(About a 5 minute read)
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 of 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 mom 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. They just thought it was her place. 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.
Originally posted January 9, 2010 and last revised April 27, 2017 for clarity.