There are those rare times when you meet someone and the intersection of your life and theirs feels like destiny. I no longer confuse coincidence with synchronicity, but now acknowledge the purposeful and powerful reasons in the seemingly random crossing of paths.
One of the best parts of being a healthcare provider is the close relationships I develop with many of my patients, some of whom I’ve treated for decades. People of all ages have wisdom to impart, but it’s the elders that so often captivate me with their life stories. Our society rarely looks to our older members for guidance – to our collective detriment. Elders offer authentic, first-hand histories of their lives and a perspective molded by decades of reflection and retrospection. Their stories speak to me, but also inspire me to learn more of the history and circumstances of the times. Personal narratives challenge us to expand our knowledge of historical facts and to examine our own feelings, opinions, and biases.
One such patient is Julia Myles Grant. Julia is a 96-year-old African-American woman originally from Dermott, Arkansas whose life has traveled the same trajectory as many of the defining issues in our country. We share a name (Julia by birth but our close friends and family call us both Julie) and a tie to dentistry. When I met Julia, she shared that her brother was a dentist who trained at Howard University in Washington, DC and then practiced in Bakersfield, California.
During subsequent dental visits, I learned that Julia’s late husband, Howard Grant, was the first African-American student to graduate from the engineering program at UC Berkeley. With her usual modesty and giggles of excitement, she asked me to read about her husband on the Internet and I happily obliged. As is so often the case, women naturally put their own accomplishments behind those of men. While Julia’s male relatives made their marks in their fields (and at a time in history that was especially challenging for African-Americans), her own story unfolds like unearthing a time capsule filled with narratives from both the civil rights and feminist movements.
It became clear almost immediately that I was a woman who had realized her life-long career dreams speaking to a woman who had been counseled to abandon hers. Before speaking to Julia, I had no real awareness that I took being able to choose my own career for granted. I attribute my success to the support of my parents and to the significant advantages afforded by a good education. After conversations with Julia, it became clear that attaining one’s life goals is much more complex than I ever understood when examined in the narrow context of my own perspective. Because for me, simply having a dream propelled it into the realm of possibility.
Once I had researched Howard Grant’s accomplishments, Julia felt comfortable talking about her own life history and the struggles she faces from early childhood:
“I was born in Arkansas when there was complete segregation. There were signs that read “colored” and “white” everywhere. We had different water fountains, there were segregated parts of buses and trains where we had to sit, and we had our own schools which were run-down with out-of-date textbooks. The prejudice was so great that if a white person came down the sidewalk, you jumped off to be out of their way. That’s the way it was.”
Julia remembers riding with her mother and siblings on train in Arkansas:
“Black people had to ride in a segregated car and my light-skinned mother was directed to the whites-only car as we were ready to depart. My mother stood right up to the conductor and said, ‘Where my children go, I go.’ He was surprised that she was our mother and that she was black – and a bit taken back that she would insist on staying with us in the segregated car when she could have passed for white.”
It was a confusing situation- and made even more so- by the realization that discrimination goes both ways. Julia learned early on that being black carried great limitations and risks, but not appearing black enough could also be problematic. It’s a moment she remembers nine decades later with complete clarity because it was the moment that she realized a full spectrum of racial judgment was always looming in the background. Some of her childhood experiences resonate more than others – like seeing her mother approached by a train conductor and fearing the outcome. Another being the realization that the inequality embedded so deeply in her community was incompatible with seeking higher education and reaching her full potential in life if she was to stay in her hometown.
“My father was a barber and my mother a homemaker and neither one had more than a basic education. My parents helped a local elderly woman with household chores and repairs and her daughter was a woman named Sue Bailey Thurman. Susie Thurman impressed upon my parents the need for a good education for us children – and that meant leaving Arkansas to attend boarding school when I was 14.”
