FEATURE — Spring 2009

(Photo: Joe Angeles)

Following Ancestral Footsteps

In her new memoir, At the Elbows of My Elders, alumna Gail Milissa Grant shares stories of her ancestors’ determination, grace, and perseverance during the time of “the great unknowing.”

by Candace O’Connor

Before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, any black person stepping out the door was facing uncertainty, taking a chance. St. Louis, like other cities, had its barriers and bigots. In her new memoir, At the Elbows of My Elders (Missouri History Museum, 2008), Gail Milissa Grant, A.B. ’72, describes the courage of her older family members as they grappled with segregation and prejudice, surmounting the daily challenges of what she calls “the great unknowing.”

“You always had to think about which places you could go,” she said on a visit to St. Louis from her home in Rome, Italy. “Which restaurants would serve you? Which theaters would let you in? You didn’t know when someone might call you ‘nigger’; when a waitress might say, ‘We don’t serve colored. Get out.’”

Alumna Gail Milissa Grant returned home to St. Louis this past fall for the release of her memoir, At the Elbows of My Elders (Missouri History Museum, 2008). During her stay, she visited the Danforth Campus (at top) and attended a book-signing at the Missouri History Museum. (Photo: Whitney Curtis)

Grant left St. Louis at age 23 and spent 22 years as a foreign service officer with the U.S. Information Agency, stationed in Norway, France, and Brazil. For a time, she also taught art and architectural history at Howard University. But she always hoped to pay tribute to her family’s courage. Reflecting on their story has helped her “put everything in its proper place,” she says—both good experiences and bad. “Writing this book further closes that chapter.”

Through the generations, her family learned to navigate an unjust system, finding ways to earn a solid, middle-class living. The parents of her mother, Mildred Hughes Grant, founded and operated a funeral home; the parents of her father, David Marshall Grant, taught themselves chiropody, trimming the corns and bunions of the white St. Louis elite.

Both families cared deeply about education, expecting their children to attend college: Mildred Grant at Northwestern University, David Grant at the University of Michigan and Howard University School of Law. Still, getting that education wasn’t easy. As a child, David Grant had a long streetcar ride to all-black Wheatley Elementary School; as a teenager, he took two streetcars to Sumner High School, the only black secondary school in St. Louis. Each day, he watched white students enter Central High School, only blocks from his home.

As a young attorney, he became a strong advocate of civil rights and economic justice. In 1931, he organized a successful picketing effort at a new Woolworth’s store, located in a black neighborhood, that did not employ a single black clerk. Then he turned his attention to the poorly equipped and shockingly overcrowded City Hospital No. 2, where black patients were treated. In 1930, an intern had been electrocuted while using X-ray equipment with exposed wires.

Her new memoir, At the Elbows of My Elders, is a celebration of Grant’s ancestors, including her father, a renowned civil rights attorney, and her mother, who instilled in her children a love of travel. (Photo: Missouri History Museum)

Grant, an ardent Democrat, attended ward meetings throughout the black community, showing graphic slides of the conditions. He noted that black voters had supported a 1923 bond issue, intended to fund a new hospital but that instead had helped to build a monkey clinic at the zoo. With this campaign, he galvanized the largely Republican black electorate, and they switched sides in the next mayoral race, electing Bernard Dickmann—who promptly began construction of Homer G. Phillips Hospital.

Active in the NAACP, Grant lost his job as the city’s assistant circuit attorney when he traveled to Jefferson City in 1942 with other NAACP members to protest the lynching of a black man in Sikeston, Missouri. Later, while in private practice, he worked with NAACP special counsel Thurgood Marshall on a suit that won pay parity for some black teachers from Festus. Grant was elected president of the St. Louis branch of the NAACP in 1944.

Among his many cases, Grant was perhaps proudest of one that he and two other NAACP lawyers filed against Washington University in 1945. The University had refused admission to four black students who tried to enroll in summer school, and the NAACP team responded by targeting University finances, contesting its tax-exempt status on real estate holdings—including the Cupples Warehouses—in St. Louis.

Gail Milissa Grant’s parents, Mildred Hughes and David Marshall Grant, married in 1944. (Courtesy Photo)

“By 1945, Washington University was saving nearly $500 a day by not paying taxes on $6 million worth of off-campus property,” writes Gail M. Grant. “‘Let them PAY for racist policy,’ my father said. They lost the suit on the first go-round, and it lay idle for seven years while they prepared to take it all the way to the Supreme Court.” After the University began to desegregate in 1947, completing the process in 1952, the NAACP dropped the matter.

By the late 1950s and 1960s, David Grant’s intense activism was behind him, but he remained a successful lawyer and mentor. Two of those he helped are quoted on the book cover: attorney Margaret Bush Wilson, who calls him a “brilliant, courageous” man; and the Hon. James W. Symington, former congressman from Missouri, who sought guidance from Grant in drafting a city ordinance that would ban discrimination in public places.

The family portrait of David, Mildred, the younger David, and Gail Milissa was taken in 1952. (Courtesy Photo)

Gail Grant and her brother, David, were raised in a heady atmosphere of political debate, with dinner-table discussions of President Dwight Eisenhower, whom her father despised, and President Lyndon Johnson, whose domestic policy he admired. In their home at 3309 Arsenal, within a largely white neighborhood, they entertained such greats as Leontyne Price, Ralph Bunche, and Cab Calloway, Gail Grant’s godfather.

Yet the children faced racial challenges, too. In their Catholic elementary school, Gail and David were the first Protestants and nonwhites. When he was insulted, David responded physically and verbally; Gail felt hurt and miserable. “Taller than all of the girls in my class … and with skin the color of a brown paper bag, fitting in quickly turned into an impossible goal,” she writes.

Throughout these years, their parents made fine role models, she says today. “My mother, nicknamed ‘Bubbles,’ had an effervescent personality and was very open to the world. She loved to travel, and that is where I got the travel bug. My father was a visionary, ahead of his time.”

Yet in many ways, her parents—really, all her forebears—are still with her and forever will be. “I feel very, very bolstered by my parents and by their example,” she says with gratitude.

It was a triumph for the elder Grant to see his daughter attend the once-segregated Washington University. When she participated in 1960s-era civil rights protests on campus, he worried about her safety but ably represented her group at an official hearing. “I could feel he was thrilled to be back in the fray,” she wrote, “giving counsel to civil rights activists two generations removed from him.”

He did not live to read her new book; he died in 1985, Mildred Grant in 2007. Gail Grant is now a speaker and writer, married to Italian set designer and artist Gaetano Castelli. Yet in many ways, her parents—really, all her forebears—are still with her and forever will be. “I feel very, very bolstered by my parents and by their example,” she says with gratitude.

Candace O’Connor is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.