Growing up, I always took it for granted that it was my mother who was first attracted to my father. After all, he was the exotic one, the gregarious one, the charm machine. She was the shy one, the one who stuttered so badly as a child that her parents sent her away to be treated by doctors in Paris and who still got self-conscious when she couldn’t get her words out quickly. But when I went back and investigated, it turned out that it was the other way around: He became obsessed with her.
She had noticed him around campus, of course. As one of the few black students at Swarthmore College in the mid-1950s, he was hard to miss. She had heard him perform once or twice: He played the guitar and sang folk songs. For a while, he earned pocket money by recording radio commercials, and later she would hear one of his jingles playing on the air and feel a shiver of pride when the announcer said that if the young man with that voice ever turned professional he would give him a contract. But that was news to me too, since I have no memories of my father singing.
They met in his junior year, thanks to a play. Jeanne Theis was a French instructor in her fourth year of teaching at Swarthmore. She was also the faculty adviser for the French Club and she decided that it would be fun to help the students put on a production in the original. She chose a satirical one-act play by Jean Giraudoux called Supplément au voyage de Cook that recounts the fanciful story of Captain Cook’s arrival in the tropics. To direct, she enlisted Michael DeLaszlo, a junior from England who had taken one of her classes as a freshman. They cast most of the parts but didn’t have anyone to play Chief Outourou, the tribal leader who greets the explorers. DeLaszlo said he knew someone who had the perfect look for the part: his roommate, Syl Whitaker.
The only hitch was that he didn’t speak French. When he agreed to take on the role, she had to coach him so he could learn his lines and speak with a convincing accent. They met before rehearsals and several times in her apartment, in a dorm called Roberts, where she oversaw “French Hall,” a suite of rooms for students who wanted to speak the language and attend her weekly teas. She was impressed by how quickly he learned and by what a good mimic he was. They laughed at the part where the chief, to show hospitality, offers his daughters to the flustered, repressed Englishmen. She noticed how his cheeks dimpled when he smiled and how the worry lines in his forehead creased when he was making a serious point. In all, there was no mistaking how handsome he was, particularly when he put on his grass-skirt costume for rehearsals and bared his dark, muscular chest.
But she was startled the night of the wrap party, which she threw at Roberts, when they were talking in a corner of her crowded apartment and all of a sudden he kissed her.
She pulled back, looking confused.
“I thought you wanted me to do that,” he said. “The other day, when you touched my arm, I thought it was a signal.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That’s just something I have the habit of doing when I’m talking to people.”
He must have seen her blushing, since her skin was fair and freckled and framed by black hair that she wore, Jean Seberg–style, in a short bob. But her diffidence didn’t deter him. In fact, it may have been part of the allure when he had fantasized about wooing her, as he must have done, since in 1955 a black student would hardly have dared to kiss his white teacher on the lips simply on a spur-of-the-moment whim.
“Would you mind if I visited you here again?” he asked.
“I suppose that would be all right,” she replied.
He started to come by Roberts every few days, for an hour or so at a time. They would listen to music, and he brought his favorite 45s and introduced her to black jazz singers like the infectious Nellie Lutcher and Eartha kitt, with her seductive purr. Sometimes he would kiss her or hold her hand, and she would primly consent, but mostly they talked.
He told her about growing up in Pittsburgh, about his parents the morticians and what it was like to live above a funeral parlor. When his mother came to visit friends in Philadelphia, he arranged for them to meet. My mother was instantly impressed by Grandmother Edith’s light-skinned beauty and her elegant manner and entertaining way of speaking. He rarely mentioned C.S., the man he was named for, except to say that they didn’t get along and that his parents were divorced. He confessed that his father had beaten him as a child. Eventually they discovered what was for him a humiliating coincidence: My mother had gone to graduate school at Bryn Mawr with a girl who came from Harrisburg and whose family had employed Granddad as a butler after he lost his business.
