I’ve often wondered what a dirt-poor, white handyman would see in a poorly educated, black domestic worker.
Certainly, they saw love. But undoubtedly, they also glimpsed the future.
Decades before Richard and Mildred Loving defied interracial marriage laws and social mores, my grandmother and her common-law husband did the same. Quietly they, and many other Black and white couples, helped changed the attitudes and behaviors that paved the way for changes in the law.
The story of how my grandma and John got together in the 1940’s has been lost over time. But what I do know for sure is that it was a dangerous decision.
My grandmother’s estranged husband was extremely volatile. A newspaper clipping that I recently found confirmed an old family story of how he attacked her in a bus station with a metal stool after he found out about John. For years, John’s own parents and siblings, I’m told, would not speak my Grandmother’s name in conversations, but instead would spit out racial epithets.
If defying their families was one thing, disregarding the standards of their rural community was another. I grew up hearing stories of how my grandma, a self-described big woman, would crouch down on the dirty floor of John’s rusty pickup truck whenever they dared to travel together off the secluded country hill where they lived. My mother and Aunt would talk about John hiding in the barn with the cows after a car full of Klansmen would suddenly rise up out of the dusty back country roads.
It’s hard for me to imagine what my grandma and John told each other in those early days — that things would get better? That people would come to accept them? That history would be on their side?
I don’t believe they set out to change the world around them. My grandmother barely finished the 3rd grade and lost her mother as a child. She’d been quickly married off by her sisters who felt she was too much of a handful. She needed stability. John I believe was the (pardon the pun) black sheep of a hard-scrabble white clan who lived just barely on the right side of the law. Perhaps it was his way to rebel.
They were imperfect people and a less-than-perfect couple. He was a failing farmer, who had big plans for his farm that would lurch from year to year. He only shared his true feelings when his frustrations with my Grandmother would suddenly explode in a spew of tobacco juice and salty language. My Grandma silently endured racial slights and demeaning domestic work to support the household. At home, she was loud and short-tempered and sometimes turned her spite on John.
But somehow for 40+ years, they made it work and they made a home.
For them, it wasn’t about making a statement. It was about just living, and yes, despite their differences, loving.
How else to explain why John would also take on responsibility for helping to raise my grandma’s four children, all black and none his own? And why else would my Grandma forget the past slights of John’s family who came over the years to seek her out in times of trouble?
That resiliency in the face of resistance to their relationship also extended to my mother and her siblings. John was probably the very first white person who stepped into their home and occupied a place in their day-to-day lives. What must it have been like for them to endure the stares, taunts, threats and ugly words at school and in church?
Somehow the roughly sewn fabric of their family held, like one of my Grandma’s old rag quilts.
By the time I was born in 1966 — a year before the landmark Supreme Court ruling in the “Loving” case that barred laws against interracial marriage — hearts and minds had begun to change not only in John and Grandma’s families, but within their community.
My birth, was validation of that. I was born, out of wedlock, to my black mother and a white man. Instead of being hidden away, I was unceremoniously just stitched onto the end of a brood of four older black siblings. If I looked different than the rest, no one said anything.
And there was no longer a need for them to hide. Before I was old enough to go to school, John would boost me onto the back of his tractor and head to the farm up the road to trade stories and spit tobacco with another old white farmer. My Grandma would then pick me up and pile me into the back seat of her Buick Skylark so we could head to a black beauty salon in the city.
With my mother working and siblings in school, I was often left with them. Grandma and John had no children of their own. I suppose in some way I was a product of their union and a living validation of what they believed — that love is colorblind.
Grandma and John are now long dead, but I wonder what they might make of the fact that today my own family is made up of a man I can freely love and legally marry as well as our two daughters, one black and the other biracial. I hope they would approve of the fact that their great-grandchildren are growing up in a world they helped create, where there are no barriers on who you can love and marry.
In spite of their rough start and their sometimes stormy ride together, in my heart, I know they cared for one another. My lasting memory of them comes from their last years. Grandma in her tent-sized, flowered housedress would climb up into his old Ford pickup and slide along the seat next to John in his dirty overalls.
Together they would head off that country hill on one of their drives to nowhere in particular, with nothing left to hide from the world or from each other — sitting together, unafraid, unapologetic and imperfect…. but still loving.