“Dovey! Dovey Mae Johnson, do you hear me calling you?” Her grandmother’s voice, soft yet strong, landed in Dovey’s ears like music. She hurried toward the sound.
Rachel Graham stood in front of the mirror, adjusting her hat. “I’m going downtown,” she said. “I want you to go with me.”
Dovey could hardly believe what she’d heard. She had often dreamed of accompanying her grandmother on errands, and now it was finally happening. Dovey was only six, but she felt like a big girl at last.
She was so excited that she nearly forgot to hold her grandmother’s hand as they made their way up the block. Soon the streetcar arrived, clanging and squeaking. The minute the trolley doors swung open, Dovey clambered up the steps and plopped into the first empty seat she spotted, right behind the driver. She sat straight up in her seat and grinned at Grandma.
But the driver was not smiling. He whirled around in his seat, and his face turned red. “Get that pickaninny out of here!” he yelled. “You know she can’t sit in that seat.” He had used a word that white people often used when referring to Black children. Dovey had never heard it before, but she knew it was an insult. She had no idea she’d chosen a seat reserved for white passengers. In a flash, Grandma Rachel pulled the cord to stop the trolley, yanking Dovey down the steps as soon as it screeched to a halt. She led Dovey into town without saying a word, ignoring every trolley that passed their way. Dovey had to run to keep up with Grandma, who quickened her pace with each block. Trolley after trolley passed, but Grandma never stopped. To Dovey, the journey was the longest mile she’d ever walked. More troubling than the driver’s stinging remark was Grandma Rachel’s silence.
* * *
Little had changed in Charlotte, North Carolina, since Dovey was born there in 1914. Like most cities in the United States, it was divided by race. White people lived on one side of Charlotte; anyone who wasn’t white lived on the other. Black people were confined to neighborhoods in the Second Ward, including Brooklyn, where the Johnsons lived, and Blue Heaven, an even poorer community beside it.
After the end of slavery in 1865, North Carolina and other southern states established Black Codes, laws designed to block African Americans’ access to all their country had to offer. The codes enforced a system of racial separation in every place where people gathered, including stores, restaurants, buses, and sidewalks. Whites confined Blacks to underfunded schools, denied them the right to vote, prevented them from testifying in court, discouraged them from owning land, and forced them to endure life as second-class citizens.
Violence and cruelty were used to make sure Black people followed the rules. An organization called the Ku Klux Klan, founded after the Civil War to terrorize former slaves, rose up with renewed fierceness during the years of Dovey’s childhood. In southern cities such as Charlotte, mobs of Klansmen, dressed in white hoods, frequently gathered to terrorize Black people with public executions called lynchings. By the time Dovey was born, southern whites had lynched thousands of African Americans. Any Black people who challenged racial segregation risked not only their lives but also the lives of their families and neighbors. The formal name for the system was segregation, but in those days most folks called it Jim Crow.
At the age of six, Dovey had looked Jim Crow full in the face for the first time, and it had hurt. For the rest of her life, she would remember the sting of the trolley car driver’s insult and the hatred in his voice. But there was something far greater than the shame of that moment that she took with her, something fierce and proud in the words that Grandma Rachel spoke to her and the family that evening.
It wasn’t until after dinner that she finally spoke about the trolley car. Just as she did every night, she lit the kerosene lamp in the sitting room and cleared a space for my grandfather to open the old family Bible. Then she disappeared into the kitchen to take her cinnamon and butter pastries—“stickies,” she called them—from the oven. It seemed to me that she was gone an unusually long time.
“Something bad happened to Dovey Mae today,” she said.
I felt my cheeks grow hot, and I looked down.
“The mean old conductor man on the trolley car called her a bad name.”
No one spoke. In the lamplight, I looked up into Grandma’s face, and I knew she was almost as angry as she’d been that morning.
“I want to tell you all something,” she said. She looked around the table at each of us. Her gaze rested last on me.
