Cupid's arrow conquers slings of racism

December 06, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

They didn't recognize it as romance. It began simply as two teachers from different worlds sharing brown-bag lunches at an inner-city Baltimore elementary school.

George Merrill, 21, was from horse country and Dartmouth, an idealistic rookie teacher who let his hair grow long and tried to play the harmonica.

Betty Jackson, 25, was from the ghetto and Coppin State, a no-nonsense classroom veteran who wore an Aretha Franklin bouffant and raised a 6-year-old son she had as a single teen-ager.

He was white, she was black, and because love conquers all and for no other good reason that either can think of, they got married at the city courthouse on Dec. 5, 1968, two weeks after their first date.

A quarter-century later, George and Betty Merrill gathered family and friends together yesterday afternoon at the Long Reach Church of God in Columbia for a silver anniversary celebration and the church wedding they had always wanted.

It was a joyful renewal of vows and testimony to love that has endured.

And, almost incidentally, it was a celebration that a white man and a black woman could raise a family and make a rich life together in racially divided America.

There were emotional testimonials from friends, relatives and even a fourth-grader of 25 years ago who was angry when they married because she wanted Betty Merrill all to herself.

The Merrills were praised for their altruism, playfully chided for their chronic lateness and held up by their children, Philip, 31, and Melissa, 24, as a model of what marriage can be.

"Lord knows there were some rough times and some loud arguments, but they made it through," Melissa Merrill said. "I could only hope that one day I would have a marriage as solid as that."

The music ranged from gospel to bagpipes, and the Merrills drew a standing ovation by singing a tender love song, "Through the Years," to each other: "I can't stop loving you, you're my joy."

When the Merrills, who now live in the west-side neighborhood of Ten Hills and run a job-training firm, were married in 1968, interracial marriage was extremely rare.

The miscegenation taboo was strong. Only one in five Americans said they approved of mixed marriages. The Supreme Court had struck down state laws barring interracial marriage only the year before.

Blinded by race

Neither of the Merrills had dated interracially, and they recalled in an interview last week that for a time race blinded them.

"He was just white, that's all," Mrs. Merrill said. "He was not within my thought pattern."

Yet, buoyed by the brown-bag lunches and emboldened by the rebellious spirit of the '60s, George Merrill finally asked his fellow teacher out.

The first date ended with them strolling hand in hand at what was then Friendship Airport, just looking at the planes because they were too happy to go home.

"There were a lot of funny, curious, shocked, angry looks from both races," Mr. Merrill said of that night and the ensuing years.

Over a quarter-century, the Merrills have suffered racial slurs shouted from passing cars and countless socially awkward moments from the supermarket to cocktail parties. But, secure in their relationship, they brush them off.

"There have been very few incidents where people were outwardly nasty," Mr. Merrill said. "We haven't looked for it or had an in-your-face attitude."

Bigotry is so unfashionable that whites are seldom openly critical of Mr. Merrill. Black acquaintances have been more frank. They sometimes accuse Mrs. Merrill, an unabashed advocate of racial integration, of losing her blackness or selling out.

People sometimes find the Merrills to be the exceptions that prove racial rules. Blacks have complimented Mr. Merrill by saying he must be black on the inside. Whites have complained bitterly about blacks to Mrs. Merrill, only to conclude, "I know you're not like that."

Mr. Merrill hopes that "they eventually will make so many exceptions, they find out the rule doesn't apply."

Four of every 1,000 couples

Since the Merrills went to the courthouse 25 years ago, black-white marriages have nearly quadrupled. But, at an estimated 246,000, they still make up only four of every 1,000 U.S. couples.

While a 1991 Gallup Poll found for the first time that most Americans approved in theory of mixed marriage, families often object, says Maria Root, a Seattle psychologist and author of "Racially Mixed People in America."

Relatives fear that mixed couples will stymie their careers, end in divorce, and produce troubled children -- none of which is supported by the evidence, she says.

Mr. Merrill's parents, liberal people who taught their children to // believe in racial justice, were deeply troubled that their son would apparently threaten a bright future by marrying an older black woman with a child.

His mother first opposed the marriage, then tearfully recanted at a Quaker meeting (not knowing that George and Betty had already married secretly).

His father, Dr. George G. Merrill, softened when the Merrills' daughter was born a year later.

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