Sue Bailey Thurman graduated from Spelman College in 1920 and went on to receive bachelor degrees in liberal arts and music from Oberlin in 1926. She worked for the YMCA after she graduated and her position as the secretary for the college division afforded her the opportunity to travel across the United States. In 1932, she married Dr. Howard Thurman, a theologian, author, educator and civil and human rights advocate who influenced leaders including Marian Wright Edelman and Martin Luther King, Jr. Even being a generation apart, Julia Myles and Dr. Howard Thurman shared the life-altering experience of boarding a train all alone at age 14 to attend an out-of-state high school in a quest to receive a better education.
The intersection of Julia’s parents’ lives with Sue Bailey Thurman was both fortuitous and fateful. “It changed everything for us,” said Julia. A single person who was willing to offer guidance and support made a profound difference in the course of Julia’s life. Julia’s continued relationship with Sue Bailey Thurman and Dr. Howard Thurman exposed her to their visionary philosophy of unifying people by the ongoing search for common ground. In 1935, the Thurman’s visited Mahatma Gandhi in India and years later shared with Julia how deeply influenced they were by his philosophy on nonviolent quests for independence. Julia watched the Thurman’s build social and spiritual communities by looking within their own hearts and souls and then taking action to be the people they aspired to be. In 1944, Dr. Howard Thurman embodied his values by co-founding the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, the first racially integrated and interfaith church in the country.
“All of my siblings went away to boarding school to receive a better education. At 14, I did the same and got on a train by myself to attend Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina. Me and my siblings all worked during the summer to help pay tuition because four of us were in school at the same time. My brother who went to Morehouse College and then to Howard University School of Dentistry even worked on a tobacco farm. All four of us worked in the summer because we knew we had to help support ourselves. But we were determined that we were going to get an education. I worked in a little town in Virginia for friends of the Thurman’s cleaning, washing dishes – whatever I had to do because I knew I needed money for school. I took whatever job I could – it didn’t matter. There was no question about finding a job in the summer.”
After graduating from the Palmer Institute, Julia attended Talladega College in Alabama and then transferred to UC Berkeley in her junior year. Julia lived in International House on the Berkeley campus- one of the few places in the country that black students – both male and female – could live in a fully integrated community.
“Living in International House at Berkeley was a grand experience – especially for me having been born in the South – because there were students from all over the world. It opened my eyes to people from everywhere – even foreign places I had no knowledge of like Saudi Arabia and Asia.”
The walls of International House offered the sanctuary of acceptance. What may have begun as a way to keep students who were different housed together in one living facility, the sense of community had significant benefits for its inhabitants. Students from different countries and races were blended together and exposed to the cultures, beliefs, and supportive friendship of others. Wherever they went after leaving Cal, their minds and hearts would forever remain open.
A comment made by University President Robert Sproul in 1941 during a speech to the residents of International House as the US prepared to enter into WWII approached was certainly encouraging and progressive:
“There are no inferior people, there is no master race set apart from common humanity.”
But the reality was that not all of the university staff shared his broad view. In what must have felt like a chasm between official policy determined by university leaders and the attitudes and beliefs of those lower in the University of California hierarchy, Julia recounted her shock at hearing an opposing opinion expressed openly.
“My first year at Berkeley there were two student body orientations – not by the president but someone else – and the comment was made ‘We do not welcome Negro students.’ At 18 or 19 here I am all enthusiastic about going to Berkeley, but when he said that I thought ‘Uh, Oh. You’re in for trouble.’ And there was always a price to pay. When I first met with my counselor, she asked me ‘What do you think you want to do professionally?’ and I said that I would love to be an interior designer. She said, ‘You’ll never get a job’ and encouraged me to pursue a career that was more realistic for someone like me. I decided to major in psychology, but even in a progressive university setting it was clear that there were limitations.”
