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THE BLACK FAMILY
"My father insisted that his children learn a skill and spendtime on a job, but we could choose [which] job ... Because my father was in the auto repair business, those were the skills I was [first] taught. My brothers and I used [our mechanics'] skills and knowledge to earn money, frequently earning a dollar or so to jump-start cars and charge batteries for our neighbors ..." —Jennifer Lawson
Jennifer Lawson exudes both energy and competence. Executive I vice president for national programming and promotions at Public Broadcasting Services, she was responsible for selecting, distributing, and promoting a full schedule of television programs—from Sesame Street to the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour—for the 340 member stations across the country. Like every other woman profiled in this book, Jennifer Lawson is an African American.
Lawson is the granddaughter, on her father's side, of slaves. Both parents were born in the South, her father in Bullock County, an agricultural region of Alabama, and her mother in Louisville, Kentucky. Her parents met and married in Birmingham, Alabama, where Jennifer was born. Lawson's mother attended Alabama State University, after which she taught school. As a young man, Lawson's father worked as a coal miner, and then as a steelworker in the Birmingham mills. He was later the proprietor of an auto repair business and a respected member of the community.
Jennifer Lawson credits her parents for setting her on the path that led her from Birmingham to Tuskegee Institute, where she was awarded a full academic scholarship, to her active involvement in the civil rights movement, her work as a field representative for the National Council of Negro Women, to Tanzania in East Africa, where she lived for two years, to Columbia University, where she earned her master's degree in fine arts, and finally to the corporate offices of PBS. "I had a dose relationship with my parents, and each in his or her own way was a positive influence in my life. My mother was a real caring and compassionate person," Lawson recalled. "My obligation to care for and be aware of the feelings and pain of others came from my mother. [She also passed on to me] her love for books and the acquisition of knowledge.
"My father, on the other hand, encouraged me to do whatever interested me. He was a very creative person, an inventor. His only requirement was that I tackle my goals seriously. If I wanted to be a ballet dancer, I had to be willing to study and rehearse long hours. He helped me to understand the amount of work and hardship that is necessary for success. He taught me mechanical skills along with my brothers, including how to rewire electrical motors and generators." Because of her father's encouragement, Lawson developed self-confidence—and the unspoken awareness that gender, for her, would be no barrier to success.
Lawson watched her parents lead productive and useful lives, lives that made a difference not only within her family but in the larger human community. "[M]y father ... applied for a patent for an automobile engine that would burn low-grade fuel ... [I've always wanted] to work on projects that are bigger than I am, and to make a contribution to society, helping to create a world that is better for my own children and for others. I came into film and television because of the challenges they have to offer. I love painting. I love to solve the problems that artists face. I also enjoy writing. The written word and art come together in film and television."
In any child's life, parents and extended family are the best source of stability, emotional security, love, encouragement, and fulfillment. There is no doubt that family background, as well as parental attitudes and example, all contribute to a child's level of achievement as an adult. This is not to say that children from disadvantaged family backgrounds have no chance of achievement—but their road will be much harder than that of children from caring, loving, and responsible families. "There are many values that remain deep within me because of my father's influence," pathologist and National Institutes of Health Assistant Director Dr. Vivian Pinn confided to me. "'If you have work to do, do it before you play,' my father would repeat over and over again. I don't think I resented his character building, except probably when I might have wanted to go to a party and was not allowed to go. During those times it seemed important, but when I look back I realize that his counsel was more important."
Developmental resources consultant and former radio executive Aleta Carpenter credits her mother as her source of inspiration. "My mother was comfortable with all classes of people. Her dream of returning to school and becoming a nurse was accomplished in her late thirties, but was cut short by her early death. If she had lived, my mother could have accomplished her dream of contributing more to her own community ... I am motivated by an obligation to finish what she started. Any success that I have achieved is a tribute to her. I feel the best revenge in life is to do well, especially when it is not expected of you."
The majority of the women profiled in this book came from the sort of families that give a child the very best chances for success in life. Most of the fathers had middle-class jobs. Most owned their homes and were respected members of the community. Architect Norma Sklarek and Dr. Jewel Plummer-Cobb were daughters of physicians; Dr. Vivian Pinn's father was a schoolteacher and coach; seven others were the daughters of ministers; six were the children of successful entrepreneurs.
Some of the women who grew up during the Depression spoke about the toll it took on their lives and how their families survived by conserving their resources and adjusting their lifestyles. Norma Sklarek, America's first black woman to become a licensed architect, recalled how she and her parents had to do without during the Depression. Both parents were from the Caribbean. Her father, Dr. Walter Ernest Merrick, was born in St. Vincent, and her mother, Amy Willoughby, was born in Barbados. In 1935, Sklarek's father graduated from Howard University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. "My father was a doctor, but we were poor in terms of money, so we did lots of things around the house ourselves. It was during the Depression, so we could not afford to hire someone else to do the work. I believe that these early childhood experiences helped develop my sense of self-sufficiency."
