“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)