Julia met her future husband, Howard Grant when they were both students at Berkeley. Like Julia, Howard had transferred to Cal in his Junior year and was the first African-American to graduate from the UC Berkeley College of Engineering. After his education was postponed due to military service in the Air Force, Howard earned a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from Cal and was the second African-American civil engineer licensed in the state of California. Howard Grant was later also the first African-American civil engineer hired by the City and County of San Francisco, and he worked on projects including the San Francisco International Airport, the Hyde Street cable car turnaround, and the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. Even with his impressive background, Howard experienced significant employment challenges when he graduated in 1948 and began the requisite job search for an engineering position.
It should have been a fortunate time to be searching for an engineering position in San Francisco, but clearing the first few hurdles in a race doesn’t make it any easier to keep sailing over the remaining ones. The want ads that had been such a bonanza for other Cal engineers didn’t yield a single interview for Howard. Hiring managers were encouraging applicants to refer other recent graduates, so Howard’s fellow classmates began calling him as soon as they received job offers at major companies headquartered in downtown San Francisco and advising him to apply right away – even the same day.
“The want ads were filled with jobs for engineers. It was after the war and there were so many new building projects. Civil engineers were in great demand. Howard received a call from a classmate who told him to get on a streetcar and go right down to (a large company in downtown SF) because the classmate had just been hired that very day and there were still several available positions. We changed into our good clothes, took the streetcar downtown, and I waited down the block as Howard went in to apply. When he came out, we started walking down Market Street to the streetcar line but Howard remembered something that he had wanted to add to his application, so I waited as he went back. He came out after a few minutes with a horrible look on his face and I asked him what was wrong. He told me that when he went back and asked to amend his application, the hiring manager leaned over and took his application out of the garbage can next to his desk. He told Howard, ‘You can add whatever you like, but when you’re finished it’s going right back in there’.”
Howard was eventually hired by the City and County of San Francisco and went on to work for the Water Department for 28 years. Just as knowing Susie Thurman had great influence on Julia’s future, a hiring manager and a city willing to see past the color of Howard’s skin and offer him an opportunity changed the course of his life. Julia was a stay-at-home mom when her boys were young and when they went to school she worked as a playground director for the San Francisco Recreation and Park and then attended San Francisco State University to obtain a teaching credential. When asked if her counselor at Cal had suggested teaching as a profession, Julia was clear that she had chosen education on her own as she wanted to be home with her sons after school. Julia went on to teach for years in the San Francisco public school system and having two incomes allowed the couple to dream of moving to a larger home.
“We were living in the Fillmore District and looked all over the city to buy a house, but there was a policy called redlining that worked against minorities. Even the professional baseball player Willie Mays faced discrimination via racial covenants in 1957 when he was trying to buy a home in San Francisco. In 1961, Willie Brown (later the mayor of San Francisco and a state assembly member) and his wife Blanche were unable to tour a house built by the Gellert brothers of Sunstream Homes in the Forest Knolls neighborhood of San Francisco because a racial covenant was in place. So, we organized a protest in front of the Sunstream Homes office on 19th Avenue and I picketed with my friend, Marion Francois. I’ll always remember a tall Caucasian woman pushing a stroller joining our picket line. I came to find out later that the woman was Dianne Feinstein.”
Julia’s friend Marion Francois was the wife of Terry A. Francois, a lawyer focusing on unfair housing practices, a civil-rights activist, and later the first African-American member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Mr. Francois served in WWII, was the San Francisco chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a board member of the San Francisco Urban League. Senator Dianne Feinstein was known as Dianne Berman at the time of the protest. She was later elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, became the mayor of San Francisco, and was elected to the California State Senate in 1992 and has served as the senior Senator from California since 1993. It may have been a small protest, but it included people who were- and are- deeply committed to social justice issues.
“We didn’t attract much media coverage with the Sunstream Homes demonstration. Willie and Blanche Brown didn’t buy a house in Forest Knolls, but those types of small protests did eventually have an impact – for African Americans and other minorities who were also targeted in racial covenants. Henry Doelger was another real estate developer who had bought up much of the Sunset District and he also refused to sell houses to minorities of any kind. In 1963, the famous basketball player Wilt Chamberlain tried to buy a house here in Golden Gate Heights and couldn’t.”
