Protests Call Up Memories, New Discoveries

I, like a lot of Americans, have been thinking, reading, listening and reflecting on the demonstrations taking place in this country (and around the world) these past two weeks.  It’s been a good time to take stock about the problems of racism that still exist in this country, 155 years after the last slaves were emancipated on June 19, 1865 and 56 and 52 years after the President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968.

The protests, fueled by the death of George Floyd, have given rise to concerns  that many may have thought had been resolved.  The protesters, who risk their lives in the middle of a deadly pandemic, have brought widespread recognition to the fact that discrimination, inequality and profiling are still rife in the United States.

The announcement of the President’s upcoming visit to Tulsa, OK. for a political rally brought up that city’s terrible history when, in 1921, hundreds of black citizens were literally massacred.  I’m ashamed, and a little shocked, to say that I grew up just 90 miles north across the state lines in Kansas and never knew anything about that tragic event during all the time that I lived there.

Likewise, I learned something else new earlier this week from my friend, Virginia, a friend who I’ve known since grade school.  Years later, Virginia and I frequently got together whenever the two of us were back in our hometowns at the same time.  She, like me, had moved away but returned occasionally to visit our respective families who still lived in town.  We’d have long talks about all sorts of things but often our conversation drifted towards politics, family and childhood memories.

On one such visit, I recall Virginia telling me about a section of town referred to by a derogatory nickname because it was the ‘Black neighborhood’.  It was the first time I had heard of it but Virginia assured me it was commonly used when we were both kids. (My memory fails to accurately remember the exact name so I’m excluding what I think it was, but if anyone reading this blog knows, please tell me and I’ll make the correction.)

My second grade classmates stopped one recess so I could take a photo. My friend Virginia is second from the left.

Virginia has since moved back to a neighboring community and earlier this week was on her way to participate in one of the Black Lives Matter protests being held in my hometown. That was when I learned from her, indirectly, that my kindergarten class of 1958 at McKinley School was the first integrated kindergarten in town.  I had no idea.

In fact, I remember little about kindergarten except for my teacher’s name, a few of my classmates (including Virginia), the fact that I was in the morning kindergarten and that one of the little boys in my class, Jeff, had to stay after school one day for crawling up during story time to give me a kiss on the cheek.

But Virginia remembers well that she was one of the first Black kindergarteners to attend McKinley School.  As she says, she and the other Black children had never heard of McKinley and were scared to death because they didn’t know what they would find there.  Previously, all the Black children, went to Douglass School which taught students from elementary age through junior high school. The school was eventually closed when enrollment declined as more Black parents chose to have their students attend the White junior high school, according to historian Jean Patterson who wrote “The Final Days of Douglass School” chapter in the book “Breakthroughs in the Sociology of Education.”

Until 1958, Black children in my hometown attended the Douglass School. This is one of the few, if only, photographs that may exist of that building.

As Patterson reported:  “To this day, many (White) townspeople believe the school board was being progressive in acting to desegregate the Parsons schools before the U.S. Supreme Court made its final ruling. However, many Black citizens of Parsons tell a different story. Although leaders in the Black community at the time favored integrating the schools, they were concerned about what would happen to their teachers. Their
worst fears came to pass when all but two Douglass teachers were either terminated
or forced into retirement. Most White teachers were not prepared to teach Black
students, nor did they welcome these students in their classrooms. In what many
Black citizens believe was one final act of hostility on the part of the superintendent,
Douglass School was bulldozed over with everything in it; nothing was salvaged
as trophies, photographs, books, and other artifacts were destroyed along with the
building. What remains of the school are the memories of the alumni and the pictures
and artifacts they kept over the years.”

Indeed, years later, when a local organization commissioned a company to include the school in its miniature historical building series, it had trouble finding any existing photos of the school.   Local news reports say that the organization had to resort to drawings and sketches made by former students.

How differently history is perceived when the facts are either erased, ignored, forgotten or simply not known.  As in my own case, I never knew that my Black friends, friends I kept all through my school years and continue to have to this day, were the first to be integrated in my elementary school.  How could I not know this?  I guess, like so many, other things, it simply wasn’t discussed. Or, if it was, I was too young or too sheltered, to know.  Clearly, my friend Virginia and I’m sure others like her, were very aware and, like her, were frightened of being the first to break the color barrier in my small town.

Looking back, I imagine there were many other ‘firsts’ to which I was woefully unaware. The first Black cheerleader in our high school may also have been a member of my class, for instance.