She told him about her parents, about how they met as Protestant missionaries in Africa, where she was born and spent much of her childhood before they moved to France. She described how she came to America on a boat with five of her little sisters when she was fourteen and went to live with the family of Dr. Enders, the Swarthmore biology professor, which was how she came to attend college there and later return to join the French Department. And she explained the reason her parents had sent her away, the dangerous work that caused Pastor Theis to be watched and arrested by the Vichy police. She told him how much she loved and admired her father and how sad she thought it was that he disliked his own so much.
They reminisced about student work camps. After the war, she had returned to France for several summers to attend the work camps at the boarding school that her father had founded in the mountains of central France, joining young people who came from across the country and as far away as Britain and America to build classrooms and dorm barracks. In high school, he had started going to summer work camps run by the Quakers. His Bible school teacher at Bethany Baptist, his family’s church in Pittsburgh, had first told him about a Friends camp in Ithaca when he was fifteen. He decided to go there after some local Quakers offered to pay his way, although for the life of him he couldn’t understand why well- to- do white kids from places like New York and Boston and Chicago would spend good money to do manual labor in the hot summer sun.
When he arrived in upstate New York and was first introduced to Quaker ideas about nonviolence, “I told them that I had never heard anything more preposterous,” he would later tell the author of a book about the Friends. But before long he found himself drawn to the faith’s teachings about simplicity and pacifism and the subtle power of silent prayer, so different from the raucous call-and-response of the black church services he was used to. Around the campfire at night, the work campers sang folk and protest songs, and when he returned to Pittsburgh he told his mother that he intended to worship as a Quaker and to teach himself how to play the guitar.
He recounted the harrowing time he had at a work camp the next summer, in the backwoods of Harlan County, kentucky. A Pittsburgh Quaker named Spahr Hull, who later became my godfather, told him that the Friends were looking for a black student to integrate Pine Mountain, their first camp in the Deep South. Locating a Time magazine article about “Bloody Harlan,” my father learned that there had been a murder indictment in the county every month for 132 years. Still, he agreed to go, confident that the force of his goodwill and winning personality would see him through.
On his second night there, a dozen hillbilly kids came to the camp for a square dance. Seeing one of the local white girls sitting alone on the other side of the camp’s lodge, my father worked up the courage to ask her to do-si-do. She nodded and he took her hand, but she never looked him in the eye, and her damp fingers and the red tips of her ears betrayed how nervous she was. Afterward he discovered that the night watchman, who was called Old Martin, had complained to a nurse at the infirmary. “I can’t stand to see a nigger touch a white woman like that!” the guard said. “They’ll soon run that nigger out of here, and I won’t do a thing to stop them!”
Before long, a group of hillbilly boys started lurking on the outskirts of Pine Mountain day and night, asking where my father slept and once hanging a white rope over a tree. “Hey, which of you gals wrang that nigger’s neck until it got black?” they called out to a group of girls as they passed by with a female counselor.
One day the work campers went on an overnight trip and had to search for hours to find a spot that wasn’t marked “White” and “Colored” to set up their tents. In the middle of the night, four cars pulled up with headlights flashing. A dozen drunken men got out, announcing that they had come to get “that nigger.” The camp director, a local Kentucky minister named Sandy Sandborne, grabbed a flashlight and went out to the road to talk to them. He calmly insisted that the person they were looking for wasn’t there, and eventually the drunks got back in the cars and left, giving the campers a terrible scare but also an object lesson, as my father described it to my mother, in the power of nonviolent resistance.
He told her about another terrifying incident that happened later that summer. Toward the end of the eight-week camp, the brother of the girl he had asked to square-dance came back to town and joined the loitering pack of local white boys. All of a sudden, they started to be suspiciously nice to my father. They shouted out to invite him to join them on a hike, then on a rifle-shoot. The other campers told him to ignore them, especially a white Jewish girl from New York with whom he had been taking long walks. What if they were trying to lure him into an “accident”? she warned. But he replied that the whole point of work camping was to teach people from different backgrounds to get to know and respect each other. If he didn’t go, he would always wonder what was really in their hearts. So when the local boys arrived in a car to pick him up, he climbed into the backseat.