The developer and owner of the property Wilt Chamberlain hoped to purchase was Marvin Sheldon, who adamantly and very publicly refused to sell to African-Americans. Mr. Sheldon was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, “I feel the interracial mixing of areas devalues property. Negroes tend not to have enough money… Frankly, as a group, I can’t say I like them very much. But individually I like them.”
Even with the prevailing attitudes of the era, Julia was undeterred and refused to give up on finding a home. In an ironic twist of fate, the Grant’s ended up in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood that had been almost exclusively off-limits to people of color.
“I kept researching to find a home for us and with all the prevailing prejudice I said to Howard, ‘Let’s just look for a lot.’ I looked in the papers and spoke with black realtors to find a lot to buy. In 1962, I found a lot for sale by private sellers that many people considered unbuildable.”
But there are those wonderful times when obstacles become opportunities – and this was one of them.
“Howard’s training in engineering worked to our benefit when developing the lot. Howard was the engineer for the excavation and he took the contractors licensing test and passed so he could also be the general contractor for the job. Howard did all the huge stone retaining walls because our property sits on a steep hill and we had to excavate the side of a mountain to level the lot. It was a helluva lot of dirt! We always said, ‘These walls didn’t come cheap.’ We used the construction as a learning experience for our sons Bruce and Paul so they could see all that’s involved in building a house. The boys were right here with us during the excavating and building process when they were about 10 and 14.”
Building and owning a home finally gave Julia the opportunity to realize a long-held dream by being the interior designer for her own mid-century modern masterpiece. The house is a physical structure originating from their shared dream and literally built by their own hands. The home remains a testament to determination and perseverance.
“Once we finished building the house in 1963, the neighbors never really did warm up to us. The man across the street did everything he could do to make it miserable for us. He bought an old truck and parked it in front of our house everyday so people would think it was our junk vehicle. He would make complaints about us parking illegally so police cars would be seen regularly driving by our house. When my son Paul was about 11, he had come home from school and was sitting on the front porch. The police came and took him to the station. I went to the police station to get our son and I told them “You all have seen my boys for a year going back and forth to school so why would you take my son to the station when he wasn’t bothering anyone? The police told us that they had received a complaint that a boy was casing the house – but it was his own house! We always assumed that one of the neighbors had called the police to be troublesome. We had some tough times living here. Occasionally our sons would throw a football back and forth with the neighbor kids, but not that often. I think if we could have left it up to the kids, it would have been fine. It’s the attitudes of the parents that can get in the way.”
Even though leaving progress in the hands of the next generation is a valid and often successful approach, Julia was part of a committed group of family, friends and other people who worked for change via legal and political channels.
“My sister Jacqueline Myles Smith worked for the Bay Area Urban League on discrimination issues. The Urban League focuses on civil, social and economic issues for African-Americans and other underserved minorities. One of her projects involved asking me and others to apply for a job at the phone company. We were told to speak with the manager if we could, and to take notes so we would have a record of the information we were given. We began with street car driver jobs and the phone company because they were always looking for employees. We then shared our application experiences with each other – the businesses we applied to all had open jobs – but none of us would ever hear back from them. Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity members from Berkeley applied for jobs at a car dealership on Van Ness but not one of them could get hired – and they were all promising college graduates.”
Of course, it was a different time. We say that and we think it, but it feels like such a hollow explanation for our lack of progress. We shouldn’t alter history – or erase it – but we can embrace the opportunity to set a new course going forward. While we can’t be blamed for decisions made by others decades ago and the resulting outcomes, we have an obligation to acknowledge them, examine them, and discuss them openly now. Denying our own biases doesn’t allow for the realization that being flawed is part of being human. There is nothing wrong with admitting that we don’t know what to say or how to react – but we can commit to figuring it out. It’s not a failure that personal slips happen, it’s how we act in response to them that reflects on our intentions and character.
