Updated: Sep 24, 2022
I learn so much from my patients every day. Not just in the medical knowledge sense, ie. the multitude of ways that people can present with the same illnesses or the hundreds of ways they respond to the same medical treatments. But I learn about the strength and resilience of the human spirit from listening to their stories, their trials, and tribulations, their personal and social struggles.
Among the most interesting stories are the African American elders whose stories reflect the whole arc of American history in the past century, from the ending of slavery after the Civil War to today when that emancipation date is finally recognized as a national holiday. This story is from one of the many of these elders who taught me about a lesser-known side of American history.
Ruth M. is 85 years old now, she survived the Covid pandemic. I've been seeing her for almost 20 years. She normally comes in for a complete check-up in March or April before leaving on her annual RV tour around the United States, but of course not this year or last year. Ever since she retired at the age of 65 years old, she would drive her 20-foot-long RV, towing a small car, around the US from May to November; at first with her husband, then when he passed away, all by herself.
Every year, she would come in, and assigned me the task of making sure she'd be healthy enough to undertake this 5-month journey. We both understood that she may need to deal with accidents and breakdowns in the middle of a desert or on a snowy overpass. Even in her 80's, she would always reassure me that she could change an RV tire if needed, but that it shouldn't be necessary due to her memberships in the Automobile Association of America and Good Sam RV Club.
What was remarkable was that not only was Ruth doing this all by herself year after year for decades but that she was an African American woman. I did not realize the enormity of this challenge until we started on our own travel quest to reach all 50 states in America.
As an Asian American family, we rarely encountered acts of overt racism in our travels pre-Covid. A few yells of "Go back to your country", some unfriendly glares, and an occasional untrue "We don't have any tables available". Even with my husband and children along for the ride, I felt unsafe a few times when we traveled through the backwoods of Mississippi where we saw signs of "Home of the Coon hunters" (Coon was an old term for escaped slaves and a current derogatory term for black people), in the deep plantation and swamps of Louisiana where Confederate flags fly, and on the mountains of Arkansas where death threats against then-president Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton were posted on big billboards on the road along with the Confederate flag.
I finally told Ruth one year how I admire her courage to be traveling through the US as a single black elderly woman. She replied, "Oh, honey, I don't go below the Mason-Dixon line. Every black person knows that if you travel through the south alone, you can just disappear without a trace".
And she told me her story.
Ruth did not grow up with this knowledge, of how black people had to travel with protection, in groups, preferably driving at night and staying at Green-Book-listed accommodations in the daytime. Yes, the Negro Traveler's Green Book was a real guide for African American travelers, not just a movie. She was born in Montana where her dark skin was a curiosity but not a sign of an oppressed race.
Her father and uncle were born in Mississippi in the early 1900s. They were 9 and 11-year-old boys, walking home one day when they saw a young black man tied to a tree. The young man said he was caught by a white mob for some made-up infraction and will probably be hanged later that day. The 2 boys cut the man's ties and ran home to tell their mother. She packed up their belongings and put them on a ride out of town that very day to save their lives. They were passed from home to home, church to church in the underground foster system until they ended up in Montana, raised by a white couple who needed ranch hands. There were few friendly cities in the United States during and after the Red Summer of 1919, when blacks were being attacked by white mobs in cities across the US. The 2 boys grew up and became hunting and fishing guides in Montana.
Ruth was born, grew up, and went to school in Montana. She married a black soldier stationed out of Glasgow Airforce Base and did not think much about racism until he was reassigned and they moved to Florida in the 1960s, where segregation hit her in the face.
Everywhere she went, she had to look for the "colored" sign if any service was even offered for the colored. She had her first child in the basement of a church because the local hospital and the military base didn't have a maternity ward for "colored" people. She had 2 more children in various states in America wherever her husband was stationed or when he went off to the Vietnam War, and she learned the importance of that Mason-Dixon line.
When the children grew up and left home, she went back to work doing clerical work around the bases until her husband retired. They settled in Los Angeles way after the Watts riot of 1965 but before the Rodney King riot of 1992. She used to comment that things were getting better but in very small increments and in some ways not at all.
I wonder what Ruth thinks of Juneteenth becoming a national holiday.