Thankful for their stories

This holiday, ask the elders at your table to share the lessons of their lives

November 25, 2010|By Sherrilyn A. Ifill

Perhaps more than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is family time. There's the food, the new babies passed around (and sometimes over) the table, the inevitable (uncomfortable) questions about new boyfriends or the state of some relative's marriage, the football arguments, and just the sheer joy of families spending time together. But amid this familiar bustle, we may miss the opportunity Thanksgiving provides to elicit from our elders stories about our history.

Case in point: After Barack Obama was elected president, I struck up a conversation with several of the elderly women in my church. These women — affectionately referred to as "seasoned saints" by our congregation — are the faithful "mothers" that are the heart and soul of so many black churches in our country. They are present for every service, carefully and sharply dressed with scarves and brooches to match each tasteful ensemble. They are ardent participants in the prayer ministry, and they enthusiastically support ministries that fall far outside the traditional. Their faces show that they have endured much but come through it with grace and dignity.

I wondered what it was like for these women to witness the election of the first black president. And I wanted to ask them about the first time they voted, back when Franklin Roosevelt was on the ticket. Without great fanfare, one of the women, Mrs. Valerie Britton, replied, "Well, I was the first black poll watcher in Towson." Slowly, she told the story of how she came to sit as an unofficial "poll watcher" in Towson when she was a teenager in the late 1930s. Long before she was able to vote, Mrs. Britton — along with another teenage neighborhood friend — were taken down to the polling station by their fathers. In those days, blacks weren't allowed to serve as poll workers, but many of the blacks who voted wanted to ensure that their votes were counted. That's how Mrs. Britton's father and other black men in the community got the idea that they should at least exercise their right to be election observers — to let the white folks know that blacks were watching the process.

There was one problem. According to Mrs. Britton, her father knew that if black men in the community camped out in the polling place all day it would be viewed by whites as a provocation, a threat. It might result in arrests — or worse. So Mrs. Britton's father decided that his high school-age daughter and her friend were old enough and smart enough to observe at the polls but non-threatening enough that white folks in charge of the election wouldn't panic. Mrs. Britton says she and her girlfriend brought a bag lunch and stayed at the polling place from morning until the polls closed.

I learned about this small but important event in Towson history only because I asked Mrs. Britton about her early voting experiences. Just the simple act of asking our elderly neighbors and relatives about their experiences in a very different America than the one we now know can lead to a treasure trove of information about our communities, our country and our shared past.

Two new books movingly demonstrate how the stories of ordinary black Americans are vast and too-often untapped sources of vital information about race and the development of our country. In "The Warmth Of Other Suns," Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration through the voices of ordinary Americans who represent the more than 6 million blacks who made the often perilous journey from the violence and exploitation of the Jim Crow South to seek, in the words of Richard Wright, "the warmth of other suns."

Ms. Wilkerson conducted more than 1,000 interviews in researching the book, but she wisely focuses the story on just three migrants. Their personal stories — their daily confrontations with violence, death, and disappointment and their unfailing sense of hope and commitment to family — draw the reader into a world some may vaguely remember, if only from television documentaries. But in the skilled storytelling hands of Ms. Wilkerson, the America of Ida Mae Gladney, Dr. Robert Pershing Foster and George Starling comes alive in all its ugliness and beauty. Most compelling is the sheer resilience of these migrants and the millions like them who "by their actions … did not dream the American Dream, [but] willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing."

The Great Migration, which Ms. Wilkerson calls "perhaps the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century" changed the face of the South and the North. Ms. Wilkerson assembles the facts and figures and presents the scholarship of historians and social scientists who've written about this era. But none have done what Ms. Wilkerson has done: let the migrants of the Great Migration speak for themselves, with power and passion and truth.

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