The Washington Post

Black history comes alive at the dinner table

The dinner table is set with your best dishes. You shiver with excitement. Five history-making people are coming over to celebrate Black History Month with you and your friends.

As good hosts, you want the conversation to be lively, so you’ll need to know something about each of them. That’s not hard. They all have interesting stories to tell. We’ll help, so let’s get started.

‘A’ for achievement

Among many “firsts” in Condoleezza Rice’s life: She was the first 3-year-old at her elementary school in Birmingham, Alabama. Her parents wanted to give her a head start in life.

Every day, her mother dropped her off. And every day, the scared little girl had the school call her daddy to come get her. He took her to Grandma’s. Finally, her parents gave up.

They didn’t need to worry, though. In time, she would earn several college degrees and hold top government jobs: first female national security adviser to the president and first female African American secretary of state.

Birmingham in the 1960s was a city torn by racial conflict. For Condoleezza, who was born in 1954, that meant the death of a playmate in a church bombing, and worrying that her dad would argue with Santa for refusing to hold black children on his knee.

Her dream of being a concert pianist didn’t happen. But she has played for the queen of England and with world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

“My father thought I might be president,” she once said. “I think he would have been satisfied with secretary of state.”

Eyes on the world

From age 9, Gwen Ifill wanted to be a newspaper reporter. Her family watched a lot of news on television. “My father was very engaged in the civil rights movement and taught us to pay attention to the world around us,” she told

Now Ifill brings the world into your house as co-anchor of “PBS NewsHour” and host of the news show “Washington Week.” Before moving to TV, she got her career wish: She spent 11 years reporting for the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Growing up a minister’s daughter wasn’t easy. “All the church ladies felt ownership over your actions and were happy to report you” if you misbehaved, she said. “My parents made clear that we were accountable for our grades, our attitude and our selves.”

She’s passing their message forward.

“My parents were tough because they had high expectations of us. That is what I tell young people now. They need to have high expectations of themselves, in part because others may not,” she said. “I loved it when the Seattle quarterback said after the Super Bowl that his father had always told him, ‘Why not you?’ That’s a perfect mantra for anyone who’s been told ‘no.’ ”

Baseball and Boy Scouts

Henry Aaron grew up in Alabama, in a small house he helped his dad build in 1942. It had no toilet and just two bedrooms for eight kids. “The first one in bed got all the covers,” he joked at a recent appearance at the Smithsonian Institution. When it rained, “you’d look up at the ceiling and it would rain down on you.”

Hank, as he was known, had two loves: baseball and the Boy Scouts. He can still recite the Scout oath.

His years playing in the major leagues seem like yesterday, said Aaron, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday.

Aaron told KidsPost that one of his favorite memories is winning the 1957 World Series with the Milwaukee Braves. Aaron said that experience “ranks right up there” with the day in 1974 when he broke Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs. The latter is a somewhat painful memory because for months, he and his family had been threatened by people angry that a black man was toppling a record some had thought would last forever. It wasn’t his first brush with racism on the field. Years earlier, fans had thrown rocks at him, hitting him in the head.

Like his hero, Jackie Robinson, who integrated baseball a few years before Aaron arrived, Aaron just kept playing. He retired after the 1976 season with 755 home runs. He still holds several records, including 25 All-Star Game appearances. In 1982, he entered the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Not bad for the skinny kid who started out hitting rag balls and bottle caps with a broomstick.

Up ‘from the ’hood’

Barry Black is in the United States Senate every day it’s in session. He’s been there for 10 years. Yet outside that chamber, few people know him. He’s okay with that.

Black is the Senate’s chaplain — its 62nd since 1789 and the first black person to hold the job. He gets things rolling each day with a prayer. He counsels senators and staff members, performs weddings and visits the sick.

Black grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s and ’60s. His father wasn’t around, so his mother raised their eight children. The family was evicted three times when the rent was overdue. In his book “From the Hood to the Hill: A Story of Overcoming,” he says the library and church kept him away from drugs and crime. “My mother paid me and my siblings to memorize Scripture,” he told KidsPost.

Inspired by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., he became a minister. He spent 27 years as a Navy chaplain.

Black doesn’t take sides in Senate debates. But he hopes his preaching gets senators to think about their actions.

The best part of his job, he says, is “having a front-row seat to human history.”

It all adds up

In high school, Ursula Burns’s career options seemed limited. Nurse. Teacher. Or a nun, like her adviser. Burns couldn’t see herself as any of them.

She was a good student, especially in math. What can you become, she wondered, if you’re good at math? She read career books and discovered engineering. She had no clue what she was getting into, but it looked “pretty cool” — and involved math.

After college, she joined Xerox, a global document services company, as a summer intern. Twenty-nine years later, she was running the company. She is the first African American woman to head a major U.S. corporation.

She still can’t get used to people wanting her photo or autograph. “It’s like I’m Oprah,” she told one interviewer.

She credits her success to her mom, who cleaned offices and watched other people’s kids to make a better life for her own. “Where you are is not who you are,” she told them. Education would be their ticket out of one of New York’s poor neighborhoods. Just how far her daughter would travel, she could never have imagined.


Okay, now you’re ready to welcome your guests. Is that a knock you hear at your front door? Looks like they’re here.

What to serve?

It helps to know your guests’ favorite — and least favorite — foods when planning a dinner. You don’t want to serve something they think is yucky. Here are some tips for your party:

●Condoleezza Rice loves fried chicken, especially if it’s her grandmother’s recipe.

●Gwen Ifill loves gravy (“it makes everything taste better”) and avocados. She’s not a fan of lima beans or asparagus.

●Barry Black is a vegetarian, so pass those lima beans his way. He also likes “a yummy salad” with berries and seeds. His least favorite food is pecan pie, because “it’s too sweet.”

●Hank Aaron’s favorite food is fish. “It’s probably because I was raised in Mobile, [Alabama,] and fish was a staple in our diet.”

●We’re not sure what Ursula Burns likes to eat. Maybe mac and cheese. Who doesn’t like mac and cheese?

Dinner morsels

●Conndoleezza Rice’s first name comes from the Italian musical term “con dolcezza,” which means “with sweetness.” Her dream job? Head of the National Football League. Now, that’s sweet!

●Barry Black has at least 60 colorful bow ties. By wearing them, he makes it easy for strangers to identify him when he arrives at airports for speaking engagements.

●Words of wisdom: Ursula Burns’s mother used to tell her that “you have to give more than you take from the world.”

●Gwen Ifill grew up poor. When she wore a hole in her only pair of school shoes playing hopscotch, she covered it with cardboard.

●Hank Aaron’s high school did not have a baseball team, so he played fast-pitch softball.

— Marylou Tousignant

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