Being a biology major affords me the perspective of having studied how and why human traits evolved. An undeniable part of human nature is that we want to be with people who are like us – think like us, look like us, and act like us. A cohesive group mentality at one time actually aided in survival – there was literally strength in numbers. In an evolutionary sense, humans often died as a result of change. Disturbances in weather, a decrease in food sources or water quality, the emergence of new pathogens, or violent invaders trying to exert power posed very real threats. Humans seem to have evolved to be wary at best- and at worst completely terrified – of change.
Change doesn’t just rouse one out of complacency, it catapults you out of your comfort zone. If you really delve into complex and tragic social situations you can feel a deep, burrowing sense of sorrow or shame. Shame may be the most reviled emotion of all – one of biblical proportions that preceded Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden. How could we possibly have ever acted a certain way or accepted a status quo that was so damaging to others? How did things get to this point? How in the world are we going to be able to fix it? Why is the other half of the country making a big deal about an issue and demanding change? What if the changes they keep pushing for negatively affect me and my loved ones? These types of thoughts from both ends of the spectrum are jarring and disruptive to the point of potentially causing real emotional trauma. And yet another universal response of the human brain is how it responds to trauma. The brain attempts to protect itself by shutting down the higher reasoning part of the brain and goes into survival mode of flight, flight, or emotional paralysis.
When we add in the human emotions of frustration and distrust even seemingly small changes can thrust us immediately into a state of fight or flight. In this mindset, any new paradigm that strays too far from our static baseline can create a sense of panic and fear. When the continuity of your lifestyle, beliefs, and traditions seems to be fading away, or feels taken away, you feel powerless – your future is threatened by uncertainty. The emotional and physical knee-jerk reaction into fight or flight is swift and severe – and maybe for some, irreversible.
Biology also tells us that a stressed or traumatized psyche often leads to an impaired thought process. A state of real or imagined threat overpowers the innate practicality and expansiveness of the human mind. The resistance to racial progress is understandable when you consider that equality can look and feel like oppression to someone who is used to advantages that they may not even be aware of. The “fight or flight” brain contorts our perception and the fortunate ones may see themselves as the targets of discrimination. Human brains prefer the easier path of letting go of the painful lessons of the past – and can even demonize those who refuse to forget. Our thoughts may become disorganized and disjointed under these circumstances, and a group mentality offers feelings of unity and security against a real – or perceived- shared threat. Individuals feel instant validation in their convictions because so many can’t possibly be mistaken. In a cohesive group setting, hasty decisions and extreme emotions feel rational, comforting and even empowering.
Understanding this small amount of science about the human brain could go a long way towards finding common ground. It may also facilitate our ability to have a dialogue on difficult racial issues that aren’t filled with recriminations or judgment. If we start to accept that reactions and responses from others that seem irrational or even hateful are not explained solely by race, age, sex, level of education, or place you live, but by the realities of the human brain we might be able to move forward in a constructive way. An awareness of our own attitudes and how they are heavily influenced by the biology of our brains may make it a bit easier to live out what we say we value. Because maybe who we feel the need to marginalize or exclude says more about us than about those whom we are united against. For compassion and empathy to be ingrained in people, they can’t be felt with exclusion. All are worthy of our good will because we all share in a common, connected humanity.
The reality is that there is no one answer or solution – as is always the case with difficult challenges. There is no one leader who will rise up to solve the world’s many problems. Waiting for nameless, faceless saviors to solve worldwide, multi-generational problems and traumas can seem to absolve individuals of their responsibility. Because the human brain is perpetually trying to shield us from the painful effects of fear and change, absolution creates a positive feedback loop that feels comfortable and righteous. And while our brains may work efficiently to insulate us, that protection has its own price to pay. Denial as a way to avoid reliving traumatic situations ensnares us into feeling satisfied with validating why things are the way they are, rather than moving forward and pushing our own boundaries. Being out of our comfort zone is distressing and our brain will instinctively try to steer us down a path of less resistance, but the only way forward involves first recognizing and then staring down our fears and not letting them control us.
