As I visit with 80-year-old Gracie, the woman who was a “second mother” to my wife as a maid in my wife’s New York home in the 1960’s, I am getting a lesson in history.
I learn about how Gracie’s own mother died just 9 days after her birth which happened at home because her family could not afford a hospital.
As a young adult, Gracie needed to leave North Carolina because she could not find work at a living wage in the late 1950’s.
By the way, Gracie is African-American and her family on her mother’s side carries the name White, the same name of U.S. Congressman George White during the late 1800’s who warned then President McKinley about the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and Red Shirts in North Carolina. This was before the violence and intimidation of voters led to what turned into what some refer to as the 1898 coup d’état in Wilmington, North Carolina* and systematic removal of Blacks and progressives from government service and gainful employment in many parts of the state.
So today as I leave North Carolina, I feel very sad — sad because we are leaving Gracie and also because in my work as a family therapist, I know the impact of historical events, of discrimination, and of poverty on families of all colors.
I also know the difference people can make in the lives of others.
Today, Gracie folds clothes on the graveyard shift at Walmart. She feels well treated there and has been on the job for 14 years. In another life with more advantages, she might have been a school principal or heading some other educational or service initiative. Yet she is a leader. Tall and regal in her bearing and speech, her co-workers smile and greet her as she passes on the cart she pushes in front of her, holding on because she has trouble keeping on her feet for so many hours.
They call her “Miss Gracie.”
A few months ago, Gracie’s house –the same one that’s been in her family for two generations — was badly damaged in a fire. She was saved when some neighbors saw the fire, including a boy who threw a cinder block through her window to wake her up.
Gracie’s colleagues at Walmart helped out by collecting money to assist with repairs. Local residents also contributed at two fundraising car washes, while additional donations were received from people, some known, and others unknown to Gracie.
Gracie is someone people care about because she cares about them — a leader in life today as she was a leader years ago in my wife’s household, providing love and nurturance for what she calls “the white side of my family” while sending the money that came from her wages to her children who remained in North Carolina during the years she worked up North.
Gracie’s story as a proud Black woman has been influenced by the difficult legacy of slavery yet it is also a story of perseverance and the power of love.
Today, I learn about life from Miss Gracie whose love has pulled her through.
Note: This story was originally written in 2014. Gracie’s position was eliminated at Walmart in 2016.
*Another story related to North Carolina history at:
– Neal H. Brodsky is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Connecticut and New York.