I Married a Black Man in the 1960’s
As a white journalism student in the 1960’s, I married my black anthropology professor. After 35 years of marriage, we wrote Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia together about the effect of racism in his home country of Liberia, West Africa, comparing it with the effect in America (including race in Florida). Ben had come to America in 1950 on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. He marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was in a panel discussion with Malcolm X at Michigan State University.
Retirement in Florida in the 1990’s
After his career teaching anthropology and sociology at Ohio University and the University of Michigan-Flint, we had been married 24 years and raised three boys when he retired to Florida in 1992.
Race in Florida, in its blunt and subtle forms, was more discouraging after all those years since the civil rights movement. Things have changed, but how much? Below is an excerpt from our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.
In my words:
When we moved to Ft. Myers, it was designated by the University of Michigan as the eleventh-most-segregated city in America. The few African-Americans who lived outside the
segregated black neighborhood of Dunbar were local professionals or retirees from up north. Dunbar residents had poor schools and little economic opportunity. Drugs, prostitution, and drive-by shootings were common.
One day, two young black men at Gold’s Gym told Ben, “Pop, you look okay. If I look as good as you at your age, I’ll be thankful to God. The way things are goin’ in Dunbar, I don’t think I’ll see thirty.”
The Black Exception to the Rule
Ben was never respected unless people heard his strong accent, which made him an exception—a foreigner. Even then, in every social situation, he had to identify and distinguish himself as someone who didn’t fit the usual expectation of a black man. I suppose it was why he proudly wore his University of Michigan and MSU shirts, as well as his ball caps from schools he or our boys attended.
At one of Ben’s doctor appointments, he happened to stand behind me at the receptionist window. The woman looked at me and said sweetly, “May I help you?”
After I stated my case, she looked at Ben and said curtly, “What do you want?”
She said nothing when I explained, “We’re together”; she simply looked down at her work.
Whites were Skeptical of his Credentials
At Gold’s gym in Ft. Myers, I was recently standing in the hall near three white retirees who were talking with each other. Chris, the young white manager of the gym, walked by and said, “Good morning, Dr. Dennis!”
At this point, a young white girl who worked there walked by and said, “Don’t you know? This man is a retired college professor. He has so many degrees I can’t even count ‘em.”
The man said to me, “Where’d ya get all those degrees? In Africa?”
“No, I got them in the United States from a number of universities.”
“Black people here can’t even do this and you did it? I had a hard time finishin’ high school. Most black people can’t even graduate. And you got all those degrees? That’s mind-boggling.” They continued staring as I left.
Race in the Church
We attended our Lutheran church for a while when the parochial school instituted Grandparents Day, one year opening the event to any grandparent who volunteered to adopt a school child for the special occasion. For the first two years, Ben served as an honorary grandfather for two white girls we knew. The third year, he was matched with two other white girls in the third grade.
He called me at home and said, “You’ll have to come and pick me up. I’ll be out front.”
When he got in the car, he told me, “The first girl was receptive, but the second refused to walk with me and the other girl into the gym. The youth director spoke with her and told me, ‘I’m sorry, Ben. I’ll have to put those girls with someone else.’”
Several days later, we received a letter of apology from the girl’s mother, saying her daughter hadn’t been raised that way. Ben wrote the mother a note inviting them to visit us, but we never received a response.
Integration in the Church?
Several years ago, in Ft. Myers, my white pastor took me as his token black to a community forum of black and white pastors. The purpose was to discuss race issues outside of the realm of their own congregations. During the course of the discussion, I told the group, “We’re not addressing the real problem. The best thing you white pastors can do is to preach against racism in your own congregations.”
There was dead silence. Finally, one white pastor said, “If I did that, they’d crucify me. I’d end up being both the preacher and the congregation.”
Forever the Odd Couple
In public, people never assumed we were a married couple. White retirees stared with frowns on their faces when they saw us walking the beach, holding hands. We were a novelty to those who didn’t know us. Once, when we were sitting together with a short Haitian woman, people thought she was Ben’s wife. At the Montessori school, several times people assumed I was the mother of my white daughter-in-law.
In 2001, at a wedding reception at our church, Ben was standing in line at the buffet table while I was farther back visiting with a friend. He struck up a conversation, while waiting in line, with the white woman ahead of him—a family counselor from Marco Island. He mentioned that he and I were writing a book together, and she asked where I was.
He pointed to me and said, “She’s back there in line talking.”
The woman said, “I don’t see your wife anywhere.”
Ben pointed at me again and said, “She’s right there.”
She said, “I can’t see her.”
Finally he called me up to meet the woman. The first thing she said was, “You’re a brave woman.”