When I was 10 years old, my mom took us three kids on a train from Montana to Florida to visit her parents. Everything I saw out the windows on that long train ride across country was wondrous and fantastical to me: the endless cornfields of Nebraska, the expanse of the big cities like Minneapolis and Chicago, the kudzu draping the trees in the Deep South. It was when we stepped out of the train for a little fresh air in Birmingham that my eyes grew the size of silver dollars. There were two water fountains on the platform — one designated for “whites” and one for “coloreds.”
For a little white girl from Montana, those signs were shocking. I only knew black people as dining car servers and Pullman porters on the trains. Back home, there was only one black family who was accepted by the locals even though bigotry was rampant in the rural and railroad cultures. I wrote a poem about those water fountains and felt sadness for why people would be treated differently for the color of their skin. It was not right.
Just around the time of my senior year prom, Martin Luther King was shot. I hoped that his dream would not be lost with him. One week later the 1968 Fair Housing Act was signed to supplement the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The day after my high school graduation, Bobby Kennedy was killed. Unrest continued and escalated with racial inequities and injustice, the Vietnam War (which is called the American war in Vietnam), the Democratic National Convention protests, and eventually the horror of the murder of student protesters by National Guard at Kent State in 1970.
Here we stand again staring these ugly, unacceptable inequities in the face. I want to dedicate this column to four honorable African Americans whom I call friends. I met each of them at my workplace — a law firm that consistently represented underserved and marginalized people of color who were wronged in ways that rent your sense of social justice.
Hilda Gray came to work at the law firm when she was 69 years old and stayed until she was 89. She was born and raised in Harlem where she accumulated stories of the likes of Althea Gibson, the Mills Brothers, Sidney Poitier, and Adam Clayton Powell. She proudly worked for Chase Manhattan Bank for many years. At the law firm, she took care of everyone. She knew which coffee cup to put back on your desk. She knew the names of your children, your pets, and where you went on vacation. She had the best restaurant recommendations and loved a mascarpone cake. Hilda passed away on April 16, 2020, at age 95. Memories of Hilda stories poured in from past and present co-workers. Hilda was a fast friend to all she met.
Sherlita Wilson has sat at the reception desk for over 20 years. She can handle the most difficult attorneys, clients and people who wander in off the street. Her laugh is infectious and when I came in from my commute in a pouring rain, drenched, she’d say, “Girl!” in her southern accent and we both broke up in laughter. Sherlita raised her son as a single mom and taught him all the best qualities that she has. She watched him graduate from Evergreen College, a proud mother.
Duane Knox grew up as a military kid, graduated from high school in Hawaii. A talented musician, he always made sure to tell me when the singers he knew I liked were coming to Seattle — such as Tim McGraw and Dolly Parton. Duane told me once, “If you think it’s hard to be a black man in today’s society, imagine me — a gay black man!” Duane eventually told his parents in South Carolina that he was gay and, as the son they raised, they accepted him wholly and embraced his husband.
Jefferey Robinson grew up in Memphis and graduated from Harvard Law School. A paragraph here does not do justice to the man who has worked tirelessly for criminal justice, racial justice and reform issues. He is currently the Deputy Legal Director and Director of the ACLU Trone Center for Justice and Equality. Recently he wrote a commentary in which he asks, “How many times can a country offer thoughts and prayers in the face of senseless death with no progress or solutions before it becomes clear that the thoughts and prayers were meaningless?”
The Mazama Store recently posted on InstaGram: “As a white-owned business, we acknowledge the privilege and power of our platform and we stand with those fighting to end the systemic racial injustice that continues to plague our country … We encourage fellow white people in our community to reflect on this as well … We all have work to do.” Amen.