Monthly Archives: December 2017

Civil Rights, the Museum of African American History and Culture, and the on-going struggle for equality

My mother didn’t much like children. I don’t think she liked people in general, honestly, but she really thought children should be “seen and not heard,” and she definitely lived by that credo. I was luckier than most children in that situation, though, because she hired a nanny/housekeeper to manage the house and the children so she could work. Mrs. Day was an African-American woman, about ten years older than my mother, whose one son was grown; she was hired when I was six months old in 1955, and she died when I was forty. (I was on the way to see her, but didn’t make it in time. I take some comfort in knowing that she knew I was coming.) I don’t know much about Mrs. Beatrice Day; I know she grew up in Virginia and came to live in the Philadelphia suburbs with her husband Benny, whom I think worked for the Pennsylvania Rail Road (PRR), although I’m not sure why I think that. Maybe I heard it once?

Mrs. Day loved me, took care of me; later she taught me how to cook (my mother didn’t cook). We went to a lot of places together, including her AME church in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, where I learned to love gospel music (although my parents, staunch atheists both of them, slightly disapproved, I went with her whenever they were out of town, which was often, since they liked to travel, preferably without children in tow). We saw a revival screening of Gone With The Wind in 1966, a fancy showing where we both dressed up and sat in the balcony with great seats that had been given to my parents, and I have to wonder now what Mrs. Day made of that, but I remember crying through the sad scenes (when the pony dies) and then running to make our trolley back home. She made me run ahead to catch the car and ask them to wait for Mrs. Day. Everyone knew Mrs. Day; she was an important person in her circle. (We took the P&W trolley rather than the train, I remember, which meant we had to run to catch the last trolley.) There are pictures from 1969 of the trolley at both 69th Street station (where we got on) and the Haverford station (where we got off) here. I didn’t question it at the time, but the train (the Main Line train, from 30th Street Station to the train station in Haverford) was for white people, and the P&W trolley was for black people. I liked the trolley much better–it was just more fun–it clacked along slowly and you could open the windows on hot days. Less expensive too.

Mrs. Day genuinely knew everyone. I remember getting told off by her for being disrespectful to one of the lunch ladies at my elementary school. I was embarrassed, but also not at all surprised that she knew about it.

At the same time, I was growing up in the well-off Philadelphia suburbs, where it was mostly Republicans–although my parents were both Democrats, and my mother ran for a township office and got more votes than any Democrat ever had, while still only getting 10% of the vote–where it was still segregated, mostly. But I also went to a Quaker elementary school, and the older brothers of my friends were traveling to the deep South to sit-ins and demonstrations as part of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. My school gave scholarships to a few African-American students from the local community.

As I went into high school (a private all-girls school), the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had passed a few years before, Martin Luther King was making waves and having an impact, the Black Panthers were creating a movement in Oakland, and equal rights were having their day.

I was thinking about all of this last week, when I went to Washington DC to see the newest Smithsonian museum, the Museum of African American History and Culture ( It’s not an easy museum to visit–since it opened over a year ago, it’s been so busy that there’s a ticketing system. You have to go online at 6AM (Pacific time) the first Wednesday of the month to request tickets for three months later (and they are gone quickly, although they’re free (your tax dollars at work)). That’s how I ended up going to DC in December; I started trying to get tickets last February and didn’t succeed until September.

The Museum is astonishing. The architecture is beautiful, to start with. There are three floors below grade and four floors above. Rosalind (my sister) and I managed to see most of the exhibits on the lower floors, which detail the history of African Americans from the 1400s (before the opening of Africa to international trade) through the inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th president. There was a huge amount of information about the slave trade and the actual living conditions of African Americans before the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s. As we went down in the elevator, the operator (it’s a huge elevator, holding about fifty people) gave an introduction to the Museum and told us that, after we’d finished those lower floors, there was a room for reflection and spiritual renewal that we might want to visit. And yes, there was a need for that room. A huge need. I could describe the lower floors as dark, but the more accurate description was “horrifyingly thought provoking.” I knew much of the history (thanks to my Quaker education at The Friends School of Haverford, PA) but that’s really not the same as seeing film of the treatment of protestors. Nor does hearing about the history in a safe classroom have the impact of seeing Emmett Till’s casket (empty; he was reburied after re-identification of his remains). (History aside: Emmett Till was lynched, at age 14, because he “offended” a white woman he spoke to in a grocery store. Beaten. Murdered. Drowned. His murderers were found innocent by an all-white jury and confessed the next year–but never served time.)

There’s also a reconstructed slave cabin and a guard tower from Angola prison.

As I said: horrifyingly thought-provoking.

And in the week since, I find myself wondering: why did I never ask Mrs. Day about her childhood? What was it like for her growing up? I know she didn’t learn to write until she worked for our family–how did that happen?

The upper floors of the Museum are devoted to African American Culture and are far more cheerful. Rosalind and I skipped to the floor devoted to music, movies, TV, and cuisine. I got to see Chuck Berry’s red 1972 Cadillac convertible. There was great music. There were costumes worn by black musicians. It was a lot of fun, that floor.

We had lunch in the cafeteria, which has four areas, devoted to regional black cuisine. I had “western-style ribs”, which were good. Better than good.

After that experience, Rosalind and I walked to the National Botanical Garden and its Conservatory and admired orchids and other tropical plants. It was restful, but we continued talking about the (other) museum. We talked about the family history: distant Dickinsons owned slaves in western Virginia. Not many, not a plantation, but one or two (accounts vary) before moving to Kansas in the late 1840s. That’s pretty much all I know. I don’t even know their names.

The next day, my cousin Cindy Dickinson and I went to the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Historic Monument, a tiny house that was the site of the campaign for women’s suffrage a century ago. (The Constitutional Amendment passed in 1921.) There were four people there as we toured the house with a knowledgeable docent. No tickets, no waiting. For that matter, no fancy metal detectors or security guards, either.

In reflecting on my trip, I find I’m saddened. During the 1970s, as I started my working career, women and African Americans didn’t have full protection under the law and were often discriminated against. We still are, even though another forty years have gone by. I hoped for better, back then, and now I’m hoping we don’t slide backwards.