Anita and Ben Wedding Photo

Wedding photo

I Married a Black Man

As a white college student in the 1960s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. In Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, which we wrote together and was published in 2009, he shared his experiences in the black community during the 1950s.       In his words: Slaves to Racism Book Cover

 

Meeting Mrs. Gilmore

The summer of 1951, when I was a student at Lincoln, I saw a car stranded by the road when I was riding my bike to visit a Negro pastor and his family in Independence, Missouri. I offered to help. After I changed the flat tire, the elderly white passenger in the front seat offered to pay me. I refused.

That evening, as I returned on the same road, two white teenage girls called out to me, “Grandma wants to see you! We’ve been taking turns waiting for you all day.” Behind the girls was a large iron gate with a sign that said, “Hawthorne Estate.” In the distance, I saw an impressive house behind a large manicured lawn with lots of flower beds.

The girls took me to the kitchen. There I saw the white elderly passenger in the car. This time, she was in a wheelchair. She said, “How would you like to work for me?”

“I can’t think of anything specific I could do for you.”

Yearbook Photo - Benjamin G. Dennis“That’s OK. I’ll teach you whatever you don’t know. Come and have supper with me.” She deftly moved around the kitchen in her wheelchair and prepared a nice meal. As we sat down to eat, she said, “Now, tell me about yourself.”

I told her I was from Liberia and had come to America from Queens College, Oxford University, where I had studied pre-law. And I was now at Lincoln University.

She said, “Oxford in England?  Our people originally came from Manchester. Folks here call us ‘Yankees.’ My grandfather built up this place. You’re a cultured young man. How do they treat you here?”

The Negro Dilemma

“Well, you know how they treat Negroes.”

“That’s a shame because we’re all God’s children.  I’d like you to work for me this summer. You can even stay with us.”  The first day I went out to mow the lawn. I had just gotten going, when one of the teenage granddaughters ran out and said, “Grandma wants to see you.”

“Just let me finish mowing first.”

“Grandma wants to see you now.”

A Problem at the Community Pool

When I went into the kitchen, Mrs. Gilmore said, “Let’s talk.” And that’s how the summer went. One afternoon, she told me, “It’s beastly hot. How about going swimming?  The girls’ll go with you.”  At the community pool, the girls jumped in. When I followed, everyone got out. The girls said, “Let’s go. We’re gonna tell Grandma.”

When we got back to the house, Mrs. Gilmore said, “You’re coming with me.”

One of the granddaughters drove us to President Truman’s home in Independence. After we arrived, Mrs. Gilmore wheeled herself up the sidewalk to the house. A security guard said, “Ma’am, you can’t go in there.”  She hit him with the cane she carried and told him, “Get outta my way!” She called out, “Bessie! Is Harry in?”

My Husband Meeting with President Truman                                  

Mrs. Truman came to the screen door and said, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Gilmore! Come right in.”

“Where’s Harry?  I want to see Harry.”

“Harry! Mrs. Gilmore’s here. I think something’s wrong.”

President Truman came and said, “Come on in, Mrs. Gilmore.”

“I’ll get right to the point. This young man here is very cultured. He’s from a very good family in Africa. He attended Queens College at Oxford University and it’s an honor for Lincoln to have him. I sent him to the pool and when he got in, everyone got out. If you don’t get everyone back in that pool, I’m going to close it and have it filled up.”

President Truman whispered something to the security guard. When we got back to the pool, Mrs. Gilmore watched from the car as we got in the water. At home, she asked me, “Did anyone ever get out of the pool?”

“No.”

“That’s my boy! That’s it!”

Integrating the Pool

From then on, my daily “work” was to go swimming.  One day I told Mrs. Gilmore’s daughter that I didn’t feel like swimming every day. She said, “I knew this was going to happen. That’s why I didn’t drive you to the Truman’s. You’ve hit her nerve. This is her campaign. She’s going to miss your swimming when you go back to school.”

On the days that Mrs. Gilmore came to observe, the pool was so crowded, I couldn’t even stretch out to swim. That fall, she gave me five thousand dollars for school fees and a trunkful of new clothes and shoes.

That year, President Truman visited the campus. As he saw me in line to shake his hand, he said, “Oh, yes. Mrs. Gilmore’s boy.”

Beyond Myself Book Cover by Author Anita Katherine DennisOur Love Story

When my husband died in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.