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Distances Traveled

December 8, 2010

Soon after I got my current job I called my mother, told her the good news, told her the name of the university and the new town I would be moving to. Oh you know your mother has been there. That’s where your grandmother took her classes.

Let me provide some background. My mother grew up in a small town in the rural south circa 1950s. My maternal grandparents were teachers in the town. I knew both had college degrees, an uncommon thing at the time certainly for African-Americans in the south1. My family has since more or less been in the business of education (both receiving and disseminating). That’s were my knowledge got fuzzy and my new town and new university come in. They are where my grandparents went to graduate school. I should emphasize, it is geographically no where near our home state or where anyone in my family lives or had lived. It is over 600 miles from my mother’s hometown. Why on earth would two full time teachers, with three small children (at the time), travel (by car) that far to take a few classes?

Because it was the nearest school that would take Negros.

At least for their program of interest, graduate level education classes. Their home state had a program but would not allow them access. Apparently neither would the 8 or 9 states that would have been closer to home2. So for several summers during my mother’s childhood they packed everyone up and drove the several day journey to this town. The journey was not trivial as the roads were not quite like they are now with the big interstates and attention had to be paid to where they could and could not stop (I don’t know if they actually had a Negro Motorist Green Book but that was the gist). They’d stay in the town all summer, while my grandparents both took classes.

Of course when you can only take classes part time during the summer, you have a full time job, 3 kids with more on the way, and classes are 600+ miles from your home, it’s going to be difficult to finish. My graduate school days certainly did not include such demands and the situation in their time and place was quite different to make an understatement. My grandfather never quite finished but grandmother did eventually receive her masters degree years later. My grandmother, who was raised by her grandmother (the custom at the time) who herself was a former slave3. Remembers being freed. The original Juneteenth. So that’s just what they did.

I had not really known much of this prior to speaking with my mother. Much of the details of the history have been lost or forgotten over time, unsurprisingly4. What I thought was me breaking new ground (geographically speaking) was more of a return to where a leg of this particular journey occurred. A reminder of how things are, attached, whether or not I know the details. What is past is prologue. There are essentially only a few dots to connect the line from way back in Juneteenth times to me, now. This is one of those dots.

1. The overall percentage for college degrees for Americans at the time was about 10%. That’s for 25-29 year olds. That number is now around 30%.
2. A friends grandmother did the same from a state even further away. Seems like most of the South was off limits.
3. That puts me 4 generations removed. That’s not a lot in terms of generations.
4. I spent some times in the university archives and, thanks to a helpful librarian, found some of their records from that time. I now have copies of transcripts and such framed on my wall.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2010 10:39 pm

    I cannot imagine obtaining a college degree under those extraordinary circumstances. Truly inspirational. And so wonderful that you were able to frame some of your grandparents’ educational mementos.

  2. December 10, 2010 10:56 am

    Awesome post, what did your grandmother get a masters in?

    • December 10, 2010 11:04 am

      Not 100% sure. Education basically. The classes listed include things like elementary education and education administration. I believe it was a program specifically for working teachers. I’ll have to ask around for more details.

  3. December 11, 2010 12:56 pm

    This is amazing. Kudos to you for preserving this part of your family’s history. It really helps me put my own graduate experiences in a whole new perspective.

  4. December 13, 2010 9:43 pm

    what incredible determination on the part of your grandparents! and how surreal for you to walk your own path today, in a place that holds such family history.

  5. December 13, 2010 11:02 pm

    Fantastic post! This is an incredible story, thanks for sharing.

  6. December 14, 2010 1:46 am

    I love reading this stuff! Thanks for sharing this important example of the “distances traveled” and putting into a great perspective. Some black scientists in the earlier part of the 20th century were able to get jobs at historically lack universities, and hopefully were able to be an inspiration to their students.

    Some northern universities seemed to have no problem accepting back phd students, particularly U. Chicago and Brown U. I did some research on important black scientists in marine biology here if you are interested:

  7. December 14, 2010 9:29 am

    That IS Amazing! The transcripts part. I have a similar story. My paternal grandmother moved to St. Louis temporarily in the 1930’s to get her high school diploma at the age of 25. My grandfather was a great and supportive man. He delayed the nuptials until she finished and waited for her to return to rural West Tennessee.
    Many, many years later I moved here (from Memphis) to do my doctorate studies. It’s been so great meeting some her friends from that time period and learning the history of this town and walk through the neighborhoods she must have frequented.

  8. December 15, 2010 11:41 am

    That’s a great story and as you said “the journey turns out not to be new but reconnecting with your (family’s) past”. Amazing. Your grandparents must have been very special and extremely focused. I think your mother and her siblings must have known from the get-go that you can if you just want to?!

    As for the whoel “not allowed to study” – it still makes me upset. Then again, I live in the South now and yeah… it’s hard to overcome issues from the past (at least when I read the paper and listen to people taking).

  9. December 17, 2010 4:39 pm

    Hey Bashir–just found your new blog. This is a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing it.

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