“Now hear me, and hear me good,” she said. “My chillun is as good as anybody.”
Only from a distance of years is it possible for me to fathom the courage required for my grandmother to pick herself up from such humiliation and speak those words. I believe, now, that in the long moment when she vanished into the kitchen, Grandma was crying. Certainly she was reaching down into her heart’s core, for she was wrestling with the greatest curse of segregation: the horror of having to watch one’s own children and grandchildren face its degradation.
In the course of my life, I have heard Black people say they got used to the pain of segregation, eventually. I weep for the numbness of mind and the brokenness of spirit that motivates statements like that. Let me say here for all time that never for one moment of my life under Jim Crow did I grow accustomed to being excluded, banned, pushed aside, reduced. I was never to take a back seat on a trolley or bus, drink the rusty water that trickled from the “Colored” fountains, smell the garbage in the back-alley entrance to segregated movie theaters, or scratch myself on the rough toilet paper in the Black restrooms but that I felt personally violated. And I know, having seen the look on Grandma’s face that night, that she felt the same way. Powerful as she was, she could not protect me from the thing she most hated.
But she could arm me. And arm me she did, with words that lifted me up and made me forever proud: “My chillun is as good as anybody.”
In Dovey’s mind, no one was as wise or as brave as Grandma Rachel. Even before Dovey saw how fiercely her grandmother defied the ugliness of segregation, she had felt the force of Grandma Rachel’s strength. In the darkest time of Dovey’s young life, in the days and weeks after the sudden death of her father, James, Grandma had risen up to heal the family and enfold it in love.
Dovey had been not quite five when her father died of influenza, a deadly disease that was sweeping the country. For the rest of her life, she would remember that as a time of darkness. Lela, Dovey’s mother, seemed to be swallowed whole with sadness. Before her husband’s death, she had been playful and active, quick to laugh or jump hopscotch with her daughters. After his passing, she fell silent, stopped grooming herself, and refused to eat. Dovey missed the sound of her mother’s voice and the way light seemed to ripple through her long, wavy locks when she ran a comb through them. Lela’s heartache terrified Dovey and her sisters, Beatrice, Eunice, and little Rachel. It must have frightened their grandmother as well, but she didn’t let her fear stop her. She stepped in and took the children under her wing, moving them and her grieving daughter from their home into the parsonage she shared with her husband, Rev. Clyde L. Graham.
All that long winter of 1919, Grandma Rachel battled the forces of sadness that threatened to envelop the household. She rose early, said her prayers, rolled up her sleeves, and went at the day’s work with all she had. As the morning darkness gave way to faint hints of dawn, she filled the house with the scents of cinnamon pastries, roasted sweet potatoes, and beans simmering alongside ham hocks in a great iron pot. She used every ingredient, every time-tested recipe, as a weapon against the gloom.
Lela’s sorrow was stubborn, pressing her to her bed like a heavy weight. But Grandma Rachel worked to root it out. For weeks, she moved between the kitchen and the bedroom with tea, treats, and encouraging words. Back and forth she went until Lela began to show signs of life. Finally, while stringing beans with her mother one day on the back porch, Lela threw back her head and laughed. She chortled loudly, as if tossing away the melancholy that had clung to her so tightly.
Dovey was in the kitchen with her sisters when she heard the sound. So was Grandpa Clyde, peering intently at his Bible. They all paused to take in the sweet melody of Lela’s laughter. Then, one by one, they all joined in.
That day marked a turning point for the family, one that couldn’t have happened without Grandma Rachel’s fierce and unflagging love. But Dovey wasn’t entirely surprised. By then, she had developed a bottomless faith in her grandmother.
Though Rachel Graham stood only five feet tall, she was a giant in her community.
She was the first lady of her husband’s church, an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a kindly mentor to all who sought her wise counsel.
