Topeka, Kansas, was not the South but it was close enough to have a sizeable black population. I was a child there in the Era depicted by the current movie “The Help.” I’ve not seen it but my wife, Claudia, just finished reading the book on which it is based and says its set in a concentration camp but its feel-good enough to paper over the grim reality that was the Civil Right’s Era.
I’ve thought about writing about my own small connection with Lilly, our family’s “help” from my youth and this brief reminiscence from Connecticut , another Northern state, has prompted me to add my two cents. I doubt that I’ll read The Help but I can think of another book with a movie that does honor to the reality, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It too is a bit of a fantasy. There weren’t many Atticus Finches South or North.
Lilly was my mother’s age. She lived near the rail road tracks and her children attended the junior high school where my Dad’s Mother (we called her “Nana”) taught English. This was Topeka some years after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision. Nana was a good person and encouraged a number of her black students, including Lilly’s daughter, who she offered a little part time work helping at her home. After Nana learned that my Mother’s Father was having trouble taking care of himself following the death of his wife, my other Grandmother, Nana recommended, Lilly, her student’s Mother.
Lilly was single, perhaps divorced or abandoned, and had a gaggle of children. Like the black women of the deep South she could make a little money with menial labor as domestic help. The work was more limited with my Grandfather. He was elderly and becoming frail with no children to raise so she didn’t become a second Mother to his children. His house needed cleaning and he needed someone to cook for him. Like the women working in Deep South households Lilly was away from her children when she did my Grandfather’s chores. She probably did most of her work during the day when her children were in school but there were occasions when my Mother asked Lilly to babysit my brother sister and me in the evening. Obviously she had to rely on her older children to take care of the younger ones in her absence to take care of us.
After fifty years I have a vague sense of the woman she was. She was heavy set, gregarious and a tease. I recall that we often played Chinese Checkers and that I managed to beat her once. I also recall reminding her of this and her good natured denial that I had ever beaten her. I was so chagrined.
My Grandfather, George Robb, had been a Kansas luminary before his retirement. He served as the State’s elected Auditor for 24 years having been appointed to the office by the Republican Governor. It was a safe appointment because my Grandfather was a war hero. He had been awarded one of two Congressional Medals of Honor given to Kansans for service during the First World War. He was not just a war hero either. He had a master’s degree from New York’s Columbia University which was a mighty accomplishment for a boy whose first family home was dug into a Kansas hillside. Lilly would have considered working for such a man a point of pride.
There was another thing about my Grandfather that she would have appreciated – his experiences with African Americans. As a child in the countryside around Salina, Kansas, his family’s next door neighbor was an escaped slave who arrived in Salina in the last year of the Civil War. The Robb’s were “small” d democrats in their liberal regard for people of all races. They were also loyal Republicans and Abe Lincoln, the man who defeated the South, was a hero. I still have my Great Grandfather Thomas Robb’s copy of the Autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln’s hammer.
In 1917 as a thirty-year-old school principal my Grandfather volunteered to join the American Expeditionary Force when war was declared on the Kaiser’s Germany. He was trained as an officer and sent to France where he awaited a command in the field. When it came it was a big surprise. He was assigned to the French Fourth Army, specifically the 369th Infantry, raised entirely from volunteers from New York, City. Harlem! It was an all black unit other than its top white officers. General Pershing’s officer corps, comprised mostly of Southern gentlemen, forced Pershing to give the New Yorkers to the French Army which was colorblind after three bloody years of trench warfare.
That same racist American officer corps would not let one of the black soldiers be given the nation’s highest military award despite their having served longer in the field than any other American unit. Fortunately, the 369th did have one badly wounded white officer who could be given the medal without embarrassing the South. George Robb.
I’m sure my increasingly frail Grandfather enjoyed Lilly’s respectful sassiness as much as I did. I know they teased each other about baseball. My Grandfather listened to Kansas City Athletics games on the radio while Lilly loved Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers. That was the first professional baseball team to put a black star on the roster guaranteeing that it would become black America’s favorite team.
I didn’t visit my Grandfather often when Lilly was present but my Mother did and she and Lilly became friends. they talked long and often and shared personal details of their lives with each other. My Mother told me that Lilly and my Grandfather grew very fond of each other. My Grandfather was alone and lonely. Lilly had a courtly employer who offered her respect and gratitude.
When my family moved to Minnesota my Mother agonized because she felt terribly guilty leaving her father back in Topeka without family to look in on him. For a while Lilly continued on much to my Mother’s relief but it did not last. Lilly mysteriously disappeared much to my Grandfather’s dismay. He had no idea why and was at sea without her. It was not long after this that he moved to a senior care facility to live out the rest of his life.
Our family would return to Topeka annually usually in the Summer. On one of our return visits my Mother looked up Lilly. It was a painful reunion but my Mother learned the reason for Lilly’s absenting herself from my Grandfather. It was shame.
Lilly had gotten pregnant by a boyfriend. Since she wasn’t married she was mortified to have to face my Grandfather. That may be hard to believe now but as with Civil Rights it was a different time and place. Lilly had so much respect for my Grandfather that she could not face the possibility of his disapproval. She left him to preserve her dignity but she ached at her decision.
Lilly told my Mother that every year at Halloween she would dress her children up to go trick or treating and drop them off at my Grandfather’s home to knock on his door while she hid in her car just to see him standing at his doorway.
Lilly and George Robb reached across a great divide enforced by law and stubborn human prejudice to joke and josh and form a deep regard for one another. Topeka, Kansas was hardly the worst place for a black American but its reality was part of the reason why a bright women like Lilly lived by the rail road tracks with little prospect of meeting a man with a job and little prospect for employment other than domestic work.
The high school in Topeka, for black students who managed not to drop out, had a black principal and a white principal for years. My Uncle recalls the black principal’s chief responsibility seemed to be as an enforcer of as much segregation as possible in the otherwise integrated school.
The kinds of employment available for blacks had always been minimal. In 1921 one of Topeka’s black residents found himself accused of raping a white girl in Duluth, Minnesota and was hung from a downtown streetlamp the day after he arrived with a traveling circus as a manual laborer. Three men were lynched that day which shocked blacks across the nation as it demonstrated that there was really no safety anywhere in America for them, not even 700 miles north of Kansas.
Today Duluth had a community meeting to come up with ideas to help minority children catch up with their white peers in the Duluth Schools. I suspect that if you traced the backgrounds of those students who are black back through time you would be hard pressed to find a single one of the black students who wasn’t descended from someone in domestic service.