Abuse, Community, Culture, Family, Friends, Ideologies, Racism, Relationships, Society, Values

The Terrible Terrys and Racism

I was five years old when my maternal grandmother passed away.  She’d been born in 1875, and my best memories of her are of her in a rocking chair, her hands sewing, while she sits in a sunbeam streaming through the big southern window in my bedroom.  I play at her feet.  And sometimes she reads to me. 

She would have been in her mid-to-late eighties then, and my mom tells me she was frail in old age.   She taught me to sew, and I — with my sharper sight — threaded needles for her.

That’s about as much of my grandmother as I remember, but mom quite recently told me a bit more.   It seems grandmother had, for her time and place, slightly peculiar ideas about race.

For instance, in the community grandmother lived in most of her adult life, it was commonplace for Whites to use racial slurs when referring to Blacks.  Even some of the community leaders did so.  Grandmother was among a minority of  White people in her neighborhood who seemed disturbed by those slurs and who refused to call Blacks anything other than “Negroes” (The word, “Black”, having not yet come into general usage).

From what I gather, there might have been a couple sources of encouragement for grandmother’s somewhat peculiar ideas about race.   In the first place, grandmother’s side of the family was from New England and had included among it’s members some staunch abolitionists.  Not that abolitionists were always respectful of Black folks, but I’m guessing that her’s might have been.

In the second place, grandmother was one of those women — rare in her time — who had a college education.   Not that one can be sure, but grandmother might have picked up some her strange ideas about race while attending college.

So whether by family tradition or by education, or by some other source, my grandmother somehow came to the notion that Black folk were to be respected as equals — and she did so in a time and place when, according to my mother, she would not likely have gotten that notion from the community in which she lived.

Her husband, my grandfather, had a farm and he hired men to work it.   When mom was growing up, one of the hands was a Black man she called “Uncle Albert”.   Uncle Albert’s wife, whom mom recalls was a rather beautiful woman, she called “Aunt Martha.”  

My mother was taught to call adult friends “uncle” and “aunt” because it was thought disrespectful for a child to call an adult friend by their first name. 

Since there were not many Blacks in the neighborhood at the time, Aunt Martha’s circle of friends was small and comprised mostly of White women.  And the prevailing custom was for a White woman to receive her White friends in her parlor or living room, but to receive her Black friends, if she had any, in her kitchen.  No doubt never being invited beyond the kitchen was originally conceived of as a way to send a message of some sort.

As mom recalls, grandmother ignored the prevailing custom and always received Aunt Martha in her living room, the same as she received everyone else. 

Of course, nothing in the ways grandmother treated Aunt Martha — or even treated Blacks in general — was momentous, earthshaking or even sufficient grounds for erecting a statue of her, but her ways seem to me to have possessed a simple decency.

What makes grandmother’s behavior puzzling to me is that, from everything mom has told me about her, grandmother was one of those people who — quite far from ever wanting to risk stirring up trouble — habitually avoided any kind of social or personal conflict.  That is, she wasn’t exactly someone to routinely go against customs and conventions.  Yet, it appears that on a handful of issues — issues she felt strongly about — she would quietly stand her ground without making a show of it. 

People are a strange maze of contradictions and complexities. 

Thinking about all this, I would bet half the women who kept Aunt Martha in their kitchens did so simply because it was custom, because it was what their mothers taught them to do, and they never meant any cruelty by it.  People can be barbaric in their thoughtlessness.  They can be ugly in their carelessness and unquestioning obedience to custom. 

My grandmother’s married name was “Terry”.  In part because of her somewhat strange ideas about race, which she communicated to her daughters, and in part for a small handful of other reasons, the women in her family eventually came to be nicknamed by some in their neighborhood, “The Terrible Terrys”.   I think that must surely have displeased her, given how little she liked controversy.

10 thoughts on “The Terrible Terrys and Racism”

  1. because it was what their mothers taught them to do, and they never meant any cruelty by it. People can be barbaric in their thoughtlessness. They can be ugly in their carelessness and unquestioning obedience to custom.

    That reminds me of a scene from a made for cable movie I saw on HBO some years ago about Jackie Robinson’s time in the Negro Leagues just prior to the integration of the Majors. If I recall the scene correctly, Robinson, Satchell Paige and Paige’s girlfriend are riding in a car somewhere in the South when one of them has to go to the bathroom. As they are in a pretty isolated area, they stop near a house where there is a white girl about 11 or 12 years old sitting in front by herself. As they come up to her, she greets them in a friendly manner and they proceed to have a pleasant conversation for about a minute. Paige’s girlfriend then says “Sweetie, I have to go to the bathroom so badly and there’s no place else around. Would it be alright if I used your bathroom?” or something to that effect. The girl says “Sorry, but my daddy says we can’t let no niggers in the house” or something like that, and then proceeds to try to continue the conversation as it does not seem to occur to her that what she said was wrong or should have upset her visitors.

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  2. Windsor, ON, was a few miles from the terminal of the Freedom Train or Trail, where most fleeing slaves ended their journey. many black people lived in and around Windsor, Amherst, Tecumseh and Puce River. There was no “official” discrimination…But, in 1952 or 53 as I rode a bus with a lady cousin of mine (I was visiting from Montreal), an old black lady climbed aboard laden with grocery bags. No seats were available so I stood up and gave my seat to the lady. My cousin stood up like she had a spring in her behind. for the remainig part of our trip that empty seat, by the lady, remained empty despite people standing in the aisle.
    Good thing those nice folks eyes were not pistols for I would not be around to write this anecdote.

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  3. @ The Chaplain: Thank you! I think she must have had her strengths, but I don’t really suppose fighting racism was one of them. Not really. I think racism offended her sense of decency, and so she opposed it in little ways, but so far as I know, she did not oppose it in any major ways. For instance, she didn’t stand up in church and denounce it. But what she did is she thought for herself about it, and reached her own conclusions about it, rather than mindlessly go along with her neighbors.

    @ Tommykey: That so perfectly illustrates casual, mindless cruelity. Things like that, for some strange reason, have a way of wrenching me, although they are not on the same level as, say, firehoses or dogs.

    @ Paul C: That was a superb act of common decency on your part, Paul. It’s so interesting how it was opposed by those around you.

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  4. To think that we still struggle with race and a few other prejudices too. I read stories like this and I am reinforced in my belief that we will continue to make headway not only in society but in our own souls.

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  5. Even though she only acted humanly, but it took her a great deal of courage to do it back then. A precious lady indeed.
    The suburb I am now residing in is this middle class, western PA typical area. Meaning that there is a small black minority – mainly refugees or section 8 beneficiaries living in 2 huge apartment complexes within the school district…Last year however I realized how many supporters Obama had, because just after the election several placards with Ovama/Biden popped-up in the neighboring yards. I am positive they weren’t there before the election results…As we used to say “After the war is finished, many will boast about how brave they were…”

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  6. @ Thomma Lyn, Emma, and Ana: I think my grandmother should perhaps be given credit for thinking for herself, but I don’t see her as especially courageous. She was about as far from an activist as one can get. For instance: So far as I know, she never tried to create an awareness in the White community for the plight of their Black neighbors. I don’t know what would have happened had she been an activist. The 1920s were the heyday of the KKK in this country.

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  7. “People can be barbaric in their thoughtlessness. They can be ugly in their carelessness and unquestioning obedience to custom. ”

    It’s sad how true this is. Far too many people follow the crowd because it’s “what everyone is doing” and don’t stop to question why they are doing it or whether or not it is right, moral, or ethical to do so. That was a lovely story sunstone, I would have loved to have met your grandmother. Thanks for sharing.

    MoonWater

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