Protesters on the streets today are strongly reminding us that this country has not ‘fixed’ the problems related to racism despite the gains made in the 1960s.  The protests are shaking us back into reality and out of the complacency that had settled over this country. Maybe this time, the change needed will happen.

Honoring a Mother, a Nurse, and Life Devoted to Caregiving

Mother-in-Law Day (yes, there is such a thing) doesn’t come until October 25 this year but I’m not waiting until then to tell you about my own mother-in-law.  On this Mother’s Day so many are separated from their mothers due to the COVID-19 pandemic or can not be with their children because they are caring for the critically ill in hospitals and nursing homes across the world.  My own mother passed away nearly eight years ago (still hard to believe) and my mother-in-law died only within a year of my family moving to Bellingham, nearly 24 years ago.  That too is hard to believe some times.

My mother-in-law’s nursing school’s graduation portrait.

I’ve been thinking about my mother-in-law a lot recently since the COVID-19 crises brought to the forefront the important contribution, and seldom recognized, work and sacrifice, that healthcare professionals, nurses in particular make to our society.  I have long had the utmost respect for nurses.

As a journalist who covered medicine for part of my career for TIME and others, nurses were some of my most trusted, reliable and valuable sources when reporting on medical events or issues.  I developed a relationship with many to whom I could turn when I needed a recommendation, not only for personal medical care, but for experts to quote, insider info and verifications on stories.

One of the few photos of Elaine on duty as a nurse in World War II, taken, no doubt while on her way to a patient’s room.

I suspect this was due, in part, to Elaine, my mother-in-law, who was a career nurse.  Elaine began her nursing career in the most dramatic way, graduating from nursing school at Kansas State University and enlisting immediately in the Women’s Army Corps as a nurse.  Not long after, she was shipped overseas (on the very same ship as my Dad, see my post: Saluting a Veteran…) to serve in a field hospital for the Fifth Army during World War II.

Imagine what it was for a young woman still in her early 20s, fresh out of nursing school and never out of Kansas (as far as I know) to be suddenly thrown into a situation caring for and attending severely wounded and dying soldiers, most of them no older than herself.  I suspect that many of the nurses on the front lines in our hospitals today, caring for COVID patients, are facing some of the same challenges, stresses and strains.

Most of the photos from Elaine’s war years are with her nursing friends, shown here in helmets and uniform, the PPE of their time.

We have photographs that Elaine took during her service overseas, but with the exception of one, none were taken of the hospitals or her patients.  Instead, she focused on her nursing friends, the local children and the places where she was stationed.  These were the visual memories she brought home with her after the War ended.  I am sure the mental memories stuck with her until her passing nearly 50 years later.  The only time I ever heard her talk about her wartime memories, was on a few occasions when she and my father sat down together.  And even then, their conversations were tinted with the happier times of those life-changing years.  I think about that because I am sure that all of the nurses tending today’s COVID patients, will carry with them the faces and cases of their patients for long time after the virus subsides and many, I am sure, will suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome.

That’s why, last Wednesday, May 6, National Nurses Day, was such a significant day this year and why, when International Nurses Day comes up this week on May 12, people need to remember these incredibly dedicated people and honor them.

As a grandmother, Elaine took special care of her three grandsons, shown here still being a nurse giving medicine to her grandson, Marshall.

Elaine spent her entire life as a caregiver, returning after the War to a career as a nurse in the Veteran’s Administration hospitals in Phoenix and Prescott, Az., as a single-mother who worked the graveyard shifts so she could be home in the early a.m. to send her only son off to school and see him again after and early evening before heading off for her job, as a daughter who took in and cared for her own mother in her last years, and finally as a grandmother who looked after my own three young sons on days when I worked.

I consider myself fortunate to have had her in my life, regret that she didn’t live longer to see my own sons grow up and to share their triumphs and tribulations along with us.  I have no doubt, had she lived long enough (she would have been 100 this year) she would have been right beside all those dedicated nurses laboring daily at great risk to themselves, in the hospitals now, if only in spirit.

One of my personal favorite photographs of Elaine and my husband, taken at a surprise birthday party for me. You can see how much she beams with pride for her only son.

Mardi Gras Indian Chief Preserved Tribal Traditions

COVID-19 claimed another cultural figure this past week when Ronald Lewis of New Orleans died.  Lewis was respected locally in the city as a member of the legendary Mardi Gras Indians and for his efforts to preserve and pass on the traditions and history of its culture.  The Mardi Gras Indians are by far one of the most colorful ‘krewes’ of Mardi Gras, not only in its costumes but in its heritage.