They drove to a clearing in the woods with a big tree stump at the end. Shotguns were handed out and everyone took turns firing at cans placed on top of the wooden nub. Once all the cans were knocked down, one boy at a time would walk across the clearing and set them up again. When it was my father’s turn, he set off slowly toward the stump, his back to the other boys.
He said that he never experienced so powerfully the physical effects of fear. Every muscle in his body tightened up, and he felt like he was going to vomit. After setting up the cans, he turned around and faced what looked like a hillbilly firing squad: six local boys with long scraggly hair, dressed in tattered overalls, holding shotguns. His breathing stopped and he almost fainted as he walked back toward them. But no one fired, and from then on the white boys treated him like one of them, as though he had passed a tribal test of manhood. On the last week of camp, the family of the girl at the square dance invited all the work campers to a chicken dinner. After that, he told my mother, he felt he really understood what the Quaker belief in searching for the Light in every human being was all about.
As they talked, visit after visit, my mother found herself falling in love. It was partly a physical condition, with all the usual symptoms: She couldn’t stop thinking about him when they were apart, and she longed for their next rendezvous. As she walked across campus, she found herself humming a Nellie Lutcher tune: “He’s got a fine brown frame, I wonder what could be his name. He looks good to me, and all I can see is his fine brown frame…”
But for her, it was an intellectual process as well. She fell in love with the idea of him. He was handsome in a way that particularly appealed to her, perhaps because she had spent her early childhood in Africa. She respected his bravery in coming to a virtually all- white school like Swarthmore and good-naturedly confronting the racism he had encountered in his life. And she was moved that he took his faith so seriously, that coming from such different backgrounds they shared the same commitment to battling the world’s evils by turning the other cheek rather than demanding an eye for an eye.
She was taken with his charisma and the almost chemical effect he had on other people. From the time he arrived at Swarthmore, he had “displaced a lot of water,” as one of his friends described it. He told her the story of how, as a freshman, he had gone into the little barbershop in town for a trim and the barber had refused to serve him. Word spread across campus and soon scores of students joined a boycott. One Greek-American student from Massachusetts named Michael Dukakis even began offering haircuts in his dorm room, a story that decades later the Dukakis campaign would tout in his presidential run.
She saw that Syl Whitaker knew how to enjoy himself, when he would arrive with stories of sneaking off with Michael DeLaszlo in his roommate’s car to go to a jazz club in Philadelphia or to get their favorite hoagie sandwiches at a delicatessen called Stacky’s in Chester. (She didn’t hear the story of how his roommates had once been shooting the bull late at night and played a game of How Would You Like to Die? “In an airplane crash while making love!” my father proclaimed, impressing them all with his bravado and the implicit implication that he had made love before.)
But she also saw him as possessing a maturity and talent for leadership beyond his years. That impression only deepened when, in the months they were meeting secretly, he was selected to run the Swarthmore Folk Festival. The three-day event had started in the mid-1940s, when she was an undergraduate, and by the time she came back to teach in the early 1950s it was the biggest thing on campus. Singers like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly had all come to perform, and each year hundreds of young people from up and down the East Coast descended on the college, filling the walkways with their cars and littering the dorm rooms with their sleeping bags. To headline the 1955 festival, my father booked Josh White, one of my mother’s favorites, and the black protest singer got the crowd stomping and clapping and singing along to his renditions of “Lonesome Road” and “On Top of Old Smokey.”
Yet as soon as it was over, Swarthmore’s president, Courtney Smith, sent word through his deans that the festival had become too big and disruptive. My father was chosen to mediate and he spent days crafting a proposal for new rules that would have limited the number of outside visitors and required registration in advance. But Smith rejected the compromise and eventually canceled the 1956 concert. My father concluded that the WASP-ish president, who had once decreed to the student body that he would tolerate “no ostentatious displays of affection,” was simply a prude. He didn’t like the fact that students held hands during the festival and wore blue jeans. The jeans issue rankled my father so much that he decided to visit Smith in his office in Parish Hall to discuss the matter. He pointed out that as a financially strapped student on a full scholarship, he wore jeans to cut down on his cleaning bills, but Smith was unimpressed and curtly dismissed him after a short conversation.
