Three Black Heroines: Thoughts On Race Relations

Decency, courage, and determination describe three remarkable African-American women who have touched my life. While all three have now passed away, these women had a profound and lasting influence on my personal and professional development. Two of them are public, political figures; one of them lived a quiet life far from the public eye. Their experiences have grown in significance for me over time, especially as significant racial tensions have recently resurfaced in our society.

These women didn't mean to influence me, and when I knew them, it wasn't immediately apparent how deeply their experiences and their words would touch me. I hope that by sharing what they mean to me, their examples might contribute to more racial understanding and to lessening some of the tensions that have recently surfaced in our country.

I grew up in the 1950s on Maryland's rural Eastern Shore, in Salisbury. My parents for many years employed an African-American housekeeper, Dora Elzey. Dora was like a second mother to me - always there when I got home from school, always ready to make me the best tapioca pudding in the world, always open to discussing whatever was important in her world and mine. We talked about many things. Dora never finished high school; she had a keen, inquiring mind; and she was open to the world around her.

I must have been six or seven years old when I came home from school one afternoon and asked, "Dora, what's a nigger?"

I had heard occasionally the "n" word at school and suspected that it was not friendly. During this time, Salisbury had not experienced the racial unrest of nearby Cambridge, although I recall clearly segregated schools and movie houses. Race issues were entering my consciousness.

Without hesitating, Dora looked at me and said, "Charles, that's a word that some people use to say bad things about people like me because of the color of my skin. But you know something? There are white niggers in this world, too."

Dora said this to me without any animosity or resentment, and to this day, her straightforward, matter-of-fact answer to my question remains one of the most important, insightful, and moving comments I have ever heard. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would observe, the content of one's character, not the color of one's skin, is what matters most in life.

In the summer of 1969, shortly after my high school graduation, I spent a week in Washington, D.C., participating in one of those "little Johnnie goes to Washington" programs for teenagers who were launching their first presidential campaign. (To my knowledge, Bill Clinton remains the only example of success in this regard!)

I went to the White House for some South Lawn welcoming ceremony, took pictures of President Nixon, and rode an elevator next to Representative Bella Abzug, who was decked out in one of her signature umbrella-like hats. But the most memorable experience came during a meeting in the office of Representative Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress.

One of us asked Chisholm how she went about deciding how to vote as an elected Member of Congress. She explained that she did her very best to listen carefully to her constituents, weigh the pros and cons of each issue, but in the end, she ultimately voted what her conscience told her was right for the country. And then she added: if her constituents didn't like her decisions, they could always vote her out of office and send somebody else to Congress. Shirley Chisholm was unbent and unbought, and to this day, she remains a model of how elected officials should approach their responsibilities - and how we need to repair our campaign finance system.

Some 20 years later, I found myself back at the White House, this time working for a Republican president and occupying a coveted second-floor West Wing office. George H. W. Bush had pledged in 1988 to be an "education president" if elected and said he also supported school choice. Some of us who worked for him, however, thought that his support for choice might perhaps be a bit wobbly. So, to help cement the president's support, I hatched the idea of arranging an Oval Office meeting between the president and a leading school-choice advocate, Annette "Polly" Williams.

Polly Williams was a Jessie Jackson Democrat who served in the Wisconsin State Assembly where she represented Milwaukee and became an ardent supporter of public school choice -- much to the surprise and dismay of many Democrats. She formed a close and effective Left-Right collaboration with Wisconsin's then Republican Governor, Tommy Thompson. Together, they succeeded in getting school-choice legislation enacted in Wisconsin, although in later years, she abandoned the choice movement, as she felt it had focused too much on private schools and too little on public schools.

My goal was to invite Representative Williams to the White House to meet with President Bush. She came to the White House, and the picture of her with President Bush in the Oval Office was shown in a subsequent "60 Minutes" profile of her.

On the morning of the Oval Office meeting, she and I had breakfast together in the small White House Mess. Other than the steward, we were alone. Polly was thrilled about her first visit to the White House and asked the steward to take our picture together, after which she said, "Charlie, you know, I never thought I'd find myself having breakfast in the White House with a white guy like you!"

After I stopped laughing, I asked her to explain how she became a national school-choice advocate. Her answer was moving. She'd raised two daughters as a single parent who was occasionally on welfare. As a parent, she took great interest in the Milwaukee public schools to which her children were assigned. They were lousy schools in her judgment. She tried to have her children reassigned to different schools but was told by the district superintendent's office that she could not. She was furious at the fact that her children were stuck attending dysfunctional, low-performing schools. Her frustration was evident when she told me, "You know. I may have been born poor, but I wasn't born dumb!"

As I consider the racial tension, lack of trust, incivility, and the tragedies of the last few years when it comes to race relations in many American communities, I ask what these three remarkable African-American women might think and what they might say to us today. While their experiences were manifestly different, they were each wise in so many ways and approached this complex world with honesty, openness, trust, humor, passion, and love. We have much to learn from their examples.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation - United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.