The Mardi Gras Indians pass their traditions from one generation to another with even the littlest members taking part in the parades and costumes. It was a rare treat to see these two Indians in their full regalia.

Their traditions date back to the 1800s when Native American tribes living in the area helped to shield and protect runaway slaves.  The Mardi Gras Indians honor the friendship and bonds that were formed during that time in modern day Mardi Gras parades. Today, there are more than 40 Mardi Gras Indian tribes that includes the Wild Magnolias, the Yellow Pocahontas and the Choctaw Hunters of which Lewis was once Council Chief.

During the performance, the Chief stopped to tell the crowd about the Mardi Gras Indian tradition in New Orleans. The elaborate costumes, or suits, take hundreds of hours to construct and are dazzling to see up close.

I’ve never had the chance to see the Indians parade, as their parades usually occur after my annual visit to New Orleans during the Carnival season.  But a couple years ago, I was lucky enough to catch members of one of the tribes perform one afternoon at the little outdoor stage in a section of he French Quarter down by the Mississippi River in what is known as Dutch Alley.  The area is filled with tourists who wander in the Artist Co-op, stroll through the Mask Market (see blog post Reveling and Revealing at the Mardi Gras Mask Market, Feb. 2016. ) held here the weekend before the big Mardi Gras parades or visit the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park’s Visitor Center where you hear a jazz session, read about the history of the genre and pick up a recording or two of some of the local musicians.  The Visitor Center is a stop that I recommend everyone make when they are in the city.

The tribal members performing the day I saw them wore their beautiful feathered and beaded costumes.  I had seen many lustrous prints made by photographer Christopher Porche West of Indian members in their costumes displayed on the walls of the Snug Harbor jazz club.  But never had I seen one in person until this one day.

The patches of the Mardi Gras Indians are intricate pieces of beaded artwork designed to tell a story on the the costume.

Each tribal member creates and sews their own costume or ‘suit’ as they are known.  The beading is intricate and detailed and takes hundreds of painstaking hours to finish.  The colors are vibrant and shine in the New Orleans sunlight.  The feathers are carefully placed one by one and when worn sweep with the wearer’s motions.  On the costumes are ‘design patches’ that are first sketched on a canvas before decorated with beads and sequins. Each patch tells a story and matches the overall design and color of the costume. These costumes truly are artistic creations and can cost thousands of dollars in materials.  Sadly, the suits are worn for only one season, then are broken down and reassembled into a new costume for the next year.

Lewis recognized the importance and value of this tradition and the mastery of the skills needed to create each of these suits.  He created in his backyard The House of Dance and Feathers to preserve and educate others about the culture surrounding these unique organizations.  His collection of masks, suits, figures, and other related artifacts have been on display  there since 2003.  It has been open to the public by appointment but, as the website notes: “We’re pretty flexible and we’d love to see you down in the Lower Ninth Ward. Just give us a call and we’ll make an arrangement for you to come and visit.”

Whether or not Lewis’ family will continue to maintain The House of Dance and Feathers is not certain. If they do, I plan to pay a visit next time I’m in town.  I only wish that I had known about it while Lewis was still living and would be there to share the stories he told. One thing that is certain is Lewis’ contribution and efforts to bring attention to the extraordinary culture of the Mardi Gras Indians will not be forgotten just as the African American descendants of those runaway slaves have not forgotten the role Native Americans played in sheltering their ancestors two hundred years ago.

The celebratory spirit of the Mardi Gras Indian is obvious. The ornate headdress is an art piece unto itself.

Saluting a Veteran Who Served Her Country and Cared for Its Soldiers

When most people think of Veteran’s Day, they think of those in our military who fought in our armed services.  Since becoming a national holiday in 1938, Americans have honored those who served in the military, particularly those who are still living.

I have written previously about my Dad’s service in the U.S. Army during World War II as well as that of my other uncles who also fought in that War.  But I’ve barely touched on another who’s service was equally as important and heroic, that of my mother-in-law.  I thought this year, I’d salute her.

Looking every bit fresh off the farm, Elaine was only in her early 20s when she signed up to go overseas with the Army Nursing Corps during World War II.

Elaine signed up after graduating from nursing school in Kansas.  She had grown up on a small farm in the western part of the state and as far as I know, hadn’t been that far from home except perhaps for a visit or two to family living in Topeka.  But upon finishing her nurse’s training, she joined others in her 36th General Hospital unit and the troops bound for Africa and the War aboard the U.S.S. Harry Lee, a converted banana freighter (thanks to my brother Brad for this detail).  Also on that very ship was my own father, was a 22-year-old farm boy from the opposite side of the state.  Their oceanic crossing was in the largest convoy ever to cross the Atlantic.