Dovey spent many hours at her grandmother’s side, marveling at her seemingly endless talents. Dovey especially loved autumn mornings when Grandma made soap in a huge cauldron darkened from years of exposure to an open flame. While a crowd of admiring neighbors looked on, Rachel filled the pot with fat drippings and Red Devil lye, built a fire beneath it, and stirred. And stirred some more while the neighbor women giggled and traded secrets. Tirelessly, patiently, Grandma tended the foaming mixture until suddenly, like magic, it began to take shape. After it cooled, she cut the freshly molded soap into cakes that bleached clothes so white they dazzled the eye.
In Dovey’s mind, there was nothing that Grandma Rachel couldn’t do, no mystery she couldn’t untangle, no problem she couldn’t solve. She knew how to follow the flight of birds to the thickets where the ripest berries hid. She knew how to calm a colicky baby, soothe a troubled neighbor, and conjure healing potions from gypsum weed and a handful of herbs. She performed those wonders so swiftly and skillfully that Dovey never could sort out just how Grandma Rachel performed her magic, no matter how closely she watched.
In the evenings, though, Rachel slowed down and tended her own wounds. After filling a metal pan with hot water and laying out clean towels and the ointment she’d made with turpentine and mutton tallow, she sat down and took off her stockings, revealing her battered, twisted feet. They were scarred and so swollen that they didn’t seem to fit her small body.
Dovey was frightened the first time she saw them, before the chafes and bruises disappeared beneath the steaming water. In time, though, she learned to wait until her grandmother relaxed, the lines in her face softening as the steam rose. Then Dovey rubbed Grandma Rachel’s feet, gently massaging the tender places on her soles and between her toes. The balm’s pungent fumes made Dovey wrinkle her nose as the concoction began to do its work. She cherished this time alone with her grandmother, who was so busy during the daytime hours taking care of the family that she barely paused.
Years passed before Grandma Rachel took Dovey aside and explained how her feet had been injured. “I was just thirteen,” she told her granddaughter, “and he was meanin’ to bother me.” Rachel was talking about the overseer on the farm in Henrietta, North Carolina, where her father had worked. Dovey listened, horrified as her grandmother relived the terrible moment. “I ran and fought every way I knew how. And I hurt him. Then he grabbed hold o’ me and he stomped, hard as he could, on my feet—to keep me from runnin’ for good, he told me.
“But I kept on runnin’. Wasn’t nothin’ to do but fight him. He wasn’t goin’ to have his way with me.”
Although it hurt Dovey to learn the truth about her grandmother’s injury, the knowledge strengthened her as well. Her grandmother had saved herself by fighting, and she had never stopped. Dovey had seen Grandma Rachel’s strength the day she yanked her from the trolley car and walked the mile to town rather than remain in the presence of the hateful trolley car driver. She had seen Grandma’s courage again on the dreadful summer night when a horde of Klansmen had ridden on horseback through their neighborhood. Grandma had swept Dovey and her mother and sisters under the kitchen table, and then she’d paced in the darkness, broom in hand, letting the family know that she would protect them at any cost. Yes, Grandma Rachel was a fighter, and it thrilled Dovey to realize that the same blood flowed through her veins.
As Dovey grew older, she learned more about the toughness and bravery her grandmother had shown again and again. As a young woman, she’d picked herself up when her first husband was killed by the Ku Klux Klan. Grandma had moved forward after that terrible loss and rebuilt her life when she married Clyde.
Grandpa Clyde was an extraordinary person in his own right. As pastor of East Stonewall African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, he was a leader in a revered denomination that traced its roots to missionary work in the South before the Civil War. From the time Dovey was small, she understood that the AME Zion Church stood for great ideas like freedom, uplift through education, and the belief that a better day was coming for Black people. She stood tall on Sunday mornings as she and her mother and sisters took their places alongside Grandpa and Grandma to lead the procession through the neighborhood to the door of East Stonewall.