By the end of the school year, my mother had decided that her feelings for my father were strong enough that she needed to confide in someone. She chose Hal March, an older colleague in the French Department who had become somewhat of a professional father figure. March wasn’t shocked or scandalized, but he expressed concern about what the consequences would be for her reputation if she were seen to have been in a frivolous affair with a student, especially one who happened to be black. So he summoned my father to a meeting in his office.
“Do you intend to marry her?” he asked.
My parents had never discussed the idea, and at that point it may well have never occurred to my father. But from the white professor’s stern tone, he must have grasped that he had started something that could only be made respectable in the eyes of the college and the broader society of mid- 1950s America by giving it the sanctity of an engagement.
“Yes, I would like to marry her,” he answered.
The next time my parents met, my father recounted the discussion with Professor March and reiterated his matrimonial intentions. He didn’t exactly propose, and my mother didn’t exactly accept. It was as though they were at a Quaker Meeting and had reached consensus that they would eventually get married.
“I guess I just assumed everything would work out,” my mother told me as she looked back. She hardly thought of herself as a spinster, but she was already twenty-eight. Some of her younger sisters were already married, and she always assumed that one day she would be too. She was in love with my father, as she understood it. She never stopped to think what marrying a black man might mean for his career or for any children they might have. And at the time, she didn’t see what was so wrong with a teacher being involved with a student—male professors did it all the time—particularly if they waited until after he graduated for the wedding.
She also confessed that the engagement relieved her of another anxiety: what to do about sex. For someone of her religious upbringing, it wasn’t something you did with a mere boyfriend. But now it could happen, and by the end of the semester it did.
What was my father thinking when they decided to get married? “he probably saw it as a big adventure that would impress his Quaker friends,” my mother said. But I’m sure that it was more complicated than that. He must have believed that he was in love too, but at age twenty what did that mean? After all their long talks, did he think that he had found a soul mate, or was he still in the grip of infatuation? Had his summer in Pine Mountain stirred not only an attraction to white women but an appetite for risk? How noteworthy was it that she was an older, professional woman, someone like his mother, although as different from Grandmother Edith as she could be in outward appearance and personality? And how driven was he by his ambition and competitive insecurities, by the prospect that she could help him with advice and inside information on where he stood in relation to all the brainy white students of Swarthmore?
When classes were over, he returned to Pittsburgh to earn a few weeks’ pay working in the post office, while she stayed in Swarthmore to grade exams. One night his roommates invited her for a drink at Sam’s bar, a place that students went to in the nearby village of Media, because Swarthmore was a dry town. After a glass of whiskey, she momentarily forgot that not all of them were in on the secret.
“So you’re the one who is going to work in East Harlem this summer!” she said when she was introduced to Knowles Dougherty, an all- American type with a big grin.
“How did you know that?” he asked.
“Uh, Syl told me,” she said, recognizing her gaffe but not wanting to tell a lie.
Later in the conversation she recommended that they all read Anti-Semite and Jew, by Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Yes, Syl is reading it,” said Paul Berry, a senior who was one of two roommates, along with Michael DeLaszlo, who knew about the romance.
This time she knew enough not to comment on the connection.
My father and his group lived in a dorm called Mary Lyons, and my mother had arranged to take a faculty apartment there in the fall so they could be closer together. But when she told Bob Cross, another professor who resided in the dorm, he asked teasingly: “What kind of immoral behavior are you planning to indulge in down there?” She didn’t think he knew, but the remark disturbed her and made her realize how careful they had to be. Hoping it would please him, she wrote my father to tell him how the graduating se niors he knew had done in their final honors exams. But then she made the mistake of revealing details of a faculty meeting about the ju nior honors exams that he and members of his class had just taken. She told him that he had received an “adequate” on one test and that the chair of the history Department had joked that she was going to write him a letter urging him to drop the honors track in political science in favor of history.
