Growing up in southeast Iowa in the 1940s and ’50s, all of my friends and neighbors were descended from German immigrants. There were no black people in our town, but I would see them walking in the neighboring town of Fort Madison.
My mother was very interested in different cultures and subscribed to National Geographic magazine. When I was 10, she took me to see “King Solomon’s Mines,” a movie set in Africa. The proud and noble Watusi people impressed me with their rhythmic dances and chants.
When I was 16, I attended summer camp, and my counselor was a black minister’s wife from a neighboring community. She was a sweet lady who gave us hugs and encouragement in equal measure, and we all loved her.
The following September, we had our first black student in our school. He was my counselor’s grandson, Johnny. He was a soft-spoken young man and everyone in school liked him. We would pass notes in study hall and I remember dancing with Johnny at our junior-senior prom.
In 1964, I was a young wife and mother living in Chicago. I had inherited a small collection of antique dolls, so when I saw an ad for a new doll club forming, I responded. My husband had grown up in Riverdale and knew the area I would be going to for the club meeting. As I waited for my ride, he said, “Don’t be surprised if the ladies coming to get you are black.” Instead, two white women came to pick me up. We had to stop for one more person before continuing to our final destination.
When Armathea, a black lady, slid into the back seat with me, she started talking and never took a breath. She talked non-stop about her “baby.” Armathea was a nurse who loved baseball and could often be found at Wrigley Field. Her “baby” was a teacher on the south side of Chicago. She enjoyed traveling, especially to Asia.
Armathea became another mother to me. I loved her dearly. The time came when the second doll club I had joined was planning a bus trip and encouraged us to invite others to help keep our costs down. Armathea was the only one from my smaller club who was able to go. When word got back to the suburban club, I was told to “uninvite” her.
I refused. Rather than tell Armathea she couldn’t come, I decided that if the other members said anything negative to her, they would have me to contend with. That was the day I learned, “the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.” And with her silly little songs, Armathea charmed everyone on the bus. They loved her.
At that time, I didn’t realize we were making history as the first integrated doll club. It was a different time, a different world. The ’60s were a time of many tragedies. There were bombings, assassinations and race riots. But blacks and whites also united as activists to advance the cause of civil rights. From my perspective, there has been much progress since that time. Hopefully, we will continue to move forward.
My friends continue to be from different backgrounds and cultures, and they have expanded my world in a positive way. I chose my church, First Presbyterian at Symphony Circle, because of the diverse congregation.
Thirteen years ago, I moved into senior housing. I look around and see people who, regardless of race, want a happy, healthy and safe world for their children and grandchildren. We are more alike than different. I often hear, “Have a blessed day,” and I smile.