Although I was born in Tangipahoa, Louisiana, my memories of the open racism of the segregated South are vague. My mother was very light, but her mother was extremely dark. We used to wonder why our mother was so fair, and her hair was so pretty, and she looked so different from her own family. Well, as we found out much later, her daddy was white. This was Louisiana in the early 1900s, and my grandmother was a domestic worker. She was married, but that didn’t matter to her abusive employer. He never did admit my mother or her sister. My mother could have sued her biological father and gotten some of his money, but she didn’t want anything to do with that man. She just wanted to get away from the whole situation.
We moved to Muncie when I was 12. My mother worked at Green Hills Country Club, where she met Joel and Inez Reese, both of whom cooked in the dining room there. In addition to that job, Reverend Reese pastored the Kirby Avenue Church of God. Their adopted son, Vernon, was about my age, and even though we were just kids, Reverend Reese trusted us to lead the youth, a role we continued throughout high school. We made some mistakes—bossiness, tattling—but we learned valuable lessons about leadership, discipline, and flexibility. When Cornelius and I married, he joined me in leadership, and we are still working with the kids of Kirby Avenue Church of God all these years later. As a timid young girl with no confidence, working with children helped me to see a little of God’s plan, a plan that unfolded gradually.
Around 1956, I started doing domestic work after school and weekends for a wealthy white family who lived near Ball State campus. Despite the racial stereotypes associated with domestic work, that job showed me a future I never could have imagined. I learned to cook a broad array of dishes, to set a formal dinner table, to make small talk with strangers. My vocabulary and my world grew larger from reading their travel magazines, studying the family’s fine art pieces, and reading their seemingly endless supply of books. Observing from behind the scenes, I saw what education can do, and I wanted to be a part of that world. With God’s help and Cornelius’ support, I completed a teaching degree in 1964.
It wasn’t easy for a black teacher to find work in Muncie Community Schools at this time.
Most African-American students were served by either Longfellow or Garfield, and these were the only Muncie schools with African-American teachers. I was given a first grade class at Longfellow that year, along with three other brand new teachers. I loved working with those women. We shared our lives and our passion for teaching, collaborating in innovative ways to give our students a solid educational foundation. Many of those first graders went on to complete college.
In December 1965, my son Larry was born. When I returned to teaching two years later, Dr. Sam Abram was a rising star in Muncie Community Schools and the only African-American administrator. Although both Longfellow and Garfield had openings, he strongly encouraged me to request placement in a school serving white students. Three weeks into the school year, I was finally hired at Morrison-Mock. You could say the Dollison family integrated Morrison-Mock – I was their first African-American teacher, and my children were the first black students to enroll in regular education classes.
When my children faced racism, and they did, I would talk to their teachers. I didn’t want special treatment, but I wanted what was right. Each situation was different, and I approached each one as a separate incident rather than as a pattern. At Morrison-Mock, especially in the early years, I sometimes surprised parents: “I didn’t know you were black!” they’d tell me. But children don’t see race as adults do. It’s our responsibility to demonstrate love and hope and opportunity to ALL children. My great-granddaughter recently asked her mother, “Why are you black, MeeMee’s white, and I’m brown?” She’s seeing colors, not race.
In my family, we knew about hard work. We knew you needed to have a garden. We knew you needed to save money. These are good traits to have, but they are not enough. Children need nurturing and encouraging and empowering. Black people understand hard knocks, and sometimes the obstacles we face can make us hard people. If we look at individuals, and treat others as we want to be treated, we can fight racism with love. As my grandmother always told us—I can hear her in my head right now—”You reap what you sow.”
Throughout my teaching career, I made a practice of inviting my students to share a meal with my family, a few at a time until everyone in class had a chance to participate each year. As we worked together to prepare the meal and clean up after, we learned about one another, getting to know each other outside of the classroom. The time together offered many teachable moments. We talked about hygiene—handwashing, proper dishwashing. We discussed nutrition: What makes a healthy meal? The children learned new words, such as “condiments.” I got to know parents, too, since they had to pick up their children. These individual relationships helped us to trust one another, regardless of race. If we look at the person first and the skin color second, racism doesn’t stand a chance.
I’m not a stranger to the ways race can be used against us. But I believe in fighting with love, starting with the children.
This story originally appeared in Facing Racism in Muncie, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by R.A.C.E. Muncie in Muncie, Indiana.