Race Relations

Katie holding Tom

Sometimes you get rapped on the knuckles by an ageing matriarch; it is possible you deserved it.

That is Kathryn “Katie” Blackwell, holding my brother Tom. The photo was made some time in 1969 or ’70 when he was still a newbie; my mom handed it to me a couple months ago when I saw her on my Way Down South visit. Tom looks miserable, but he mainly was miserable as a very young kid: he was what people used to call a “colicky” baby. Nothing sat well with him; ergo, that face. Then as a toddler he had to wear corrective shoes in an era when doctors thought they could somehow create a high instep where there was none. And he hated school. (Not to worry, he turned out just fine.)

That picture was made in the East Tennessee home of well-off extended family members; my guess is we were visiting from Memphis for the holidays, or maybe for a wedding, not sure. I was only seven.

Katie was employed by members of my extended family as a cook, but I am sure she did housework, too. And clearly she stepped in to help with babies when help was needed; I am pretty sure she changed all our diapers at some point or other. In those days she’d have been called a “domestic,” probably. And as I imagine was true of so many others of her ilk, she held close ties to the members of my family, who loved her deeply, employed her for decades, and continued to look in on her long after her retirement.

The house itself was spectacular, but it was Katie who ruled the roost there, and I don’t think anybody in my family would dispute that. My memories center around her cooking, mainly, but also her affections, where food equates with love. After a day-long haul from Memphis to Knoxville, Katie was usually the first to greet us, a massive tray of her chocolate chip cookies somewhere nearby. (I still have a shiny aluminum tray I feel sure was one of hers.)

Ironically Katie herself was malnourished as a child and suffered the effects of scurvy all her life, most notably in her severely bowed legs, and probably also her short stature, although the bowing in her legs would certainly have been a contributor. She moved in a distinct waddle, throwing her weight from side to side, propelling herself forward in a way that appeared to me painstakingly difficult and just downright painful. It never seemed to slow her down one jot.

Her greeting to me was the same, always, with her arms thrown wide open: “Welllllll, now, come on over here and give your black granny a hug!” She squeezed the life blood out of me, leaving a small trace on my cheek of the grease she wore to slick back her hair. Her gnarled, arthritic joints and calloused hands still moved deftly, peeling potatoes, washing out big stock pots, and—incredibly—pulling hot pans out of the oven without a mitt. Sometimes she allowed me underfoot in the kitchen while she worked, but when things were busy shooed me out of the way to go play outside.

In moments of relative calm—when things were not bustling, the oven was going, the dishwasher running—Katie sat quietly at the kitchen table reading the Bible. Things were the same at the smaller house down the hill, occupied by still more extended family, for whom Katie worked in the same capacity.

Later in the evening when we all sat down to dinner in the capacious formal dining room it would be Katie’s incredible rolls passed around the table, her fried okra, her vinegar-marinated sliced cucumbers, and her sweet, sweet iced tea poured in every glass. And I knew those chocolate chip cookies were waiting; if we were not staying at the big house, we’d be at the cottage next door, where my great-grandmother lived, and Katie would have made sure another tray of cookies ended up in the kitchen there, too.

For all the years my distant family occupied that enormous house Katie continued to work there. Even when they sold it and moved to a neighboring town, I still saw her on summer vacations, as my great grandmother lived most of her last years in the little cottage next door and Katie continued working at the house down the hill. Her enthusiasm to see me, and my brother, never ever waned. It was always the same effusive welcome, the tight hug, the same greasy smear on our faces.

And then one day during the summer between tenth and eleventh grades everything changed.

You can’t have attended public school in Memphis in the 1960s and ’70s and avoided the complexities of racial integration. I remember my seventh grade year as the year of epiphanies, eye-openers as it were, not all of them good. For me it was just one year, characterized by hallway and gymnasium violence, and notably, a really poor academic experience. It was the year I learned the “f” word, and although I had certainly heard the “n” word by then, I had never heard it thrown around so liberally by kids of all persuasions. All of it felt awful to me, none of it enriching.

For the next couple of years I attended an all-girl pressure cooker prep school. But for tenth grade we—my parents and I—decided to give the Memphis City Schools another go. A high school for the performing arts had a promising sounding curriculum. It was by no means a sterling academic year, and as for the arts program (I was there not for dance, but for music), it was average at best. But it was at least a socially enriching experience; by May I had many, many new friends—black and white—all of us united by our common interest in the performing arts.

Later that summer in Knoxville I found Katie sitting by a windowsill in the kitchen of the East Tennessee house at the bottom of the hill, reading her Bible. As always, she was thrilled to see me. I sat down to talk to her. She asked me about school, about ballet, about what I had been up to. I told her about my year, about studying classical guitar and playing in a string ensemble, about getting ready for ballet school in Illinois, where I studied in the summer.

Then I told her all about my new friends. My new black friends.

I could sense her body stiffen, and noted a change in her demeanor. Setting her jaw she looked me squarely in the eye. In a throaty voice I had never heard before, she said, “You listen to me. You leave those black children alone. It is wrong for you to have them as your friends. You stick to your white friends. You hear me?”

I was confused and speechless. I had heard adults use racist language around Katie during my childhood, did not understand much of it until I had a chance to mature, but knew it was wrong; I tried not participate. But this? I could not get my head around it. I had come to this matriarch seeking approval and instead was rebuked.

Katie’s message was lost on me, and I did not see her for many, many years after that. But when I had a chance for further reflection, I realized her strongly-held opinion was nothing if not earnest, and it was probably best to just shut up and listen. And it is possible my motives were less than pure: maybe I expected to be handed a gold star by this woman whose wisdom far surpassed my own, and she was having none of it.

Decades later I assumed Katie surely must have passed away. And then one night near the end of my marriage, my now-ex-husband came home very late and woke me up to tell me not only was Katie still living, but she was 104 and would soon be celebrated at a nearby restaurant, a place where she had a past unbeknownst to me, in an event with full press coverage.

Of course I had to go.

At 104 Katie was beyond infirm: completely blind, hard of hearing, a double amputee. I spoke at length with her son and his wife. They explained to me how Katie had lost one and then the other leg, but she continued to stay positive in spite of it all. Could she carry on a conversation, I wondered? On again, off again, they said. They encouraged me to try.

I got down low where I was close to Katie’s face and held her hands, and with the help of her daughter-in-law, told her who I was. There was no recognition. At first. But then, I sensed an awakening in her, and heard that familiar voice in my ear, a little diminished, but unmistakable. She was back, there was recognition, and now it was I to gather her in an embrace. Her daughter-in-law beamed that I got her on a “good” day.

It was the last time I would see her. But before Katie’s death a couple of years ago, my mom went to her home for a much longer visit. They talked about a lot of things, including Katie’s prized recipes; she dictated a few of them to mom while she was there.

It was only after my last visit with Katie that I learned some other things about her: that her mother was a full-blooded Cherokee, that her given name was Vashti (it was Katie who later changed it to “Kathryn”), that she was born the second of ten children in a family who formed its own baseball team, that as a very young woman she learned to cook at Knoxville’s Highland Grill (long out of business but recently reopened as The Grill at Highlands Row), and that she supplemented her income taking in laundry and ironing for pennies. And not surprisingly, that she was known in her own community for giving selflessly to those in need.

Katie was named a “Tennessee Treasure” before her death on a website that celebrates centenarians. I can think of no better moniker than “treasure” for this incredible human being, a woman who took her convictions with her to the grave, leaving me and others to reflect on them; I hope she is somewhere smiling.

Katie Blackwell