An old, but true, sentiment says that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Who could even attempt to deny that now? It may seem like a long time ago, but it’s a mere blip on history’s radar screen since most children were picking out new clothes for the first day of class and others needed a police escort to attend newly integrated schools. We can’t brush off the past just because remembering it makes us uncomfortable. If analyzing the past makes us feel uneasy, then maybe it’s a strong indication in and of itself that change is needed.
Revisiting the past and the norms of the day involves not just facing unpleasant truths, but requires acknowledging the ways in which people were denied freedoms and the lasting impact that has had on their lives. People were denied the advantage of home ownership, they lacked access to good education, there was little equality in healthcare access and delivery, and neighborhoods were torn down to reduce “blight” and replaced with “redevelopment” that excluded the original inhabitants. The lack of opportunity to build wealth, to educate their children, to receive quality healthcare and to build stable and supportive communities were insurmountable obstacles to so many.
I’m reminded of W. E. B. DuBois writings about double-consciousness and “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” I now have a much deeper appreciation of what he may have meant. How challenging it would be to develop a strong sense of your own identity when it has to evolve through the fractured view of others who know nothing of you as an individual. The wasted energy spent on deciphering what others see and why, and wondering how it will impact their treatment of you. The inescapable feeling that others control your destiny. The seemingly never-ending struggle to be seen as a person. To be seen as having value. The struggle to be seen at all.
When you feel unheard and discounted you find other ways to have a voice. Julia and Howard Grant turned to education, grassroots organizing, and local institutions such as The Urban League, the Hunters Point Boy’s Club, and the San Francisco Links to promote change and to mentor those coming behind them. The Grants were married by Dr. Howard Thurman and he continued to guide the couple and lead by his example. To this day, Julia Grant considers Sue Bailey Thurman and Dr. Howard Thurman as her second parents and lived with them for a number of months before her marriage. The Thurman’s counseled the younger couple to expect and embrace struggles, to grow first as individuals and then to make connections with others, and to live with grace and dignity as beacons for future generations.
The Grants and the Thurmans shared a life philosophy of rising above anger and oppression by embracing the power of non-violence, remembering and learning from the past, and drawing strength from the undeniable interconnectedness of humanity. It wasn’t the only way to be heard, but it was their way. Any anger they felt was intentionally replaced with an even greater determination to build consensus and community. Julia Grant’s view all these decades later is still that we are all eternally tied by the collective thread of humanity – and that we will always have more in common than we have differences. She’s a living testament to the teachings of Dr. Howard Thurman.
I have a deep respect for Julia’s quiet dignity and her ability to speak of her struggles without bitterness or victimhood, but instead with concern for our collective future. She’s the steward of her own story and its powerful message, which she shares openly and honestly. Julia Myles Grant’s legacy is that she’s not bitter about the way it was, not broken by her struggles, and not angry at the ongoing challenges to the progress she helped achieve. At 96, she rejects despair and instead chooses to remain forever hopeful about what we can be both as individuals and as a united country.
One of the tragedies of trauma is how it can leave us tethered to the past, perpetually reliving the ways in which we were wronged. Feelings of pain and anger remain at center stage, overshadowing everything else. No one can deny that Julia Grant’s trauma was real and profound, but her response has always been to remain hopeful for meaningful change, to resist despair when it didn’t come fast enough and to delight in the election of an African-American president but realize that it wouldn’t alone be the turning point she, and others, had hoped for. Julia and Howard Grant and many others reached the summit, only to see endless apices in the distance. Their disappointment must have been unimaginable, but it wasn’t insurmountable. That’s their glory and their gift to us – if we choose to listen and remember.