To Mom and Dad with Love

This is a Black woman who graduated from Tuskegee Institute somewhere around 1951 or ‘52.  As you may have gleaned from the uniform, she was a registered nurse.  When she completed her degree, she went on to work in New York City, far from her home in Northern Alabama.  In the city, she started work on a graduate degree in Public Administration, or something, at Columbia.  There she met the man who would become her husband.  

This woman went on to become a public health nurse.  She and her husband lived in Harlem when they were first married, and then moved out on to Long Island in the mid 1950’s.  They settled in North Babylon, in Suffolk County.  It was so unusual at the time that her husband, who was by this time in public administration in New York City was, essentially, debuted by the town fathers in North Babylon, or Suffolk County…however those duties were divided up at that time.  There is a photo of three men posing on the edge of a table, two older white men, and this woman’s husband, all in tweed jackets.  Oddly, it was a habit of white people to say things like, “you are the reason people wont come here”…and other such silliness.  They actually went to this length to discourage the viral rejection that white people liked to level against Black people. The photo ran in the local newspaper with a story about these people, the woman, her husband, and their young daughter Deborah.

The attitudes depicted in the photo were quite friendly.  It looked like a Perry Como album cover…with two additional figures.  The attitude of the family was not quite so jovial.  These people held each other in suspicion, and the photo was arranged to say otherwise.  It was a necessary thing to show the community that Black people could be trusted in what had been a rather uniformly white area.  The woman and her husband had college educated parents from Alabama and Harlem, respectively. The woman’s parents were graduates of Talladega College, and the man’s parents from CCNY.  It was a bit of an adjustment to be required to make a public case for themselves, having come from environments where their status was assumed to be civilized.  But, this was the post war world.  A new world.  There were many changes, so introductions were necessary.

The woman and her husband eventually had a second daughter, whom they named Jonni, after her father, John, the woman’s husband.  They probably figured that would be their last child.  They were wrong.  6 or 7 years later, they had a third child.  This time, it was a boy, William David.  The three children went on to do their various things.  Deborah went on to become a college administrator somewhere in the SUNY system.  Jonni studied at Hampton Institute and went on to teach high school.  David, the 3rd child became the most interesting.  He was interesting from the start.  He was quite brilliant, and musically talented.  He played many instruments, but his main focus was the viola.  He played in a traveling youth orchestra which traveled the world every summer.  His mother, the woman in the photo traveled with the orchestra and served as their nurse.  

David went on to Harvard University after high school.  In 1979 he was awarded by President Carter as a Presidential Scholar.  David started as a Biology major, but eventually switched to Philosophy.  His degree is in Philosophy, and while studying, he became something of a computer expert.  He set up the system that Harvard had when he was a student there, and then upon graduation, he took a job in Boston with a connection from someone who worked with him to do what they did at Harvard…whatever they did.  After a year in Boston, David moved to St. Mary’s in the US Virgin Islands, with the same company.  

I had the good fortune of meeting and getting to know the woman in the photo.  When I was a teenager she came to visit when my Dad was in the hospital with colon cancer.  Aside from the fact that my father was dying of cancer, this was not an unusual experience.  We had spent quite a bit of time with her family in my lifetime to that point.  By this point, she had not been a nurse for a long time.  (She was a public administrator in Suffolk County, at one point she ran the department of public health nursing.  I don’t recall if that was what she was doing at that particular time.)  I developed a love for public health from knowing her.  I recall a number of dinners with our families where we discussed public health issues.  One in particular involved a child who needed an organ transplant.  (Keep in mind, I was still a child during this discussion). They searched all over for a compatible organ for the child, but one was never found.  They were at the desperation level, which is how I became aware of it.  I remember saying, that’s awful that the mother wont give her one of her kidneys.  She should be required by law to do so.  (It turned out that the mother was a match, but no others could be found and she was unwilling). Upon hearing me say that, the woman from the photo said, “I understand how you feel about the situation, and if it were one of my children, I may well donate one of my kidneys, but under no circumstances should I required by law to do anything with my body, no matter what the stakes are for anyone else.”

That statement became the foundation for how I saw personal rights versus public responsibility.  It didn’t take further clarification.  It made perfect sense.  It was how I eventually settled the abortion conundrum in my mind…several years later.  Over the years, we discussed all sorts of public issues.  She had a special love for public health, so many of them were public health.  I remember in the lead up to the ‘96 Olympics in Atlanta, I mentioned to her that with all of the new construction for the Olympics, they were not adding in water fountains.  They planned to get water to their patrons by selling bottles of water.  We take bottled water for granted now, like we used to take public water fountains.  When I mentioned this to her, she yelled at me as if I had done it.  I recall her saying, “Billy!  You can’t have no public water fountains and attract crowds in Atlanta in the summer?  People will die.”  

I shudder to think what the woman in the photo would think of the state of public service today generally, and public health specifically.  Often when something develops, I imagine telling her, and having her respond to be with a lot of shock, and a little anger.  She would wonder what has become of this country.  She passed away a few years ago from breast cancer, after having survived it a couple of times, over about 20 years.  Cancer took her, just like it took her brother, my dad.  I knew this Black family well.  They were my family. William David is named for my dad.  David was born two years before me.  So, John is my uncle.  The photo is of my aunt Bessie.  At the bottom, the inscription says, “To Mom and Dad with love.” They were my beloved paternal grandparents.