How Mrs. Lawson rose to her proper place

I grew up in Montgomery County, Md., a large county that extends from the Washington, D.C., suburbs to a mostly rural and farming area farther north. It has many schools, and my mother was active not only in our local Parent Teacher Association but also in the County Council of Parent Teacher Associations. In the late 1950s, there was one African-American woman active in that county-level PTA.

Georgia Lawson represented the PTA of Boyds, a small and largely white farming town that had a rural Deep South culture. She was light-skinned, but Negro, at a time when a Negro's appearance at these meetings was somewhere between simply daring and seriously dangerous. (I'm going to call her a Negro, because the locution "African-American" didn't come into use until years later.) She was a grandmother, but none of her children or grandchildren were in the local schools. How had she become a prominent member of the PTA?

It took my mother years to piece together Mrs. Lawson's story. Many years later I spoke with some of Mrs. Lawson's relatives who corrected parts of the tale, but here is the story my mother told me, piecemeal, as a child.

Mrs. Lawson was a widow, but I have to start by talking about her husband, Dr. Wilford Lawson. He had been very black, and had grown up in Washington, D.C., in a very prosperous Negro family whose ancestors had been free since long before the Civil War. From his youth, he had had aspirations. He wanted to be a dentist. He eventually went to dental school in Chicago, and while studying there he met his wife, Georgia. She was an art student in Chicago, and they married. He practiced dentistry in Chicago for quite a few years, becoming reasonably well off.

But Dr. Lawson had another aspiration. He wanted to go south, buy land, and be a farmer. A Negro, land-owning farmer in the South. He occasionally talked of this dream with his wife and extended family.

The family in Washington wanted him close by for easy visits. But they weren't sure that the racial climate in northern Virginia was right for his plans in the late 1940s. So, as Dr. Lawson was winding up his dental practice, Mrs. Lawson set out for Montgomery County to buy the first promising-looking farm she came to.

She found a farm in Boyds. She hit it off with the real estate agent and the seller, who perhaps wondered where this cultured Chicago lady had acquired her suntan. He would have heard nothing in her accent to suggest that she was Negro.

All was going well until shortly before the closing, when Dr. Lawson came to look over the proposed purchase. The real estate agent was horrified. It was not that he had anything against Negroes, he explained, but they wouldn't be accepted by the town. There had never been a Negro landowner there. If he sold to a Negro, he'd never sell another piece of land again. He might even be run out of town.

It was before what Garrison Keillor has called "the age of litigation." Wasn't there a solution to be found?

The agent had an idea: He'd sell the land - not to Dr. Lawson, but to Mrs. Lawson. Dr. Lawson would stay in Chicago a few more weeks while Mrs. Lawson got accepted by the neighbors. When Dr. Lawson arrived, the real estate agent would take him around town and introduce him as Wilford, an old and trusted friend of Mrs. Lawson's who had come to manage the farm for her. He'd assure all the local merchants that Wilford could make contracts and buy for Mrs. Lawson, and that everyone should treat him nicely.

The Lawsons agreed to the plan, Mrs. Lawson was accepted in town as a white, and Wilford as her hired farm manager. They were also welcome in Negro society, which seemed to enjoy keeping the secret from the local whites.

But it was not to last. Wilford may have been a fine dentist, but dentistry was not the ideal training for running a dairy farm. He was gored by a bull and died.

At the funeral, Mrs. Lawson revealed her secret. She asked the ministers from both the white church and the Negro church to speak. People of both races attended, and she explained that she was Negro and married to Wilford. She told why she and her husband had done what they did. People of both races responded warmly, and afterward both the white and Negro ministers said they hoped she would feel welcome in their churches. Mrs. Lawson was going to stay in Boyds, and she was going to carry out her late husband's dream.

Not everyone accepted the consequence, however. Shortly after the funeral, Mrs. Lawson's house burned to the ground. Was it arson? Was there someone who wouldn't accept a Negro landowner, or a Negro who had passed as white? No one was ever arrested, no formal finding of arson was ever made. But the townspeople came together to respond to the emergency. They built a house on that farm for her - the only house in Boyds built out of cinder block.

A few weeks later a young couple came to call on Mrs. Lawson. Recent graduates of the local high school (I'll call them the Nelsons), they were ready to start work. Did she need someone to act as manager or help out on the farm? She did. And without knowing it, she established another first: She became the only Negro in Boyds to have white employees.

The dairy farm prospered, and Mrs. Lawson became a very respected member of the community. She got along especially well with her employees. And when Mrs. Nelson's son entered first grade, Mrs. Lawson became the first Negro member of the Boyds PTA.

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