Growing up, when I heard a white person with a southern accent; I prejudged them. I automatically assumed that they were bigoted and, well, evil. Horrible things were happening to black people at the hands of white people in the South and so I associated that behavior with the color and the accent.
When I was a freshman in college in 1972, all of that changed because of Senator Sam Ervin as the Senate probed the Watergate Scandal. Senator Ervin was wily and self-deprecating. I remember him talking about being a poor country lawyer as he showed masterful legal skills for the entire country to see.
I began to realize that I had constructed a persona for people without even knowing them. I was prejudiced. In 1981, when I moved to Northwest Indiana, I saw how devastated Gary had been at the hands of some very avaricious people. Banks redlined entire neighborhoods making it impossible to secure financing for mortgages or major building maintenance. In addition, the massive demographic shift of white people out of the city had effectively destabilized most of the city.
One neighborhood in Gary organized its residents to combat what was happening in the rest of the city. Miller is a neighborhood east of the steel mills and in proximity to Lake Michigan. The Miller Citizens Corporation banded together to racially integrate in ways that would not cause panic selling. As a result, the turnover in houses in Miller was much less than the rest of the city.
In 1982, I moved to Miller. I was married with one child at the time and decided to attend the local United Methodist Church. My husband said that it looked like a white church. I asked him how a red brick building could be white? I began to attend Marquette Park United Methodist Church. It was the first racially integrated church that I belonged to.
The congregation was an interesting economic mix as well. There were some upper middle class families that lived on the shores of Lake Michigan. There were also a few families who lived in the government subsidized apartments. The parsonage was on a cul de sac just a block or so from the church. Next to the parsonage lived Louise Brown.
Louise was tall, had snow white hair, and a southern accent. She was originally from Harlan County, Kentucky which is south and east of where my father was born. It is definitely a county that gives name to hillbillies. Louise used to laugh about being a hillbilly. She also was very serious about her Scottish heritage with her tartan plaid at the ready.
In addition to all of this, Louise was one of the smartest women who I ever met. She was a voracious reader and kept me supplied with the latest New York Times bestsellers. As we came to know each other better, we began to share meals. When the first pastor of color was appointed to Marquette Park, his neighbor, Louise was there to welcome he and his family. She was the kind of neighbor who lived alone but “accidently” made enough food to share with a family of five.
When Sue, a hospital chaplain started attending the church, Louise extended a warm welcome to her and when Sue came out as a lesbian, Louise loved her the same. Several years later when Sue introduced Louise to her partner, Louise’s arms enfolded her as well. Louise was just a loving person; not syrupy, but nevertheless, loving.
Louise also made the best Scottish shortbread that made your arteries clog just looking at all of the butter! When I moved to Muncie, I kept in contact as much as possible. In her 80’s, I noticed that she wasn’t moving as spryly. The next time I made the trip to Gary, I stopped by her house just to say hi, but there was no answer. I left a note and when I got back to Muncie, I received a phone call from her son. He hadn’t had a way to contact me when Louise died.
I felt such a loss. As I write this I can see her face wrinkled with time and laughter. I am so glad that I didn’t prejudge Louise! I would have missed out on so much! One year for my birthday, she gave me a card that said, “When you were born they broke the mold; … and beat the hell out of the mold-maker!” Louise you are one of a kind and I am a better woman having known you.