My mother-in-law and my father never met on that journey. In fact, they didn’t discover that they had  both served in the 5th Army until after my husband and I were married.  The two traded ‘war’ stories one afternoon while sitting at the kitchen table in my mother-in-law’s Arizona home.

The troops disembark from the ship.

As they talked, they were surprised to learn that not only had they shipped out together, but that they virtually followed one another throughout the Italian campaign.  Of course, my father’s chemical battalion was at the very front of fighting, laying down mortar shell cover so that the infantry could advance.  Elaine, on the other hand, was at the rear, in the field hospital, assisting in surgeries and tending those who had been injured in battle.  My father once told me he was certain that some of those from his ‘outfit’, who came down with malaria, had turned up in her hospital.

Like many veterans from World War II, Elaine didn’t talk about her war experiences, at least not when I was around. I regret that I didn’t ask her more about it before she died 22 years ago. I know that she was a Lieutenant in rank. All the women nurses were officers primarily so that the enlisted men couldn’t ‘fraternize’ with them.  As such, they had access to the ‘officers’ club and enjoyed other privileges that came with the rank.  Those small ‘perks’ were not many and offered little in exchange for the endless and tireless work that they did to try to save the lives of those who arrived daily from the front lines.

Her hospital unit trailed my own father’s route, starting in Africa, then up to Sicily, the southern coast of Italy to the interior until they finally liberated Rome.  She, like my Dad, was also in France for a while but never entered Germany as he did.  I wish now that I knew more.

My mother-in-law was one of the nurses for the 36th Division General Hospital during World War II. Don’t know the location of this photo.

I have learned a little from a file in the 36th General Hospital collection at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. “…After first being shipped to Algeria, the 36th was ordered to Caserta, Italy in October of 1943. Established in the rear of the Fifth Army, the hospital had an average daily census of 1,800 patients. In June of 1944 a Texas hospital unit was added to the 36th to make it a 2,000 bed facility. The
hospital followed the allied invasion forces north into France and was located successively at Aix-en-Province, Dijon, and Garches. The unit was deactivated at Baston in November of 1945. During its 3 1/2 years of service the 36th had treated over 45,000 sick and wounded and received two decorations.”

Unfortunately, my husband and I never heard stories from her about the War and I wasn’t quick enough to take notes the day she and my Dad were exchanging memories.

Elaine was invited by a friend from ‘back home’ to take a plane ride during her wartime tour.

I recall her telling about the time that a pilot whom she knew from Kansas, invited her for a ride in the plane to which he was assigned.  He was flying to pick up some supplies and asked Elaine, who had the day off or requested it, if she’d like to go along.  It was ‘loud,’ she said about her seat in the bombardier window of the aircraft.  The photo of her taken on that day shows her wearing big lace-up boots obviously too large for her feet, a military overcoat and gloves and a tentative smile.  Whether this picture was taken before or after the trip I don’t know.  Despite what must have been a cold, loud and probably bumpy flight, she said had had a good time.  I can imagine that any break from a day of hospital duty would have been welcome.

Her other photos show places where she visited or was stationed.  The cathedral at Rheims in France seems to have made a huge impression on this Catholic-raised young woman from the central U.S. as several photos are from her visit there. In southern Italy, she saw the isle of Capri which also enchanted her. Like so many of the soldiers and service personnel at that time, seeing places that one had only read about in books must have seemed like a  dream.  Sadly, the circumstances under which they found themselves made it much more like a nightmare.

Elaine, on the far left end, and others from her hospital unit at the cathedral in Rheims, France.

Upon returning to the States, Elaine stayed in nursing working for the hospitals of the Veteran’s Administration in Arizona until finally retiring.  I never ‘thanked’ her for her service and am sure that few did.  She was an excellent nurse, precise, kind, caring and thorough.  She was just the sort of person you’d want tending to your wounds.  No doubt  those war years left her with many memories that she preferred to forget.  She did what she felt she had to do for her country and those fighting for it. Her skills and knowledge were essential at a time when nurses were rarely respected or acknowledged. I am grateful for what she did.

This Veteran’s Day I want to posthumously recognize her, along with all the other nurses who like her served our country, for the sacrifices they made and hardships they endured, to provide medical care to the troops. Without them, far fewer would have returned home to be honored later on Veteran’s Day.

An ‘official photo’ of Elaine’s Army Nursing Corps in a Victory Parade. The location isn’t identified on her photo but an arrow indicates where Elaine is in the group.