For tonight’s post, the random number generator handed me prompt #2: If you could witness (or take part in) any event in history, what would it be? Why? This sounded deceptively easy until I tried to decide what historic event I would write about. My decision coalesced when I was commenting on Dan Rockwell’s Leadership Freak post “Pressure to Be Invisible.”
In my response to Dan’s post, I was answering the question: Can you think of people who changed the world by standing out? Here is a modified version of what I said, utilizing information from the Tallahassee Democrat’s 2006 Special Edition on the 50th anniversary of our town’s Bus Boycott:
There was a (white) family here in Tallahassee (George and Clifton Lewis) who, in the mid 50′s, opened their home to black people; George (a prominent banker) made loans to black homeowners and those who were jailed. Believe me when I say that there are times even in 2010 when this town struggles with civic equality (it is exponentially better, of course); for a family like this to take such a step in the 50′s really boggles my mind and makes me humbly respectful. They changed the world and stood out by opening their doors, literally and figuratively.
I learned about the Lewis family from Edwina Stephens. Tenley and I visited Edwina several years ago; she had been recommended to me as someone who Tenley could interview in order to learn about the history of race relations in Tallahassee (the Democrat was compiling information gathered by schoolchildren). I am pretty sure I learned at least as much and maybe more than Tenley. Mrs. Stephens talked to us for well over an hour. I really wish I could have the tape recording back, but it seems to have disappeared into a black hole at the Democrat’s offices. I don’t need the recording, though, to conjure up in my mind the parts of our conversation that have stuck with me: how lynchings occurred at the tree that still stands on the grounds of our Old Capitol, how impossible it was for an African American person in Tallahassee to prove “competence” to vote (how many soap bubbles on the bar of soap? having to solve complicated mathematical equations); how dangerous it was to treat a white child at the black hospital, even if the child’s health were in serious jeopardy; the separate education systems. I don’t recall the specific details she shared about the Lewis family, but I remember her talking about how, to the shock and disdain of their fellow Tallahasseeans, they supported the town’s black citizens through financial assistance and emotional support.
George Lewis provided financial support to Tallahassee’s black citizens, and Clifton Lewis opened their home to blacks and marched in civil rights demonstrations. I always wonder if I would have the courage to do what’s right in the face of disdain and outright hostility from my peers. For example, several years ago I was at a family gathering and a cousin who I only see every few years, but with whom I have always considered myself fairly close, told a joke that was anti-semitic and racist. I froze. What to do? I ended up saying, “Oh, so that’s a [name of small town he lives in] joke, huh?” My response, in belittling his town, may not have been any better than his original attempt at humor.
To get back to the prompt’s original question, I would like to have been a witness to the turning of the civil rights tides here in Tallahassee, and I would like to have been at Clifton Lewis’s side when she said, “come on in – your home is my home.”