Humor, Lesbian Literary, Life, Personal, politics, racism, Random, Reflections, Slice of Life, The Way Life Is | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

notes of two native daughters, a granddaughter and a daughter-in-law


The unremarkable tourist riverboat we were on had two main decks with different musicians and singers blaring away on each one, smiling cocktail waitresses bringing drinks with exotic names and a view of the Alabama river that was spectacular as we glided along for almost two hours on the second day of our Civil Rights self-guided tour. Willie’s daughter Leora and I opted for a booth on the lower deck while Pretty and Willie’s granddaughter Carmen climbed the steps to the upper level. We took the late afternoon cruise – we all needed a little rest and relaxation to try to add a little levity to a day filled with a roller coaster of emotions in Montgomery, Alabama.

Leora and I ordered drinks and loudly sang along with the partygoers on the lower deck. We cut up, as we like to say in the south. Pretty and Carmen stayed away from the liquor drinks (and us!), which may explain how they could climb the steps, but they said later the music upstairs was equally fine. I’m thinking they cut up, too, but probably a little more restrained.

Pretty, Leora, Camen and me

This past week Pretty and I had an extraordinary opportunity to make a pilgrimage with the daughter and granddaughter of Willie Meta Flora whose 45-year relationship with my mother was featured in my Mother’s Day post on the photo finish (May 11th). It is now six years since my mother Selma and their mother/grandmother Willie have been gone. We have visited them twice in their Texas home during that time period but keep in touch with them – guess where? – on social media and texting.

We had arranged to meet them at our favorite restaurant in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Chickin’ on the Bayou’s fried shrimp baskets are to die for, and Pretty always visits the little shop next door.

We really weren’t planning a stop in New Orleans this trip, but an inadvertent travel tip from one of Pretty’s “connections” sent us right into the middle of Bourbon Street that first afternoon. Carmen and I sampled beignets in a little bakery where we stopped, and I was delighted with the French pastries. Carmen, on the other hand, said she preferred the Texas version. Following this detour, Pretty drove us across the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway at sunset toward our stop for the night in Biloxi, Mississippi. The sunset was breathtaking as the majestic yellow ball disappeared into the water.

The stop in Biloxi was quite the adventure since only one room with two double beds was available at the motel…not exactly what any of us had pictured, but oh well, we were exhausted and the slumber party ended almost as quickly as it began. Turn out the lights, the party’s over.

The next day we packed the car and headed toward Alabama.

new Alabama Welcome Center has amazing sculptures

The heart of our civil rights tour began in Selma, Alabama that afternoon.

the Edmund Pettus Bridge where Selma march began

The highlight of the day for all of us was our visit to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where the first Selma march to Montgomery began on what is now known as Bloody Sunday,  March 7, 1965. The name is attached to that day because of the brutality of the Alabama state troopers and local police in beating the marchers with billy clubs and using tear gas to disperse the crowd. More than fifty out of approximately 600 people assembled were hospitalized after that first attempt to march to Montgomery from Selma.

Two days later the leaders organized another attempt to cross the bridge and again were forced to retreat. Finally, a third attempt was begun on March 21st., and with the protection of federal troops, the marchers successfully completed the 54-mile walk to the state capitol in Montgomery on March 25, 1965. Let me repeat that: the march was 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery.

Why subject yourself to the hostility, hatred, brutality and pure misery of walking 54 miles along the Jefferson Davis Highway? Congressman John Lewis, one of those hospitalized on Bloody Sunday, had this to say in his book Across That Bridge:

During the Civil Rights Movement, our struggle was not about politics. It was about seeing a philosophy made manifest in our society that recognized the inextricable connection we have to each other. These ideals represent what is eternally real and they are still true today, though they have receded from the forefront of American imagination…

But we must accept one central truth as participants in a democracy: Freedom is not a state, it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society. The work of love, peace, and justice will always be necessary, until their realism and their imperative takes hold of our imagination, crowds out any dream of hatred or revenge, and fills up our  existence with their power.”

memorial honoring Congressman Lewis far left

our little group reads about Selma March at Edmund Pettus Bridge

And then we rode in an air-conditioned car the 54 miles to Montgomery, checked into our nicely cooled motel rooms and broke the solemnity of the day with an evening of cards and leftover ribs from Hancock’s Barbecue, the little family-owned place in Selma with ribs as good as those she had in Texas, Leora said with surprise.

Thank goodness for that night of rest and laughter. The next day in Montgomery was a difficult one.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Humor, Lesbian Literary, Life, Personal, racism, Reflections, Slice of Life, The Way Life Is | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

both my girls got haircuts this week…have a look!


Spike pays no attention to the new “looks”

I think they’re fabulous!

yes, of course I’m cute…

but where are my cookies?

Mother’s Day at home with Pretty, the dogs and the pool. Life is good.

Stay tuned.

 

 

Posted in Humor, Lesbian Literary, Life, Personal, photography, Reflections, Slice of Life, The Way Life Is | Tagged , | 10 Comments