Winner of the Benjamin Franklin Book of the Year and the Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History, Gail Melissa Grant is an accomplished individual in her own right but in conversation with her, those details are not easily ascertained. Before you get to know any of those things about her, she honestly and earnestly pays homage to those who paved the way for her, making no bones about who she is and any and all of her successes, being irrevocably tied to those who have come before her.
Readers of At the Elbow of My Elders, will feel a renewed sense of cultural pride as they are walked through the life and difficult times of St. Louis civil rights attorney and father of the author, David M. Grant as well as the lives of her mother and grandparents. The author shares a rarely seen side of middle class life during the tumultuous pre-MLK times and it is not until she has given them the appropriate attention, does she delve into her personal achievements and challenges navigating a 20-year career in the foreign service with the U.S. Information Agency, a professional realm that was both dominated by Caucasians and riddled with racial prejudice.
Ms. Grant sat down with Griots Republic to share some words of wisdom and insights with our readers.
On her education, career and travels
I was born in St. Louis, attended school there and did my under-grad studies at Washington University there as well. I went to Howard University to obtain my Masters in Art History. I also worked there for a while. After that, I began working in the Foreign Service because I wanted to do some international cultural exchange work. My work in the Foreign Service has allowed me to see Norway, France, Brazil, New Zealand, Tanzania, China, South Africa (while supporting Clinton) and many more countries (over 50) and the United States as well.
I would always take time after trips to see other places. One of my more memorable trips was to Zanzibar. I also love Egypt and would like to go back. In Egypt, I was treated like an Egyptian woman and virtually invisible until they found out I was American and that was the end of that anonymity.
On her decade-spanning international romance:
I met my husband back in 1983 while working in Paris and while there was an affinity, the timing just wasn’t quite right and we lost contact for over a decade but it was fate, even destiny, that we should be together. Unbeknownst to me, he came back to Paris looking for me, however I had returned to the U.S. to deal with the death of my father and unfortunately, because I was working for the government, and out of respect for my privacy, no one could/would provide him my information. They simply told him I was gone.
Fast forward to 2001 and on the cusp of my retirement from the Foreign Service, I did one last temporary 5-week assignment in Milan. I went there kicking and screaming and as fate would have it, we caught up with each other and that was it. He came to see me in Milan and came back and forth and even chased me around the states. I was then in the State Department which had me going all around the country. I traveled back to Italy to meet his family and he convinced me to marry him and live with him in Italy. There were just so many twists and turns that the fact we are together today is proof that it was fated that we be together. We have been here now for fifteen years.
On her father, David M. Grant
I was able to interview my father several times before he died in 1985 and one of the most poignant stories was one where he was working for the railroad in the kitchen serving first class passengers. There was an inventory list he was charged with keeping. On one inventory, there was a can of beans that exploded and was marked as such on the inventory as wasted. There was an 18-year-old who was his supervisor. At some point, he was called into the commissioner’s office who was incensed about this one can of beans. He says, “Well Mr. Hart, I spoke to Francis (his supervisor) about this…” and this Hart character stops the conversation to ask, “What did you call him?” He then proceeds to tell my father, to never refer to his supervisor by his first name and that he was a white man and my father was nothing but an n-word club car porter. Even though he had told this story many times, at 80, there was still a noticeable change in his voice. The pain was still there 65 years later. That day, my father left the keys and quit. He left quickly because “he did not want them to see him cry,” he said. That day he quit, he cried like a baby.
He did get some level of satisfaction some 20 years later though. He ran into Mr. Hart and had an opportunity to let him know exactly what was on his mind. We won’t spoil that for the reader here, but it is a tale of redemption for sure and it captures not only the demeaning treatment of black people of the day but the emotional hurt it caused.
On the importance of remembering and connecting to family history
I wanted to write this book since I was very young. My family and my childhood home were like this oasis in the desert during those trying times in history. There were a few famous and not so famous folks who stayed with us. There were a few other black families sprinkled about but we were not connected in any way. We were, “a few errant freckles spread across what was an otherwise lily-white face.” My experience in sitting around the table listening to my parents talking about their lives in the thick of things during the civil rights movement was educational and enlightening and my father was a great storyteller with an awesome sense of humor in spite of the struggles he went through.
As you may know, St. Louis was a Jim Crow town. My father was one of the most prominent civil rights activists in St. Louis and was working in the 30’s prior to the documented history around Martin Luther King, Jr. and that’s why I wanted to write At the Elbows of My Ancestors because the movement and pioneers in the earlier parts of that century were by and largely ignored with history primarily focusing on the Niagara Movement and the NAACP. People don’t know a great deal about what went on and don’t know of many seminal events that took place.
One example is there were many blacks that were part of the Republican Party and my father and others started a movement to leave the party
and embrace the Democratic Party which at the time was full of staunch segregationists. On the other hand, the Republicans were not giving blacks anything for their electoral devotion. I grew up with all these stories which were frightening but amusing all at the same time because you know black people get through trying times with humor and irony, so I was captivated. Also, my brother and I were living what seemed to be a very unique life being the only blacks and non-Catholics in an all-white Catholic grade school because we couldn’t go to the grade school which ironically was named Grant. In 1946, the Archbishop came in and desegregated the Catholic parochial schools (this was before Brown vs. The Board of Education) and my parents were so impressed, they sent us (keep in mind we were Episcopal) to Catholic school and we converted to Catholicism. All of these things made up for some unusual stories and I needed to tell them. So, the book is divided into two segments, my family and then my journey in the midst of this.
I wanted to write it as both a love letter to my family but also as a way to purge all of the things I went through on my journey. I had heard these stories so many times, most I knew by heart. I started the interview process prior to my father’s passing and it took me 11 years to complete. The book was released in October 2008, the month President Obama was elected and as you know, he is always one to remember the folks on whose shoulders he stands and my father was certainly one of those people.
I’ve spoken at many places, Oxford and Columbia Universities to name a few, but I always end my remarks by saying please sit down with your family members, not only to be able to pass it on but to learn more about them and yourself as a result. We have to document and remember this stuff for ourselves. Without them, we really don’t know much.