Monday, January 19, 2015

"We all God's children"

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. day, Kathy is sharing the story of her grandmother's friendship with a remarkable woman names Miss Lena. I hope you enjoy:

As I was scanning the book section of a local thrift shop, my eyes came to rest on a particular title, The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I thought to myself, “Hmm, I wonder if the title implies what I think it does?” I picked the book up, read through the synopsis and decided it would be my purchase of the day.  Later in the evening, I began reading. As the minutes went by, I was transported to the south of my childhood. I was introduced to Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter. Aibileen and Minny are two black maids who work for the upper middle class white families and are commonly known as “the help.” Skeeter, a member of a prominent white family, and journalism graduate of Ole Miss, observes the division and racial tensions in the town of Jackson. While she ponders the situation, a spark ignites, which turns into a fire in her belly. Through a series of events she begins to collect interviews from “the help” which not only turns into a national best-selling book, but cements the friendship of two black women and a white woman during the turbulent years of the Jim Crow south. After I finished the last page, I smiled. Kathyrn Stockett’s best -selling novel was reminiscent of the friendship my maternal grandmother, Gram and I shared with a black woman named Miss Lena. Today, I would like to share with you the story of our friendship which spanned across two generations. 

For as long as I could remember, Gram and Miss Lena had been friends. Their friendship formed from a local church circle they belonged to. During my childhood, I remember Gram saying, “I’m going to visit Lena today.” I often accompanied Gram on these visits to The Hollow, Miss Lena’s predominately black neighborhood. Upon arriving at Miss Lena’s home, we were greeted with true southern hospitality. The first thing that caught my eye was the painting of the “Black Jesus” hanging in the center of the living room wall, flanked by a picture of Abraham Lincoln on the right and a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the left. Miss Lena saw me gawking at the wall adornments and said, “Everyone sees Jesus in his own way. The Negroes see him as black, the whites see him as white, and the Chinese see him as yellow. It doesn’t make any difference, because we all God’s children.” When I asked who the other two gentlemen were, she began what was to become my first lesson in “civil rights” education. Gently, she explained how Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves and how Dr. King was working to earn the same rights for black people as the white people had. Miss Lena’s oration had satisfied my inquisitive mind at the moment but had given me a thirst to learn more about the history of the civil rights movement.

As my formative years sped by into adolescence, my friendship with Miss Lena went to a deeper level as did my education on the topic of civil rights. Our conversations would take place over a cup of hot cocoa with marshmallow cream on top which Miss Lena had prepared for me. Miss Lena’s great grandparents were slaves brought from Africa to live and work on a local plantation. The plantation on which they lived was owned by a Mister Samuel E. Lee. Mister Lee treated his slaves more like employees than property and everyone was respected. Each enslaved person was required to go to school for half a day. The slaves were taught life and vocational skills because as Mister Lee said, “One day you will all be free, and you will need to be able to make your own way in the world.” Miss Lena’s grandparents were the first “free” generation on the plantation. Because of the generosity shown by Mister Lee, her grandparents decided to remain on the planation as employees. When Miss Lee’s parents became of adult age, they decided to leave the plantation and head north to a better life. Miss Lena’s parents built a house in the area of the city which would become the African-American community known as The Hollow because of the surrounding landscape which shaped it. Miss Lena and her siblings grew up in a modest, white clapboard, two bedroom home where later Miss Lena and her husband would raise their own family. Their family life consisted of attending a black school in The Hollow and regular church activities. Miss Lena’s father worked as a butler, while her mother worked as a maid for a prominent white family. Miss Lena said she always knew she would be a maid. Her grandmother had been a house slave, her mother a maid, so she would be a maid too. I asked her if she ever thought of being anything else. Her response was, “No, Miss Kathy, it was all I ever knew.”  

Miss Lena grew up, married Mister Robert and together they raised four children, two boys and two girls. Mister Robert worked as a chauffeur and Miss Lena worked as the head house maid for a white doctor named, William Bailey and his wife Elizabeth. The hours were long, with minimum wage pay. One day while Gram and Miss Lena were visiting, Gram asked Miss Lena this question, “Have you ever thought of doing something else with your life?” to which came the reply, “No, Daisy, being a maid is all I’ve ever known.” At that moment Gram looked her square in the eye and challenged her to think of herself as more than someone else’s property; to act on what she believed in, as she along with thousands of others had marched with Dr. King in Washington D.C. for “Jobs and Freedom” on August 27, 1963. To claim the opportunities in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This was the mid 1960’s, Jim Crow had ended and there was a better day coming according to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After all “we are all God’s children” as Gram reminded her.
Miss Lena took up my grandmother’s challenge. She had decided she was tired of being treated as “someone else’s” property and desired to better herself through the reading of literature and a higher paying job. Due to the white resentment of the Civil Rights Act, the Jim Crow Laws, though illegal, were still the standard for the African-American population of the area. Gram would check out books from the local public library for Miss Lena to read, and even helped her compile a resume that would give her the opportunity for better employment. Miss Lena ended up leaving her job as “the help” and went to work in a local business alongside Gram. The two women went to work together every day in Gram’s white Pontiac. At the beginning of the 1970’s both women retired and began the next two decades doing charity work for those living in The Hollow. In the late 1970’s Miss Lena was approached by the manager of a local coffee shop with the opportunity to come and work as a manager. With the encouragement of Gram, Miss Lena seized the opportunity. An employment position previously only available to whites was now available to her. Miss Lena worked in the local coffee shop for a decade and then retired. Because of their age and health issues, Gram and Miss Lena were only able to get together for visiting on a bi-weekly basis, but they did visit with each other on the telephone every day to encourage one another, to laugh and cry together, and to pray for each other.

During my years of conversing with Miss Lena, at the end of every conversation, she would look at me while saying, “We all God’s children. Red, and yellow, black and white. We are all God’s children, Miss Kathy.” At the time, I thought it was odd she would always repeat this phrase to me, but would nod my head while saying, “Yes, Miss Lena.” The last time I saw Miss Lena was the day of Gram’s funeral. Miss Lena scanned the crowd, looking for a familiar face. Once she had located me, she led her group to greet me. Standing there, we reminisced about Gram, her positive influence and how she had served the people of The Hollow. After the funeral service, I thanked each of the members of the community for honoring Gram’s memory by attending her service. Miss Lena hugged me, looked me square in the eye while saying, “We all God’s children, Miss Kathy. Red and yellow, black and white. We all God’s children.”

As we look to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let us remember that it is more than just another holiday on the calendar. Each year as this holiday in January approaches, I reflect back on the unlikely friendship of two women and one child, two white, and one black. For me, this holiday not only symbolizes our friendship but a never ending reminder that “We all God’s children.”

Thanks Kathy for sharing that story. What an example Miss Lena and your grandmother are to all of us. While there is so much work to still be done in our nation to heal the racial rifts, stories like this show us that it is through relationships and investment in communities that change can be accomplished. 

If you're interested in reading more about the history of African-Americans and the civil rights movement, check out these books:

Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates

Sojourner Truth, Ain't I a Woman? by Patricia C. McKissack

Carver, a life in poems by Marilyn Nelson

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

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  1. Thank you, Kathy. What a beautiful story and what a poignant reminder of the power of friendship to cross all racial and social barriers. Reading that story was a little bit of heaven on earth for today!

  2. Thank you so much. I am half African American and half Italian. I live in Peru and will be homeschooling my only son. That puts me in the 3% of the homeschooling community right ;) I had been looking for books like this. You post couldn't have come at a better time. Thanks again. I hope to meet you in GHC in Ontario.