Grandpa was more than just a preacher and a scholar of Scripture. To support his family, he supplemented the food donations that ministers received as payment from their congregations by running a small convenience store during the week. He greeted customers and made change while considering the ideas that would form his sermon.
In addition to taking in laundry, Grandma Rachel labored all week to help prepare for Sunday service. She washed the linens for the altar and kneaded and shaped the dough that would become golden morsels of Communion bread. Every day, the entire household hummed with activity, and delectable scents rose from the pans and kettles in the kitchen and filled the air.
Through all her years spent cooking, sewing, guiding, and praying, Rachel had done all she could to shield her family from the ugliness of racial prejudice. She challenged them at every turn to lift themselves, holding up the example of the most powerful and accomplished Black woman in America, Mary McLeod Bethune, who had risen from poverty to found a Florida women’s college and advise presidents. Stories of Dr. Bethune filled the church newspapers from which Grandpa Clyde read, and people in the neighborhood spoke in awed tones of the way she’d faced down the Klan when they’d tried to burn her college. She’d started that college, they said, in a tiny cabin with five pupils and used packing crates for desks and elderberry juice for ink. Dovey never knew exactly how her grandmother, with only a third-grade education, became friends with the illustrious Dr. Bethune. But from the time Dovey was ten or eleven years old, she recalled Grandma entertaining the great woman in the parsonage parlor. For Dovey and her three sisters, Mary McLeod Bethune came to symbolize all that was possible for African American women. So Grandma said, and so Dovey believed: If Bethune, one of seventeen children born to slaves in South Carolina, could rise to such heights, anything was possible. The way forward for Black children, Grandma Rachel believed, was education.
Grandpa Clyde preached this every Sunday at East Stonewall AME Zion, and he lived this creed every day of the week. At night he spread books across the kitchen table, studying until he was too tired to continue. For his granddaughters, he saved his coins and invested in The Book of Knowledge, purchasing the entire set of encyclopedias, one volume at a time.
Dovey waited eagerly each month for the newest installment to arrive. She loved the red leather covers and all the wonders the books contained, including maps of distant lands and colorful illustrations of creatures great and small.
But as a little girl, Dovey was full of energy and mischief, and when she started at Myers Street elementary school, she had a hard time learning to sit still and pay attention. Visits to the family’s home by her teachers and scoldings from Grandma Rachel eventually led her to settle down. When Dovey was in eighth grade, a teacher named Edythe Wimbish took her firmly in hand, assigning her tasks in the school library and demanding in her gentle way that Dovey buckle down. Miss Wimbish, who hailed from an illustrious Atlanta family, called upon Dovey’s mother and grandparents often, emphasizing Dovey’s potential for higher education. She often spoke in glowing terms about Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, which she called the finest institution in America for young Black women. To Dovey’s family, Miss Wimbish’s word was gold. Spelman College became a dream for Dovey from eighth grade onward, and she threw herself into her studies.
But in 1929, her sophomore year in high school, hard times hit the nation with the force of a hurricane. The stock market fell, collapsing the economy and disrupting the lives of Americans everywhere. Banks failed, leaving their customers with empty pockets and bare cupboards. Hungry families formed long lines to wait for free handouts of bread. Businesses closed, and shuttered storefronts blighted the streets of US cities. The effects of the Great Depression, as the economic downturn came to be known, touched the lives of almost every family, including Dovey’s.
The white businessmen who had brought shirts for Rachel to launder stopped coming. Grandpa Clyde’s store went out of business. Depressed, he began to drink. When his habit grew until he could no longer properly operate East Stonewall, his bishop removed him from his position, and the family had to leave the parsonage. Dovey’s grandfather moved from church to church, but eventually none would take him on. Food and money were scarce, but Rachel drew her brood close, and together they kept on fighting.
