Wednesday, February 24, 2010

#BookReview: At the Elbows of My Elders: One Family's Journey Toward Civil Rights - Gail M. Grant

I suspect that this memoir held my attention only because it was written about St. Louis, a city that was segregated during the time period covered in this book, and still is to this day. At the Elbows of My Elders is the author's tribute to her parents, in particular her father, David Grant.

A prominent attorney and civil rights activist in segregated St. Louis, David Grant seems to have had a hand in tearing down several walls of institutional racism. Without intending to, he made his family one of the first to integrated the south side of the city. For those not familiar with St. Louis, whites tend to live on the south side and blacks on the north side. While this is a current condition, I was surprised to find that it existed as far back as the 1930s. Also surprising is the fact that white flight began as early as the '30s with white families fleeing for south county to avoid the handful of black families that moved into south city. The knowledge that the city is divided is often played up by the local media who reports any crime as occurring on the north side, even if it's midtown or downtown. In the minds of most St. Louisans, "the north side" is nothing more than code for black.

In a heavily Republican St. Louis, David Grant became one of the first to recognize that the black vote was being taken for granted by the party, without getting little in return. He was instrumental in persuading black voters to switch to the Democratic party. For this, blacks were rewarded with a new "colored" hospital, which would prove to be the third largest teaching hospital for black doctors and nurses.

Working as part of the original March on Washington (MOW) in 1941 with A. Phillip Randolph, their group was responsible for President Roosevelt's Executive Order No. 8802, also known as the Fair Employment Act, which integrated defense plants. By signing the order, the president avoided the embarrassing march planned for July 1, but he could not avoid the national movement that grew out of it. MOW units were formed throughout the United States and the St. Louis unit, headed up by David Grant, organized protests against several plants within the St. Louis area, forcing integration.

Though the author touches on her family's connection to several entertainers of the time such as Lena Horne, Leontyne Price, Cab Calloway, etc., I was most impressed with her father's mentoring of young attorneys. Those attorneys included Billy Jones, a young East St. Louis attorney who would go on to try and win the case for integration in the public schools and later become a judge. His mentees also included Frankie Freeman, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and Margaret Bush Wilson, the first woman of color to chair the national board of directors of the NAACP.

What did you like about the book?
I love learning new things about places or topics that I think I'm already well versed on. The author touches on quite a few events that occurred of which I was unaware.

What did you dislike about the book?
The book moved slowly at times.

How can the author improve this book?
I would have liked to hear just a little bit more about her mother. The author touches on both of her maternal and paternal grandparents, but seems to gloss over her mother.

272 pp
Published September 2008

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