This time four years ago, I was working with D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. During days when phones were ringing off the hook with 10 times the usual requests for services and favors, I was delighted to draft and edit her recommendation for her alma mater, Dunbar High School, to perform in the inauguration parade. Competition for the parade was particularly keen that year. The band director was elated when selected from thousands around the country, and called our office gushing with gratitude. The job (and some friends I met in other offices) afforded me some free — but hard to get — tickets to the swearing-in on the National Mall. I got very little sleep in the weeks leading up to the big day. But, on that historic morning, I got up early and joined my aunt boarding a packed Metro train at the Largo station at about 5 a.m. heading for downtown D.C. It was all I could do to scribble in my journal, notes about the variations of “Yes We Can!” hats, “Yes We did!” buttons and tote bags with images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., facing our newly-elected President Barack Obama.
As it is for many others, this inauguration is different for me, but no less special. This year, I have no tickets to the swearing-in, but I had free time on Friday to spend time with my Granddad, reflecting on African American progress he has seen and experienced in his 92 years.
“I bet you never thought you’d see a black man elected twice,” I said, smiling, as he awaited service at Veteran’s Hospital. He burst out laughing.
“Not where I come from, I didn’t,” he said.
I pulled up the recorder on my phone and let the reflections flow. “What was it like for blacks growing up in Monroe?” I asked.
I had delighted in bits and pieces of his story throughout my life, but had not heard any personal bitter tales of racism. Again, he told me about working at the Coca Cola plant with his father from the time he was 8 years old. They were the only two blacks in the plant. His dad set bottles on a conveyor, his little handles set small bottles into crates. He left his native Monroe in 1935 as a teen going a little further north to Shelby, N.C. to live with relatives so he could attend a high school that had a football team.
None of Granddad’s recollections, over the years, had included any episodes of being called the “N word” or denied a job based on the color of his skin. In fact, he was quite proud of his work ethic and his work history. As a pre-teen, he hopped aboard a Coca-Cola delivery truck and dropped off crates, “from one city to the next,” he says. He traded two 5 cent bottles of coke for a 10 cent hamburger.
“And none of those white folks ever called you ‘nigger’?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Naw. I never had a problem with them. We got along ‘cause they knew my daddy, because he worked at the Coca-Cola plant – and his daddy had worked there.” At the end of the day, they returned to their segregated town, and their white colleagues stayed downtown, where they lived.
“And none of them ever treated you bad?” I prodded. He laughed.
“Oh, we would fight them. If they came into our neighborhood, we fought them, and when the police came, the police ran them on back to their part of town,” he said. “When I heard all that talk about life being so hard in the south, that wasn’t me,” he said. His father, and his father’s father had managed to protect and provide for their families.
This defied everything I’ve seen in movies and documentaries about black life prior to the civil rights movement. But his recollections have been consistent all my life. I get more details as I get older, but his overall stories have not changed.
He moved to Washington right after high school, landed a job and sent for his bride. He was drafted in the Army, served four years in WWII, then returned to his job as a cook at The Hot Shoppes. That job would become a 45-year career as the small company became Marriott, one of the largest hotel chains in the country. Granddad retired as an executive chef.
“I’ve had a looooot of good experiences. I’ve had a good life. God’s been good to me,” Granddad told me Friday, as I prodded him for personal history and family lore on the eve of the second-coming of America’s first black president.
“So, why did you say you never thought you’d see a black president?” I asked.
“Because I’d never seen a black anything in any high position,” he said. Not when he was growing up in Monroe. He worked on the day Dr. King’s historic march on Washington drew hundreds of thousands of freedom fighters from across the country to the nation’s capital, which he now calls home. As news of civil rights victories mounted over the years — the first black mayor of Washington, D.C. (Walter E. Washington, 1977); first black woman senator (Carol Moseley Braun, 1999); Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential runs — Granddad remained grounded in community service through his church and dedicated to his family. But when Obama inched close to securing the first nomination of an African American by a major political party, his and Grandma’s excitement was palpable. “That’s my BOY!” he would yell when we caught glimpse of Obama.
As we left the hospital Friday afternoon, a tall man with a booming baritone voice belted out at the top of his lungs, “Count your blessings. Count them one by one. Count your many blessings, see what God has done.”
Montgomery is a columnist for The Root DC.