That night, he called her from Pittsburgh in a huff. What did “adequate” mean? he asked indignantly. Nothing bad, she comforted him; it was the standard grade for all tests except those deemed worthy of highest honors. And was the history chair suggesting that he couldn’t cut it in poli-sci? he wanted to know. No, she replied; it was meant as a compliment, that surely the History Department just wanted to claim him because he was bound to have such impressive final results.
The phone conversation must have rattled her, because the next day she put off grading her comp and diction papers and sat down to write a letter that went on four pages in her tiny, tightly packed handwriting and took her six hours to finish. “Darling, please don’t feel deflated,” she wrote, “or I shall never again report what the faculty says in its curious, superficially supercilious language… Heck, you’re in a very strong position, don’t be ultra-sensitive. I don’t worry about you for a minute, except because you are so sensitive.”
Then she talked about hearing an Eartha Kitt song and thinking about him. “Syl, I miss you so much,” she wrote. “I can waste so much time just wishing I were with you, dammit. I shouldn’t feel this way because it’ll be so long before we can be together much. If I can’t be more sensible I’ll begin thinking loving you is unrealistic and wrong.”
But his defensiveness must have hit a nerve with her too, because halfway through the letter she started venting some of her own resentments. She complained about the “clever self-protectiveness” that was “rampant” among her colleagues on the Swarthmore faculty. “I do mind eventually this too-too faddish and witty atmosphere among the faculty here,” she wrote. “It finally amounts to conformism of a would-be superior kind… Dismissing every problem with a joke becomes tiresome… I also greatly minded a few comments I heard last night about Christianity not having a place in the modern world.”
Then she said some things that suggested that her own earnest beliefs had started to become a source of friction between the two of them. “I realize that the feeling that this is God’s world is essential to me…” she wrote. “I’ve also been thinking quite a bit about what the implications would be for the way we love each other under God, so to speak. I don’t mean to be theological, or use high-sounding language. But it is very important—please understand… Syl, honest, I love you very much—but I don’t love you more than I love God. This sentence sounds almost indecent, I know—but you understand what I mean. You think your most fundamental beliefs are important too. As a matter of fact, I think our fundamental beliefs are the same. But we’ve got to learn to talk about them without getting irritated by each other’s language.”
The moment of touchiness appears to have passed, and several weeks later she joined him in Pittsburgh and they set out on a trip to Mexico City. He was headed for a Quaker work camp in El Salvador, and she had decided to accompany him part of the way. Because Michael DeLaszlo had a car, he offered to drive them along with another of their roommates, David Steinmuller. His vehicle was a 1947 Town and Country that Michael’s wealthy father had purchased from a used car salesman in Detroit but had smashed up in a minor accident almost as soon as it was off the lot. In a rush to get to freshman week at Swarthmore, they had bought the first replacement parts they could find: a red hood and blue fins. So it was a wagon of many colors that carried the interracial band toward the Texas border, on a route that stretched through the Jim Crow South.
Although my father had a driver’s license, he didn’t dare take the wheel for fear that the Dixie cops would pull him over. DeLaszlo and Steinmuller took turns driving, while my father and mother sat on the red-leather seats in the back. To avoid having to use separate “White” and “Colored” eating areas and bathrooms, they ordered takeout dishes from roadside restaurants and ate the food in the car. When my father needed to relieve himself, the station wagon pulled over to the side of the road.
Once they reached Mexico, my mother returned to Pittsburgh while he went on to a work camp near San Salvador. There, young Friends were called “Amigos,” and a year later, when one of his Swarthmore classmates visited the village where he stayed, the locals were still talking about how charming he had been. “There was a young man called Agripino Flores who is now teaching in the escuela segundaria in Xochimilco,” she wrote him. “He too was with the Amigos last summer and remembers you. He said what a buen amigo you had been, and muy sociable and how well you got on with the children playing basketball.”