Although shadows lengthened across Charlotte, the clouds occasionally parted to reveal glints of light. The wealthiest families still needed people to prepare their meals, wash and fold their laundry, scrub their floors, and polish their silverware until it shone. They needed help, and they were willing to pay for it.
Dovey’s mother accepted a job with one such family, and Dovey sometimes pitched in to assist Lela on weekends. Against great odds, the family kept food on the table—and hope in their hearts. Dovey was proud of the way her mother had emerged from her grief. Lela earned the bulk of the household income by day and attended school at night, studying dressmaking and tailoring. Eventually she became so skilled that a demand for her services grew despite the effects of the Depression, when nearly half of all Black people were out of work.
Growing up, Dovey had always looked up to her mother as the leader and star vocalist of the choir at East Stonewall, where her alto voice soared above the pews while she accompanied herself on the piano. As Dovey approached adulthood, she began to notice that beneath her mother’s sweet temperament lay a great store of ambition. When Lela spoke of her daughters’ futures, she proclaimed that they were destined for great things. Nothing would stop them from blossoming into phenomenal women—not poverty, not injustice, not the limited vision of those who couldn’t see them as anything but second-class citizens.
Dovey and her sisters came to view the world as their mother did—as a place of opportunity for those who worked hard. Beaming with pride, the younger girls joined their mother and grandparents in bidding farewell to their oldest sister, Bea, as she left for Winston-Salem Teachers College. Soon it would be Dovey’s turn to graduate, and she had her heart set on the college Edythe Wimbish had first mentioned when Dovey was in eighth grade: Spelman.
Dovey had been enchanted by Miss Wimbish’s description of a place where young women—young Black women—could read and study to their hearts’ delight. After graduating from Spelman, they would be well equipped to go out into the world as doctors, educators, and community leaders. Dovey sighed, imagining herself strolling amid sun-splashed greenery, schoolbooks in hand. Her mother’s dreamy expression told her that Lela was picturing a similar scene. The future as Miss Wimbish had depicted it made perfect sense. After all, Dovey was as good as anybody. Surely she would be good enough for Spelman.
Grandma Rachel was less enthusiastic. She could still remember when riotous whites had torn through Atlanta in 1906, chasing down Black people and killing them in the streets. Twenty-five years later, she feared it was still Klan country. Besides the threat of imminent peril, there was the cost. At Winston-Salem Teachers College, the state paid the tuition. No such help was available at Spelman, where the yearly tuition was $75, and room and board was $225. Studying there for four years would cost a student $1,200, or eight times the cost of Bea’s school.
Lela and Dovey would not be deterred. Through all their struggles, hadn’t Dovey’s elders reminded her of the importance of doing well in school? Hadn’t they told her again and again that college would provide a route to a better life? Lela didn’t know what path would lead her brilliant girl to Spelman’s gates, but she was determined to find it.
By the time Dovey graduated from high school, no solution had emerged. July passed with no answer. August came and still nothing. Just when Dovey had begun to despair that she might never see Atlanta, Lela came home with promising news. The Hurleys, the family that she and Dovey worked for, were pulling up stakes and moving—to Atlanta. The Hurleys wanted Lela and Dovey to come with them. Lela outlined a plan to Grandma Rachel: They would move to Atlanta, living in a safe neighborhood under the protection of the Hurleys, who were good, decent white people. They would work and save for two years, until they had enough money to pay for Dovey’s first year at Spelman. When Dovey’s place on campus was secured, Lela would return to Charlotte.
Rachel, unconvinced, remained quiet. She meditated and prayed and listened patiently, day after day, as her daughter pleaded her case. Finally Rachel gave her blessing. Dovey was her granddaughter, after all; she was made of strong stuff. With the matter settled, Dovey set her sights on the future. She thought she might become a doctor. Why shouldn’t she use her mind to ease others’ pain? She would study and grow and, in time, do her part to heal the world.
Text copyright © 2020 by Katie McCabe and the Dovey Johnson Roundtree Educational Trust