University president emeritus Jewel Plummer Cobb talked about a similar childhood in Chicago. "My father finished medical school the year before I was born. My mother had been, for a while, a school teacher. A child of the 1930s, I can distinctly remember my mother receiving her teacher's pay in the form of vouchers. Although I grew up in an intellectual, supportive environment with lots of love and books, this was during the Depression, and resources were limited. You would think that since my mother was a teacher and my father was a doctor, we were well-off financially, but that was not the case. My parents struggled like everyone else in the community. Even though we had food and a roof over our heads, there were sacrifices we had to make. We moved to smaller quarters because money was scarce. As a doctor, my father depended on his patients in the community to pay for his services. But, being poor black folks, his patients could not pay. Many times they paid in the form of barter; we received clothing and other items in exchange for medical services. At Christmas time the families gave us food and wonderful homemade gifts. It was just the three of us, since I had no brothers or sisters. Our relatives lived in the East, so we had just ourselves.
"One time, we were unable to continue to make payments on a piano that we were buying. That was a loss, because music was important to my mother, and I could not continue to take piano lessons. I remember when they came to take the piano away, it was a sad day in our lives. We, of course, bought another piano when things got better."
Cobb recalled that, during the '30s and '40s, if the man of the house worked regularly, a black family was considered middle class. Money, however, was only a small part of that equation. Morality, ethics, honesty, and standing in the community carried just as much if not more weight. "My mother was a proponent of quality education and was my first role model. I learned a great deal about civic activities and about the zest for living, from my mother. She made valuable contributions of her time and money in support of our community."
Being the breadwinners for their families, black fathers looked for work wherever jobs were available. Zelma Stennis, owner of a highly successful chain of restaurants, talked about her father's efforts to support their family. "My father learned to be a tailor and worked briefly in that trade and as a nickel plater, until the Lord called him to the ministry." Reverend Leroy Moses Miles graduated from Hungersford College, a small, little-known college in Georgia founded by Booker T. Washington in his early pioneering days. Fannie Robinson, Stennis' mother, left her parents' home when she was a teenager to live with a black doctor and his family in a small town in Georgia. Fannie Robinson worked in the doctor's office and accompanied him on housecalls. She also helped deliver babies. "My mother ... did not get the love she needed from her new family," Stennis recalled. "Her father had died, leaving her mother alone; and when she left to live with the doctor and his family, she never felt like a part of the family. Although they treated her well, and it was her decision to live with them, she always felt like an outsider. Once she got her own family, she was very loving and close to us. Not only did she care for us, but the entire neighborhood benefited from her love and kindness and knowledge of nursing—especially the pregnant women, who depended on her assistance during the birthing of their children."
Stennis told me how her parents met and married. "Someone told my father about a nice girl who worked for a doctor in a nearby town. He wrote to my mother, and they began a correspondence. Judging from the letters he wrote to her, my mother believed that my father was a good man. The two did not meet until he traveled to her home to ask for her hand in marriage." Stennis' parents migrated to Detroit, where there were better job opportunities than in the South. Because of the scarcity of jobs for black males, Reverend Miles took a custodial job with the Eureka Vacuum Cleaner Company. "They hired him to do menial work at the plant, but one day one of the white nickel platers—there were no black nickel platers—had a heart attack. Soon after, the supervisor offered the job on a temporary basis to my father, if he could learn the work. The supervisor told my father that he was being rewarded for his hard work, dependability, and loyalty. He quickly learned the job and became the first black nickel plater at the plant. He remained on the job until he left to start his own church.
"When my father decided to leave Eureka to pastor his own church, the family, at first, suffered financially. The Depression was not an easy time for the family of a minister. We had to live on a strict budget, especially since there were eventually eight of us children. My father dedicated his life to his church and his family. He was a morally strong, hardworking man. He took no foolishness from us kids. My mother was a housewife; her principal occupation was birthing and raising children. With so many of us in the family, we were raised to be responsible, independent individuals."
Aleta Carpenter's father, who had only a ninth-grade education, worked at a variety of skilled and semiskilled jobs. At one time, he laid carpet during the day and drove a taxicab at night. Aleta's mother did not begin her nursing career until she was in her mid-thirties. Carpenter, who has managed to enjoy success across several quite different careers, evidently picked up a lot of her flexibility and optimism from the women in her family: Her great-grandmother, who lived to be a hundred and three, returned to school to learn to read and write at the age of ninety-nine. "My parents' differences caused many arguments in our home, and eventually led to their separation and divorce after twenty-three years together. The underlying cause was money, which is the root of dissension in many families. My father did not want my mother to return to school or to work. He believed it was the husband's responsibility to take care of his family."