My mother returned to Pittsburgh to wait until he returned, riding a Greyhound bus that was crowded with women reading True Romance and Confidential and talkative soldiers on leave. As the bus retraced their car route, she counted the segregated rest stops all the way to St. Louis. Once she reached the funeral home that his mother ran then, at 616 Belmont Street in Belzhoover, she passed the time sewing dresses on an old foot-pedal machine and enjoying the salty soul food served up by Grandmother Edith and her mother, whom everyone called Gram. The two of them and my father’s sisters, Gertrude, Della, and Cleo, all treated her like family, but she was still sometimes overcome by shyness and realized how much she was coming to depend on him to help her engage with the world. “You leave a big hole, you know,” she wrote him wistfully.
When they got back to the college in the fall, he persuaded her to buy a car, even though she didn’t drive, so they could spend time together away from prying eyes on campus. She dipped into her meager savings to purchase a used blue Kaiser coupe from a freshman for $250. They took the car to movies in Philadelphia and made two more trips across the state to Pittsburgh. Occasionally she accompanied him to Bryn Mawr, her graduate school alma mater, where he cross-registered in an anthropology course so as to have another excuse to leave Swarthmore.
One day as they drove along the Main Line, a white policeman pulled them over and asked where they were going. My father politely answered his questions, and the cop allowed them to move on. But once they were moving again, he exploded with rage. He hadn’t been speeding or violating any traffic regulations! The only reason the cop had stopped them was that he was a black man in a car with a white woman! But then he shook his head and said that a black man could never “get lippy” with a police officer, a warning that he would pass on to me decades later.
By now my mother was all too aware of my father’s brooding about his academic standing, but she still admired how hard he worked in Swarthmore’s honors program. Juniors and seniors who were admitted into this select group met in small seminars, often in the homes of their professors. Rather than passively receiving instruction, they learned from each other, spending hours debating papers that a couple of students in each class were assigned to spark discussion. Before graduating, they sat for written and oral exams by visiting professors. Come spring, my father impressed the outside examiners enough to be awarded high honors. Yet privately, he fumed that he hadn’t attained highest honors like his friend Norman Rush, an older student from San Francisco who had done jail time as a conscientious objector and would later become a novelist.
Finally, on a sunny day in June, Syl Whitaker donned his black commencement gown and cap and became one of only a handful of black students ever to receive a Swarthmore diploma. In the 1956 Halycon, the college yearbook, his dark visage stands out among pages of white faces. The accompanying paragraph captures the many sides of his personality: a nickname, “The Whit,” conveying his joviality: his favorite expression, “hmmm…,” suggesting his thoughtfulness; and a final note whose irony jolted me when I read it: “Always a breath of sobriety.”
Two months later, on August 18, my parents married on a rainy day in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, the little mountain village in France where my grandfather was the assistant pastor and ran his secondary school. All six of my mother’s sisters who lived in France were there, along with Michael DeLaszlo and a college friend of my mother’s named Cushing Dolbeare and her husband. My father wore a light gray tie and a dark suit over his slender frame, and my mother looked radiant in a stylish white wedding dress that she had sewn herself. According to French custom, they went first to the mayor’s office to sign an official marriage certificate, then they made their way under an umbrella down the slippery cobblestone streets to the small Protestant temple at the bottom of the village. A friend of Pastor Theis presided over an austere religious ceremony, and as he paused for a moment of silent prayer, a thunderclap cracked the sky outside and shook the windows of the church.
For their honeymoon, they visited one of my mother’s college friends, Janet Nyholm, who had married a Danish artist and moved to Denmark. They spent several days under cloudy skies in Copenhagen and saw a flea circus that they thought was particularly hilarious.
