Finding Mrs. Blackwell: Reunion After 42 Years – Part 2

This is the rest of the story about my April visit with my elementary school teacher Catherine Blackwell. You can read the first part of the story here.

When I first came into the house, I was intrigued when I glanced into the living room from the hallway. The room was crammed with sculptures, paintings and photographs. Now that we had been talking for a while, I asked if Mrs. Blackwell could show me her art collection. She padded down the stairs and guided me into the living room.

I knew her African art collection was famous, but that didn’t prepare me for the breadth of her collection occupying every available space. There were stunning masks, sculptures and weavings made of fabric, wood, animal hair, bone.

My little point and shoot camera doesn’t show the beauty of these museum-quality pieces.

I eyed the long shelf of carved figures.

And found myself drawn to this one.

Recognizing the rarity and age of this figure with its ragged fabric and fragile animal hair, I asked where it was from but didn’t touch it. Mrs. Blackwell nonchalantly told me to just pick it up and look at it, so I did. The wood was weighty in my hand.

I contemplated the long-ago sculptor who created it. Who was the person who made this?  What animal had that long soft hair? And how did it come into Mrs. Blackwell’s life? She had me turn over the foot, and I saw it was labeled, archived as part of a significant collection. “It’s from Senegal,” she said.

I could have spent several hours investigating the artwork and photographs in that room. I pointed to one black and white image of a couple laughing together. She told me it was a wedding photo of Miriam Makeba and South African musician and activist Hugh Masekela.

After visiting for two and a half hours, I had to leave to meet my friends who were expecting me. But I wanted to know about every one of the 60 journeys Mrs. Blackwell had made to Africa. I wanted to hear her lifetime of stories. It had been 42 years, and this visit now seemed way too short.

I reluctantly told her I had to go, giving my email address to her caregiver Gwen and explaining that I would blog about my visit and send her the link. Mrs. Blackwell said: “Oh, please come back. And stay the night next time.” She walked into the adjacent room, and pulled a tall white book off the shelf.

“This is for you,” she said, reaching for a pen.

She handed me A Heritage of Teaching: The African Art Collection of Catherine C. Blackwell, a guide to a touring exhibit from 2003. I opened it. On the first page, there was a photo of her. She was dressed in Ghanaian Kente cloth and story hat, holding a Yoruba Ibeji figure. Beside the image, she had written in crooked script, “With Love, Love, Love, Catherine C. Blackwell.”

We hugged before I said goodbye. I knew I would start to cry if I didn’t leave quickly. I started my car and looked back toward the house. She stood in the doorway waving until we could no longer see each other.

When I think about this visit, I see again the painting of Mrs. Blackwell hanging above her fireplace, depicting her in a classroom—the storyteller and musician sharing with eager children.

She thanked me for visiting her. I thank her for a lifetime of inspiration.

UPDATE: See the comments below from 2014 for more recent information. On February 4, the Detroit Free Press published a touching obituary with a photo that captures Catherine Blackwell’s spirit.

Finding Mrs. Blackwell: Reunion After 42 Years – Part 1

“Hello, Beverly. This is Mrs. Blackwell calling. She received a letter from you, and here is her phone number.”

A few days before my visit to my hometown of Detroit in April, I caught my breath when I heard that message in my voicemail. I played it over and over. Here was the response to my effort to locate Catherine Blackwell, the elementary school teacher who had changed my life, described in this previous post.

With the three-hour time zone difference from my home in California, I waited until I was in Detroit to call her back. I explained I was nearby, and she said what I’d hoped for: “Will I get to see you?” I inquired about possible times to make sure I didn’t disturb her—she is 92 after all—and she said any time was fine, “but call first to make sure I’m dressed,” and laughed.

En route from my friend’s house where I was staying half an hour away, I drove my rental car through parts of Detroit that the city is sadly famous for—broken down and abandoned and depressing. I found a florist amid the boarded up storefronts and bought a colorful bouquet. I approached the Sherwood Forest area where Catherine Blackwell lived, a more upscale version of the nearby neighborhood where I grew up. The bars on doors and windows of the lovely brick homes and the many signs about alarms on the lawns reminded me that Detroit is a place of stark differences between the haves and the have-nots, but I was relieved to see that the neighborhood is still thriving.

I’d done my homework before I arrived. I knew that Mrs. Blackwell is in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, that a Detroit public high school is named after her, that her African art collection is renowned. I walked up the sidewalk through the well-manicured lawn, stepped up to the door, took a deep breath, and knocked.

Gwen, Mrs. Blackwell’s younger caregiver, welcomed me. She invited me in warmly and told me to just head upstairs to Mrs. Blackwell’s room and give her the flowers.

And there she was in her bedroom, a tiny woman with wild silver hair, dressed in blue print pajamas, propped up against pillows in bed and watching television. She was overjoyed to see me when I leaned over the bed, giving me a kiss. Gwen got a vase for the flowers, turned off the television, and set the flowers beside it.

I explained what I had said in my letter, that all these years later since I was her student in the 1960s, I was inspired by her commitment to multicultural education, to equality, and to joyfully celebrating diversity through art and music. She explained why she was able to give so much of herself: “I learned that from my parents. In my childhood, there was always love.”

I listened to her story. She began her career as a social worker like her mother had been. As she was talking, I recalled her YouTube interview (at 3:35) describing how her mother walked into her daughter’s school in the 1940s to permanently remove Little Black Sambo from the library.

