'Mom's prayer meetings' taught us to fight racism

Parents sometimes try to hide the problems facing adults, and the world, from their children. Sometimes they try to educate them. And sometimes the conversations get started in unusual ways.

In the middle 1950s my parents, who grew up around Boston, moved our family to Wheaton, Md., just north of Washington, D.C. We were in a large tract of middle-class suburban homes that attracted newcomers to Washington from many places - not least of all from the South. Housing was still very segregated then, and there was always suspicion if a black face appeared in an unexpected place. As far as I knew, the suburban schools were not legally segregated in my area. But no nonwhite students lived anywhere in the suburban school district.

It was clearly understood by most residents of the neighborhood that no homes in that area would be sold to any nonwhites, whether there was any such provision in the deeds or not. My parents were distressed at the local attitudes and very much worried that they might be transmitted to us two boys, especially at school. My mother watched the school closely, and looked for ways to encourage progress.

As a result, she became very active in the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) at the elementary school my brother and I attended. In her low-key way she improved the library and the school considerably. In due course she also became active in the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. This covered more than 100 schools, from the D.C. suburbs well north into the rural farming country that was culturally even more Southern.

When my mother discovered that a black woman (albeit a very light-skinned one) was appearing at meetings of the county-level PTA organization, she was delighted.

My mother quickly found a way to invite Mrs. Lawson, for that was the black woman's name, to be a member of the library committee, which my mother chaired. So Mrs. Lawson came to our home for the once-a-month meetings, along with the other committee members. In bad weather,

Mrs. Lawson even spent the night a few times, as her home was quite a way north in the county and roads weren't so good then. It might have been a two-hour drive back to her house.

Among our very Southern neighbors was a lady I'll call Mrs. Garman. Mr. and Mrs. Garman were an older couple with no children. They were very friendly, and she was a reliable source of cookies for us young children on the block.

And it happened, of course, that eventually Mrs. Garman saw Mrs. Lawson on our front walk. Mrs. Garman wasn't one to jump to conclusions or get overly excited, but she did have to look into things. She called her friend Mrs. Lee Burley, who lived a couple of blocks away. Mrs. Burley was also a good friend of my mother.

"Did I see a Negro coming out of the Ordmans' house?" Mrs. Garman asked Mrs. Burley.

Mrs. Burley was quick. "It's very possible," she said. "You know, the Ordmans are Jewish. They are awfully nice people, and I know they wouldn't do any harm. But I don't know what kind of prayer meetings the Jews have. Of course, if someone came to a prayer meeting, they'd have to be nice to them."

Within a day or two, Mrs. Garman asked us boys if our mother had been "havin' any prayer meetin's." We were quite sure she hadn't - we weren't even sure what a prayer meeting was - but we weren't about to contradict Mrs. Garman and endanger our supply of cookies. So we said we'd find out. And we went home later and inquired. "What's a prayer meeting?" and "Mrs. Garman wants to know: Have we been having any prayer meetings?"

Fortunately, Mrs. Burley had let our mother know about the conversation, and our mother had agreed that this was a solution that would satisfy Mrs. Garman. So my mother explained to us that sometimes blacks came to her PTA meetings, and she thought that might bother Mrs. Garman. She said we should go ahead and tell Mrs. Garman that yes, she'd be having some prayer meetings maybe once a month for a while.

This led to some interesting family discussions about race, integration, and what our parents were doing, and what we children might do to end discrimination. We discussed the role of local organizations like the PTA. We also talked about choosing one's battles, dealing with neighbors who disagreed, and dealing with disagreements. Our mother's reports of the issues she faced at PTA meetings, and how she dealt with them, became part of our education.

One result of Mrs. Garman's inquiry, though, was that for many years after that any PTA meeting in our home (and even some meetings our mother attended elsewhere) were referred to as "Mom's prayer meetings."

And in a very real sense, they were.

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