They had kept their year-and-a-half courtship so quiet that most faculty and students at Swarthmore were stunned when they heard the news. But it didn’t come as a surprise to school president Courtney Smith. Earlier in the year, my father had gone to Parish Hall to inform him of their intentions. It wasn’t just the skirmishes over the folk festival and the blue jeans that had made him wary of how Smith would respond. It was also how unsympathetic the stiff-necked president had been toward another interracial couple on campus. When a Jewish senior named Edgar Cahn and a black junior named Jean Camper had begun dating, they had received an anonymous death threat, and one day someone had burned a cross outside her dorm room. Cahn had appealed to Smith to do something about it, but the president had refused, sniffily implying that they had only themselves to blame. One of his deans had even started calling Cahn’s parents whenever the two lovebirds were seen together, in a ham-handed attempt to break them up.
Sure enough, President Smith confirmed my father’s worst suspicions. Although my mother was coming up for tenure and had her department’s support, he waffled about her prospects. My father was irate, and so were the friends he confided in. “Of course, going to Courtney was a basic error,” his former roommate Paul Berry wrote from graduate school in Stanford. Then he added sarcastically: “I hereby propose that he be awarded the title of Courtney Craig Smith, R.Q., for Reluctant Quaker, an even more dangerous form than the Confused Quaker.”
When my parents returned from their honeymoon in late August, they heard that Smith was whispering word of his disapproval. A friend and classmate named Annie Guerin wrote my father urging him not to do anything rash. “Don’t get too angry at President Smith,” she advised, teasing him that she wanted to see “faculty reactions to your highly reprehensible marriage!”
But my father wasn’t about to take the situation lying down. He complained angrily about my mother’s predicament to civil rights leaders whom he had met through Quaker circles.
One day the phone rang at my parents’ apartment and my father picked up the receiver.
“Hello?” he said.
“Syyylvester!” a loud voice boomed at the other end of the line. “Bayaaard Rustin here!”
It took a second for it to sink in that one of America’s foremost civil rights leaders, Bayard Rustin, the man who would organize Martin Luther king Jr.’s march on Washington seven years later, was on the line.
“I hear you’re having some trouble there in Swarthmore!” Rustin said in his stentorian baritone.
Rustin’s advice was to go over Smith’s head to Swarthmore’s board of directors. He reached out to other civil rights leaders who wrote letters on my parents’ behalf, reminding them of the college’s long history of championing racial equality. My father’s Quaker mentors sent testimonials to his religious faith and work camp experience. In the end, the board told Smith to back off, and my mother received tenure after all.
That fall, my parents moved into one of the faculty apartments at 317 North Chester Road, in one of the big Dutch colonial revival houses that had been built in Swarthmore’s West Hills at the turn of the century. My father started commuting in the Kaiser coupe to Princeton, where he had been admitted as the first black doctoral student in the history of its prestigious Department of Politics. Living on my mother’s meager salary of just over $3,000 a year, they were poor enough that they drove to working-class Chester to buy groceries, and my father kept going home at Christmas to work in the Pittsburgh post office. But now at least they could be public about their relationship, and they found that most of the Swarthmore community was supportive. My mother’s faculty friends told her how much they liked Syl and how much they admired their courage.
But there was one exception. Bob Enders, the biology professor whose family had taken my mother in during the war, was suspicious of my father. He thought he was a perfectly bright student and had no feelings of racial animus toward him, but when my mother told him about their engagement, he disapproved. As someone who was used to writing recommendations for medical school and sizing up which students would make good doctors, he prided himself on his judgments about character, and he wasn’t sure about Syl Whitaker. He believed that he took advantage of my mother, as he had in pressuring her to buy the big blue car for his use as much as theirs. And he thought my father had a chip on his shoulder. Once, when they were visiting the Enders house for tea, he complained about how hard his father, C.S., had pushed him as a child, and Dr. Enders was alarmed to see how enraged he became. Uncle Bob, as she called him, was too fond of my mother to try to warn her off the marriage, but he expressed his concerns to his wife, Abbie.
“Angry men don’t make good husbands,” he said.
© 2011 Mark Whitaker