As a young girl, I lived in a middle-class Black community surrounded by people who made me feel that I was incredible and could do anything I set her mind to. It was a recipe for constant conflict with a racist, sexist society and its institutions throughout the rest of my life.
Society did all it could to teach me that I was inferior: my hair wasn’t good enough, my skin wasn’t white enough, my brain was defective and inferior. My life’s goal should be to walk steps behind, serve Whites, not be pushy, and not rock the boat. I should live and work not noticing or challenging differences in treatment, but accepting whatever society forced on me, and doing so without complaint.
If I did, I’d be able to live a nice, quiet life as the wife of a nice quiet man and have nice quiet children. Not affluent, but I’d be comfortable enough for a Black family. If I rocked the boat and challenged racism and sexism, there’d be hell to pay.
I used to wonder why the reality of Black history was only taught in Black schools. In White schools, not even the handful of Black children who attended knew much about the oppression, violence, protests, revolutions, and mass deaths that Blacks had experienced. As I grew older and moved out of that Black community, I realized why. If Whites are kept ignorant of Black history, the denials could continue and racism could thrive.
My grandfather, O.C.W. Taylor, was principal of a school in New Orleans, but his passion was journalism. He co-founded the Louisiana Weekly with C. C. Dejoie, Jr. and had a television and radio show on WNOE in New Orleans. He also rocked boats and made huge waves. When he did all that, I was right there – at five years old, probably younger and very definitely as I grew older.
He brought people to New Orleans through his work, like Thurgood Marshall, to be on panels discussing civil rights. He was also a part of severing the organizational ties between the NAACP and what became the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund which paved the way for the iconic legal case of Brown vs the Board of Education.
I loved sitting at the table at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans listening to their conversations. Maybe I didn’t understood it all, but those times certainly formed who I am today and how I have lived my life. Today, I see this little girl sitting at the table with all these men and I’m amazed. At the time, I felt equal to any of them and joined the conversation whenever I had anything to say.
Jack Greenberg was a very young man and was new to the group. It was not an all Black group and that felt very right. It was normal and good, at the time, the way Blacks and Jews worked together on fighting for the civil rights of everybody. Later – as society began to notice the giant steps taken with this melded group, there began to be efforts and some very successful, to propagandize the Black community to reject its Jewish brothers and sisters and to have only Blacks involved. Everyone had a theory as to why this was necessary. None of those theories acknowledged the strength of that group at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant and how it made forays into racism and eventually sexism, incrementally moving barriers.
Years later, when I worked for the Pillsbury Company and found myself in the middle of racism and sexism in Corporate America, all of that came flooding back and I called the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Highly indignant that I was experiencing racism and sexism in a job, especially when I was just out of Harvard Graduate School of Business, I was outraged. Somehow, that was supposed to inoculate me from such experiences.
Instead, it showed me the reality of life in these United States for a Black woman. I saw the structures which supported the racism and sexism that I was experiencing – their history – where they came from – how they were established and maintained. It was an incredible awakening.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) took the case of Donaldson v Pillsbury, knowing it would be difficult because it was the first management case filed by a Black woman. There I encountered Jack Greenberg again and his wife, Deborah. Jack and Deborah’s lives were wound up in the LDF. I was not simply a “Plaintiff” to them. They invited me to LDF Yearly Conferences; I attempted to raise money in Minneapolis through a Black and White Ball for LDF and they tolerated that. I spent a lot of time in New York because my life elsewhere was falling apart. The helplessness of what I was experiencing was mitigated by Jack and Deborah and their colleagues Percy Julian and Dolores Orey. They included me n discussions of my case, listened when my anger went over the top, allowed me to be equal, and acknowledged my humanity while it was destroyed elsewhere.
When my car was set afire I called LDF. When people circled my house in a threatening way and I was alone in the wilds of Wayzata, Minnesota with three small children, I called LDF and Percy came to visit. Whenever these events and threats happened – I called LDF – and they responded. When I look at how the LDF operated, I see the person who headed the organization, Jack Greenberg. His humanity permeated the entire group.
My grandfather filled in the blanks for me on why Thurgood Marshall looked to Jack Greenberg as his successor at LDF. And from my experience with the group, it made sense. I didn’t know about Jack Greenberg’s family history with anti-semitism until years later. It wasn’t something he paraded about to justify his involvement in civil rights. Not everyone with that background feels called to address the evils they experienced, but thank God Jack Greenberg did.
Towards the end of my active association with Jack and Deborah Greenberg, I was caught up in a group lobbying to replace Jack Greenberg as the organization’s head with an African American. What was this about?
It became clear that it was propaganda inserted to undermine the LDF. There were White propagandist in our midst doing everything they could to convince me and others that our efforts should be directed towards this separatist goal. Yet, many of the Blacks pushing separatism contributed nothing to the Civil Rights Movement. They talked loud and long, but were working basically re-establish the Jim Crow era. It was tragic. If they succeeded, the work of Jack Greenberg, Thurgood Marshall, and others would be reversed.
Jack Greenberg, Percy Julian, and Dolores Orey are now gone. But memories of them are very much alive and always will be if we value the present by looking to the past, and use them both to move into the future. There’s no greater inspiration.
It was a rare time, painful but also beautiful, that showed humanity in all its grandeur. Attempts to enslave, oppress, and demean were met by those who spent their lives doing everything possible to make life better for us all. At the top of that list was Jack Greenberg, an incredible example of a life well lived, a life given to effectively serve others.
My prayer for Jack is one of giving thanks for his life and how he decided to live that life. Without him and others like him, we would all be a little less than we are.