Sometimes emotion gets the better of Terri Upshaw, and she appears softer, more vulnerable, younger than her 55 years. Then she regains her composure and continues, in spare, straightforward language, to tell the kind of story we think doesn’t happen anymore in modern America. A dark family story that syncs with a national racial history we like to tell ourselves we’re well beyond.
She talks about being raised in the upper-middle-class Buich family, who owned San Francisco’s famed Tadich Grill. She calls her upbringing strict, loving and marked by expressed disdain for people who weren’t white or Christian. A fellow might be “a great guy” if he came into the restaurant, but you knew never to bring one home, she says. “I didn’t understand it, but I didn’t question it,” Upshaw says. “I lived in a house where you didn’t question.”
As a young woman working as a hotel catering manager, she met an older football player. An African American. They hit it off and became friends. Then more. He retired, accepted a job in Washington and asked her to move with him. They’d dated for eight months without her family knowing, and she had to make a decision.
“I was scared,” Upshaw recalls on a recent afternoon near her home in Northern Virginia. She says she broke the news to her brother and sister first. “They said, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this.’ They said our parents would be livid, upset, disappointed, embarrassed, ashamed.”
Word got back to her father. She remembers how much she sobbed in that final family meeting with her parents and siblings. She was 23 and pleading for love — both theirs and her own. She thinks her mother and siblings were crying, but it has been so long. Only the final message was clear.
When she told her father that she had decided to follow the black man she loved to Washington, she says, “he told me that’s it — you’re out of the family. Change your last name, and don’t ever call us again.”
It was 1983. They married in 1986.
The black man was the legendary Gene Upshaw, whose 15-year career as a guard for the Oakland Raiders landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. During 25 years in his equally famous second act as the controversial head of the National Football League Players’ Association, he helped usher in free agency, which led to an explosion in player salaries. Upshaw died in 2008, days after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The union headquarters in Northwest Washington is named Upshaw Place in his honor.
Terri Upshaw says she has not heard from her family in decades, true to their final message. While visiting San Francisco a few years ago, she saw a news report that Tadich Grill would open a D.C. location, and last month it did, to great fanfare. Guests included prominent members of Congress and a Supreme Court justice.
Her parents, now in their early 80s, and siblings have never met Upshaw’s sons, 28 and 25. She says they didn’t reach out when her husband died. She says that she has tried over the years to make contact with her family — that they ignored her at her grandmother’s funeral. When her oldest son was 3 months old, she says, she took him to her parents’ house and was ordered to leave.
There is surely another side to this, because there are always sides and layers to all of our stories. There is perhaps a heartache, a wish for a daughter’s well-being that was not properly expressed, but it is difficult to know because numerous calls, voice mails, text messages and messages left for the Buich family and sent through Tadich Grill executives explaining Upshaw’s contention and requesting comment were not returned. Her sister, reached by phone, declined to comment.
Upshaw, who had never spoken publicly about the rift, says she is telling this story now, in response to a reporter’s query, because with the new restaurant, she is talking more to friends and “it sounds archaic,” she says.
It sounds like the kind of extreme racial story we don’t want to think happens anymore, although what’s closer to the truth is that both extreme and casual racism are all around us, even in some of our most solid American success stories.
Parents want the best for their children, and “I went with my soul mate and person who truly loved me unconditionally, and we had this wonderful marriage and life,” Upshaw says. Her voice catches. Still, she wonders whether her parents think about her “on Mother’s Days, holidays, birthdays. I wonder, as a parent, how do you not?” she says.
She couches her family’s choices as “mistakes,” which is gentler and sounds better than the unvarnished assessment that sometimes hate for the other can be stronger than love for your own.
Upshaw has talked with her own sons, who wanted to know why she is speaking out and how the family they’ve never met might take the news. She worries about all of that, but their generation has to move past this sickness around race, Upshaw says. The whole country does.
Besides, how can you move to a place like Washington, D.C., “which always shines its bright lights with this kind of back story?” You move to Washington, says Upshaw, “and everything comes out.”
For more by O’Neal, visit wapo.st/lonnae.