My grandfather’s grandfather had slaves. Let that cold horrible fact seep in for a second. Could anything be a worse condemnation? A bigger curse brought upon a family? The fact is that my ancestors were so selfish and mean that they purchased other human beings and forced them to do the work they didn’t want to do themselves or didn’t want to pay someone to do. Even now the thought fills my office with an ugly smoke that stains the walls and can’t be cleaned off no matter how hard a human being tries. It is a disgrace. And the flag that represented their lifestyle is a disgrace too.
Now skip ahead decades into a new century.
My grandfather (the great great-grandson of a slave owner) is dying and I have been sent to a room on the second floor of the hospital to see him. This is the hospital where I was born and the hospital where he will die. I walk run up the grand staircase in the lobby. When I opened the door to his room, it is filled with so many people that I cannot see my grandfather. Five, six, seven African-Americans. He is the only white person in the room. There is laughter and talking. Certain that I have come to the wrong room, a plump 60-something woman sitting on the hospital bed turns to see who had opened the door, “Honey, you are in the right place.” Then turning back towards the bed, “Charlie, your granddaughter has arrived.” She stood and waved me in to see my grandfather. He was sitting up and introduced me to his friends – coworkers who had come to see him. They told me that he was a good man and that he talked about me a lot.
It made me proud that he had such good friends.
My grandfather did not die that day, but it started a conversation about race that we had never had before.
His family had come on very bad times by the year he was born. Of course, slavery was long over. His mother died and his father became ill with a fever that left his dad mentally incapacitated. So my grandfather had been sent to live with relatives. The last education he had was in the third grade, when he was forced to take a job building furniture in a factory. He was so small he could not reach the work table and had to pile up wood to stand on.
Of course, racism and discrimination was legal at that time. At the factory, the black men were paid far less than the white men. Even their work areas were segregated. But somehow, my grandfather made friends with a few of the African-Americans. One day my grandfather mentioned that he had a project to do at his house that weekend. On Saturday, one of the black guys showed up at his house to help him. They worked all morning, but when suppertime came, instead of inviting the man in for dinner, my grandfather told my grandmother to feed the family in the kitchen, but bring the man his supper on the front porch. He didn’t invite him into the house.
Not inviting the man in horrified my father and when he expressed it to my grandfather, my grandfather was overwhelmed with shame. My grandfather’s apology to his friend opened up a discussion about segregation – about what it meant to be black in the south. My grandfather’s heart turned that day.
It was then that my grandfather decided to travel back to the part of North Carolina where his grandfather had lived to search for descendants of the slaves his great-grandfather had owned. There, in a black-owned country store, sweeping the floor, he found an older black man who shared our family name. Perhaps it was my grandfather’s charm, but more likely, it was coupled with the kindness of these African-Americans that enabled relationships to form. They were open and kind to my grandfather and became friends during his many visits which followed.
It was during these visits that my grandfather came to the understanding that segregation and discrimination were nothing but evil. He was also in a position to do something about it – although it was small, he still could do something! He had risen to the level of supervisor at his factory job and became determined to integrate the work areas. No longer would there be a separation between black and white factory workers. He would call for equal pay and benefits too. It cost him his job. Until he was hired back a few months later.
The people in his hospital room that night had worked with my grandfather. Their lives mattered to him. And his life mattered to them too. It is by doing small things – being kind, loving, and speaking up where we have power and even where we don’t – that we can make change.
Make a commitment to build friendships with a person of a different color. Make a commitment to change what you can for the well-being of others (including taking down the flag). Make a commitment to pray for justice. And speed it up, because it is taking way too long!
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28 NRS)
April describes herself as a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs: The Disorderly Parable of the Epistle of James. Great for an individual read or group Bible studies!