Hearing there was a teacher shortage, Mrs. Blackwell got her credential at Wayne State University and began her career at Garfield Elementary. She then came to my school, Bagley Elementary, “which was mostly white but they needed teachers.” She was the first black teacher, later joined by Ennis Stafford who would eventually become the principal. “They called me the Auditorium teacher, but I called it Creative and Performing Arts.”

She gestured as she spoke unhurriedly, her gold bracelets jangling. She wore nine rings on six fingers—some belonged to her mother, one was a wedding ring without stones because she and her husband were too poor to afford them, one was the diamond ring her dentist husband gave her on their 25th anniversary when they could afford it, and one was from Africa.

Mrs. Blackwell explained her pioneering teaching philosophy in the 1960s, and how her greatest honor was having a Detroit school named after her. “You don’t do what you do thinking you’ll get some great honor. I brought African American and white children a better understanding of African American history, and shared that we were great like any other race. The kids had very little knowledge that we are as important as any race on the earth, and we too have contributed greatness. My whole purpose was to show them their culture and history.”

She laughed often, and told me how much she enjoyed visiting the school, Catherine C. Blackwell Institute. “It was absolutely just a joy to go to the school, and I was just hugging them all.”

I asked Mrs. Blackwell how she met Miriam Makeba, the celebrated South African civil rights activist and singer who became her lifelong friend, and the woman I had my photograph taken with at age 11 in 1968.

“Miriam was touring with Harry Belafonte, a big star. I went backstage to meet her. He was sort of snooty and assumed I was there to meet him. As I came down the hall, he asked: ‘Do you have permission to be here? Who are you?’ And I said: ‘If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.’ I told him I wanted to meet Miriam Makeba.

“And when we met, we were just like this…” She clasped her hands, bracelets jangling. “And I just loved that woman. She was beautiful in all ways. We had a wonderful friendship. When she’d come to Detroit, she stayed with us. I had a whole party for her and the whole neighborhood came by. At that time, African Americans had little sense of their roots.

“Miriam said we were the first African Americans to invite her into their home. She told me she had very few African Americans coming backstage. I said I couldn’t speak for them, but that she was my sister. I traveled to Africa with her several times.

“I first visited Africa in 1960. I still remember this lady, who was African American, and she said: ‘Africa? You haven’t even been to Europe yet.’ I said, ‘I’m dropping in there for a couple days on the way back.’”

She laughed again and continued. “People would say to me, ‘How did your husband let you go?’ What is it that makes people think he could ‘let’ me do anything? I told him I was going and he just asked when I was leaving.”

(Continued in Part 2)

My Search for Mrs. Blackwell: A Letter

Dear Staff at the Detroit African American History Project at Wayne State University:

Greetings. I found your website through a search to track down Catherine Blackwell, my teacher in elementary school many years ago. Thank you for posting your wonderful biography of her. It’s fitting that Detroit Public Schools has named a school after her.

As you know, Mrs. Blackwell–after all these years it is hard for me to call her anything else–was a pioneer in bringing multicultural education into public schools. She had a profound influence on me as a child at Bagley Elementary, bringing alive the art and music of Africa and inspiring so many young people, including me, during the black pride movement. Her commitment to celebrating diversity was universally captivating. I think I was one of the only white kids in the choir but I absolutely felt the contagious joy that came from performing songs like Lift Every Voice and Sing, described to us then as the black national anthem.

I want to let you know that I have a couple keepsakes from a particularly special event when I was Mrs. Blackwell’s student in 1968. She arranged for exiled South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba to come to Bagley. This was at the height of Makeba’s fame for her worldwide hit song Pata Pata. The school district arranged to take a photo that was published in the African American newspaper, the Detroit Chronicle (now the Michigan Chronicle), on January 6, 1968. I have both an original print of the photo and a clipping from the newspaper including the date of publication.

The photo features Mrs. Blackwell and Miriam Makeba smiling warmly at three fifth-graders working very hard to look comfortable for the camera but clearly nervous: my good friend Vicki, a boy named Paul whom I don’t recall, and me. In this image, Miriam Makeba is showing us a 45 single of her song.

Looking at this photo now, buried in a box at my mother’s house until recently, I recognize the major impact that Mrs. Blackwell had on my life. Through the powerful tool of celebrating what everyone contributes to the world, she inspired me to pursue what is my lifelong work for social justice. She brought music from Africa into my life, motivated me to sing, and nurtured the joy and curiosity of children from every background.

It has been nearly 44 years since the photo was published in the Detroit Chronicle. I have never thanked Mrs. Blackwell for opening my eyes to the cultural richness of the world and teaching me the importance of embracing diversity. I very much want to do so.

I sat at my keyboard and typed her name into Google, holding my breath fearing that what might come up was an obituary. Instead, I was delighted to find a 2009 YouTube video of her 90th birthday party. And I am relieved to see on your website that her year of death is listed as “n/a.”

I would like to thank Mrs. Blackwell for the incredible gift she gave to me and so many children. I would be very grateful if you could provide me with a way to write to her through you or another contact. And I would be happy to send you high-resolution digital copies of the photo and news clipping to add to your archives. It would be an honor to contribute to Mrs. Blackwell’s legacy.

With appreciation for all that you do,

UPDATE I found her!  Check out the rest of the story and photos.

Here is a link to the Biography of Catherine C. Blackwell on the website of Wayne State University’s Detroit African-American History Project:

Here’s Miriam Makeba singing Pata Pata in the 1960s. This was during the 30 years she was exiled from South Africa because of her civil rights activism, until she could return home with the end of apartheid. In 1966, she won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording