In “What it was like to grow up in Ferguson” (Aug. 20), Mike Meyers recounted an ugly history of how some Americans of different cultures have been treating one another, from his formative years growing up in Ferguson, Mo., up to the unrest we see blasted across the media today. He ended his story with the phrase “it’s just the way things are.”
But it doesn’t have to be. And that wasn’t my experience growing up.
Both of my parents are of European descent, born and raised in the Bible Belt of north Louisiana. Up until I was 9, we lived in Baton Rouge. Although I was too young to really understand what it meant, Baton Rouge — like many Southern cities in the 1950s and ’60s — was racially divided, with separate restrooms and drinking fountains for white and “colored” (our polite term for “black” or “African-American” back then).
However, during my early years, as my father was finishing his degree at LSU while my mother was working full time as a teacher, they hired a “colored” woman to come to our home and care for my eldest younger sister and me.
“Ollie Mae” or “Mae,” as we called her, was a wonderful woman who doted on us like we were her own, cooked the family meals, took us to her church choir practice, and made sure we knew we were always protected and loved. She always seemed joyful in her work, and we all felt — my parents included — that she was family.
My paternal grandparents ran a general store in the small town of Cotton Valley, La. During the ’50s and ’60s, Cotton Valley’s population was two-thirds “colored.” My siblings and I all retain fond memories of that little town, where my grandparents’ store was the center of activity.
The majority of their customers were “colored,” as were two of their most trusted employees, brothers Pat and Snyder. When our family would make our summer visits to Cotton Valley, we older siblings always wanted to participate in the family business by working in the store. Our grandparents made sure we knew Pat and Snyder were our supervisors. They taught us how to stock shelves, bag groceries and weigh produce, and generally kept us out of mischief. To us, they were family.
While our grandparents worked long hours at the store, a “colored” woman, “Gussie Mae,” took care of their housework and made their meals. She also watched over my younger siblings during our visits to Cotton Valley. We all loved Gussie Mae. She was family.
To most of his customers, our grandfather was “Mr. Ralph.” In my memory, he seems to have been colorblind and — now, looking back — maybe not much of a businessman. Any regular customer coming up to the checkout counter could request to “charge” a purchase; a ticket would be written up by the cashier and filed. I can remember a few times witnessing a regular coming in and pleading hard times. My grandfather would take the charge tickets, tear them up, and tell that person not to worry, things would get better. All of his customers were family.
When he passed in 1968, my grandfather had long been an active member in the small, all-white Methodist Church. When mourners of color began entering the church and taking seats near the front pews, the pastor became alarmed and made mention of it to my father. My dad’s response was that if people couldn’t sit wherever they felt comfortable, he would have the service held out on the lawn. My dad felt the people of Cotton Valley mourning his father’s death — no matter their color — were family.
In the mid-1980s, I drove my young family from the Twin Cities to visit my grandmother in Cotton Valley and to see what was left of the store they had heard so much about. My grandmother insisted we stop by to call on Gussie Mae. When we did, we were greeted at the door like prodigals. Gussie rushed to her phone to call Snyder, the surviving brother of my grandparent’s two loyal employees.
One of my prized possessions is a picture of all of us during that visit. It’s a picture of a family.
A little over four years ago, my eldest daughter and her husband chose to start their family by adopting. They originally were thinking of adopting two siblings, but when a trio of Ethiopian children from the same family became available, they fell in love with them at first sight. In January 2010, I met three young grandchildren, 3, 6, and 9, at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. And, like my daughter and son-in-law, I instantly fell in love. Of course, their skin is darker than mine — darker than that of their parents, or of their cousins, to whom they have become so close. But they are my family.
The situation in Ferguson is a sad echo of a past many Americans experienced. But not all of us. Not my family. And it doesn’t have to be “just the way things are.” If you believe as I do that most of the world’s problems are rooted in ignorance and intolerance of others, it’s up to you to take the steps toward understanding and acceptance. It’s what we do when we are family.
Michael Riddle is a musician and songwriter living in Coon Rapids.