This Black History Month, I have been reflecting on my grandmother—Mrs. Mary Louise Tanner—who passed away about a year ago at the age of 101. She was an intelligent, industrious, and beautiful Black woman born in segregated Kentucky in 1921.
Although her opportunities for educational and professional mobility were circumscribed by discriminatory laws and practices, she embodied one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most enduring principles: “Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve.”
My grandmother worked long and unforgiving hours in jobs that yielded little glory. She clerked at a grocery store, served as a teacher’s aide at a school for children with special needs, and cared for more than 200 children during the 18 years she operated her own home daycare business. Long after those children had left her care, she still received cards and letters from their parents, thanking her for treating their children like members of her own family.
My grandmother also performed the tasks essential to community-building. She was an election judge, helped in the local schools and her church, volunteered with community crisis organizations, and became a licensed foster parent. From her porch, she also regularly provided meals and encouraging words to those experiencing homelessness.
Although my grandmother inhabited a place and time when women of color were often overlooked, she truly saw the people around her and made them feel valued, irrespective of their race, socioeconomic status, or background.
My grandmother played a defining role in my life since birth. Indeed, she often told me that when I was born, our eyes locked in the hospital room, and we remained bonded ever since.
When I was 9 or 10, I told my parents that I wanted to honor my grandmother by adding her name—Louise—as my second middle name. They agreed. From that point forward, my grandmother expressed great pride whenever she saw my name—with the middle name Louise—in a newspaper or program book, on a diploma, or affixed to an award. She recognized it as my special tribute to her.
Having come of age during the Jim Crow era, my grandmother often noted the opportunities now accessible to her children and grandchildren. And she delighted in participating in those opportunities with us.
She attended my high school plays and concerts, was in Atlantic City with me at the Miss America pageant, and attended the ceremony when I was sworn in as an Illinois attorney. My grandmother even appeared in one of my campaign commercials when I ran for office, as I explained how she taught me about justice, equality, and fairness.
Just prior to turning 90, my grandmother received a Living Legend award from the Champaign County Section of the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. This distinction honors unsung women over the age of 80 whose contributions have positively shaped the community. The Living Legend luncheon’s theme was “Silent Thunder,” recognizing the powerful impact of these unheralded heroes’ service.
After years of seeing my grandmother attend other people’s ceremonies, it was deeply gratifying to see a ceremony celebrating her.
The luncheon’s program book contained my grandmother’s words of wisdom: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
During this Black History Month, may we remember the unsung heroes, and may we honor them by truly seeing and serving those around us.
Erika Natali Louise Harold
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