The smell of honeysuckle entered from my bedroom window. The summer heat had intensified its sticky sweetness and the aroma was making me dizzy. Luckily I was reading in bed so I didn’t risk falling. Connie had lent me Lee Harper’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Set in a small Alabama town of the 1930s, it’s the story of how a black man, unjustly accused of a crime, is defended by a white lawyer, Atticus Finch. But Atticus knows that no matter how well he defends his client, his client will be found guilty simply because he’s black.
Some people respect prejudice more so than they do truth.
Atticus’ statement that “the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” inspired me to be a better woman. That’s why, in August of 1963, I found myself in D.C. for the March on Washington. Civil Rights leaders had organized a protest against racial discrimination and 200,000 people had gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr speak.
“I have a dream—I have a dream that…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” King said. The crowd, wanting to dream too, roared with emotion and, resonating together, all felt related one to the other.
After the march I met up with an old friend from middle school, Clyde. Clyde and I were both romantics. We liked heartbreaking mariachi music, chimichurri sauce, and rainy Sunday mornings. A friend of his from church, Lillian Rogers Parks, had invited us over for tea. Lillian was a tiny little woman who liked wearing fake pearls and a smile full of adjectives. Having suffered from polio as a child, she used crutches. But she hadn’t let her handicap turn her into a victim. Both Lillian and her mother had worked at the White House as domestics for 30 years. Together they’d collected quite a number of White House souvenirs now displayed in a large mahogany Victrola given to Lillian by President Hoover and his wife.
The little cabinet of curiosities was loaded with photos, fans, figurines, and perfumes. Lillian’s collection also included the dress worn by Mrs. Coolidge for a portrait, a ribbon from Queen Elizabeth’s bouquet, two of FDR’s canes as well as his Bible, and Mrs. Harding’s mourning items. But more than objects, Lillian had collected stories. She was initially uncomfortable with the idea of writing about her White House experiences thinking it would be too audacious. But her mother said that “if a cat may look at a Queen in England, a maid may write about a First Lady in America”. The result was the bestselling book “My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House”.
Much of Lillian’s work dealt with sewing. She made drapes and tablecloths but also did much mending. Lillian had mended White House towels and tablecloths as well as FDR’s sweaters and Eisenhower’s golf stockings.
While working at the White House, Lillian had a chance to observe the Presidents and their attitude towards Blacks.
When Coolidge was president, the Mississippi Delta risked flooding. To save the cotton plantations, Black communities were flooded in order to reduce pressure on the levees. Now, not only homeless and without food, Blacks were forced by guards to help fortify the river banks. But the levee broke and hundreds of black labourers were swept away and died.
When President William Howard Taft’s wife became First Lady, she substituted police with Blacks as doormen at the White House believing the latter to be less intimidating.
Woodrow Wilson believed in segregation and backed the Klu Klux Klan.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the first to invite Blacks to the White House as guests. When Queen Elisabeth came for a visit, Eleanor’s mother-in-law said that it would be best to have only white domestic helpers. Eleanor ignored her. However, in 1942, despite Eleanor’s civil rights activities, her husband enacted one of America’s most racist executive orders by forcing 100,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps.
Harry Truman grew up believing in white supremacy but the brutal violence of racial lynchings he saw as President forced him to create a Civil Rights committee.
When Nikita Khrushchev visited the White House in 1959, he took a look at the Black employees and asked Eisenhower “Are these your slaves?”
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional and that Black students in Little Rock, Arkansas couldn’t be prohibited from attending the local high school. So, although “understanding” why Southerners wouldn’t want their sweet little girls sitting next to some “big black buck”, President Eisenhower had no choice but to send U.S. army troops to escort the Black students to school.
Historians obviously write about the Presidents from a particular point of view. But someone like Lillian, who spent her days at the White House as a domestic, had the possibility to observe things historians couldn’t. Like how the Roosevelts loved to have loud and rowdy meals whereas the Eisenhowers enjoyed being alone and eating dinner in front of the TV. And only an insider would know that Harry Truman washed his own underwear or that Taft was so overweight that a special bathtub had to be made for him (and maybe the reason why his wife introduced twin beds in the White House).
Convictions take courage.
And you don’t have to be President to live in the White House.
(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)