Terri Wright is the director of women's health for the state of Michigan. Her father left St. Elizabeth in Jamaica as a teenager, spending the latter part of his youth with relatives in England, where he attended a culinary academy. When he came to the United States in his twenties, he found work as a cook and later as a chef in New York City restaurants. Wright's mother came to New York directly from Jamaica. "Many young men in Jamaica traveled to England to seek higher education and jobs. Jamaica was an English colony, and it was natural that many Jamaicans went to England. My parents, who were introduced by friends from Jamaica, came to the United States because of the dream America holds for immigrants. They pursued the American dream."
Wright's parents married soon after meeting. At the beginning of their marriage, they lived with relatives, while saving enough money to "get on their feet." Wright's mother worked as a seamstress, later opening her own dressmaking and alterations shop. "After several difficult years in her dress shop, my mother worked in nursing before I persuaded her to follow me to Atlanta." Wright was a teenager growing up in Queens when her parents separated and divorced. "My father did not divorce himself from us kids. He recognized my mother's role as the mother of his children and treated her with respect and admiration. He took good care of us all."
D. Antoinette Handy, retired director of music for the National Endowment for the Arts, told me that her father often reminded his children of the hard times he endured growing up in the South. "Although he grew up poor, my father saw education as the key to a better life. His goal was to become a Methodist minister, which he finally achieved through determination, sacrifice, and perseverance. He was proud of the fact that while he was a student at Tuskegee Institute he had the opportunity to sing at the funeral of Booker T. Washington, the founding president of the century-old institute, which was established in 1881.
"While my father pastored the Scott Methodist Church in Pasadena, California, one day he received a surprise visit from Albert Einstein. This was a real occasion, since Einstein seldom visited churches. A few days later, an international newspaper came out with a photograph of my father with Einstein and his wife, and other community leaders." Handy also recalled her father's feelings about the honorary doctor of divinity degrees he received. "He never felt comfortable using the title of doctor of divinity. He felt the greatest title was that of 'Reverend.' In fact, he called his D.D., 'donated dignity.'"
Handy spoke with pride of her father, the Rev. William Talbot Handy, and her mother, Darthney Pauline Pleasant Handy, whom she described as a brilliant and talented woman. "My mother postponed her own college education until my father achieved his educational goals. We watched with great pride the day she received her degree. Al of the family members were deeply touched as she marched across that stage to receive her bachelor of arts degree. I was nine years old. She did not let her college studies interfere with her duties as a wife and mother. She was able to balance all three reasonably well."
Handy credits her professional success to her parents' counsel, their respect for education, and the solid moral foundation that was built in their family. Her mother died in 1980 at the age of 92, her father in 1983, at the age of 87. "They lived a full, rich life, were married sixty-three years, and lived to see the results of their sacrifices to educate their children." Handy's brother is a retired Bishop in the United Methodist Church, with jurisdiction over the Missouri area. "My brother received three college degrees—a bachelor of arts, a bachelor of divinity, and a master of sacred theology—as well as several honorary doctorates." Handy's sister completed her bachelor of arts, a master of music degree in piano, and a Ph.D. She is retired from a professorship at the University of Minnesota. A fourth sibling died when he was thirteen; Handy believes that he was the most brilliant of all the children.
The family of award-winning children's book writer Eloise Greenfield was part of the exodus of blacks who made their way from the deep South to cities north of the Mason-Dixon Line during the 1930s. Soon after Greenfield was born in Palmele, North Carolina, her family migrated to Washington, D.C. Her father first came alone to look for work and a place for his family to live, finding a job as a porter for the People's Drug Store, an old and established landmark in the capital city. Three months later, he sent for his wife and children.
Excerpted from NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH by DOROTHY EHRHART-MORRISON. Copyright © 1997 Dorothy Ehrhart-Morrison. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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|Pt. I||Early Roots||13|
|Ch. 1||The Black Family||15|
|Ch. 2||Black Discipline||32|
|Ch. 3||Self-Esteem and the Black Girl||45|
|Pt. II||The Light That Won't Go Out||57|
|Ch. 4||Education as a Tool||59|
|Ch. 5||Above Racism and Sexism||80|
|Ch. 6||Civil Rights and the Women's Movement||96|
|Ch. 7||Against the Odds: Affirmative Action and the Black Woman||108|
|Pt. III||Professional Profiles||119|
|Ch. 8||Career Strategies||121|
|Ch. 9||Black Women and the Arts||129|
|Ch. 10||Taking Care of Business: Black Entrepreneurs||140|
|Ch. 11||Eyes on the Prize: Politicians and Professionals in Public Service||154|
|Pt. IV||Essential Connections: Family, Church, Spirituality||169|
|Ch. 12||A Balancing Act: Marriage, Motherhood, and Career||171|
|Ch. 13||The Black Church and Spirituality||184|