Sara Mitchell Parsons: 1912-2011

Sara Mitchell Parsons in her Atlanta apartment, March 2011.

My beloved grandmother, Sara Mitchell Parsons, died this month at age 99.   She was remarkable in so many ways – a courageous, tenacious civil rights hero and education advocate as well as a wonderful wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. She was an inspiration to me and many others.  She also was a cherished friend and confidant.  I will miss her enormously.  I was at her bedside during her last hours of consciousness, and I spoke this week at two memorial services in her honor.

Here is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper report on her life.

Here is my memorial service tribute to my grandmother:

Grandmama Sara was the only person ever… to love… dancing with me.  Every other woman in my life knows the real me… a train wreck of a dancer, which explains why no girlfriend, wife, daughter, or mother of mine would dance with me more than once.  But Grandmama was different. She was my first and last repeat dance partner. Our first dance was one of my first and fondest memories. I was three years old.

My grandmother's memoir, published in 2000.

This past Monday, just before Grandmama slipped out of consciousness for the last time, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit with her.  When Tom and I walked into her hospital room, she lit up. Until the very end, it was clear she adored Tom every day of their 45 years together.  Tom, Sarah Yates, and I spent long, difficult hours with Grandmama last Monday, but there were happy, wonderful, loving moments, too.  We held hands with Grandmama. Her grip was strong, and she caressed the back of my hand with her thumb.  With me that day, she spoke fondly of how she and I danced so many times together while watching the TV show “Lawrence Welk”… all in my single-­digit years of life.  Among her final words… she spoke of how she treasured the memories of our family vacations on Jekyll Island in the 1960s.

In 1968, after Grandmama married Tom, they moved to California.  Tom, Pam, and Tim’s gain in California was a loss for Grandmama’s Georgia-based family and friends, who missed her presence here enormously.  When I was 11 years old, my Mama shipped me off to California for a year to live with Grandmama… what turned out to be a glorious year during which I bonded further with Grandmama, while Tom, Pam, and Tim became a second family to me.  In the 1980s, when Grandmama moved back to Atlanta, all of us here in Georgia were overjoyed… Grandmama was home.

My 50th birthday wish: to have lunch with my grandmother. Wish granted. October 16, 2010.

Because she had a burning desire to spend as much time as possible with her family, especially her grandkids and great-­grandkids, she devised a brilliant scheme that would draw us to her like a high intensity magnet: Her Atlanta home would have a backyard swimming pool.  With that swimming pool, she went from being the world’s most impressive Grandmama… to also being the coolest, most fun, and most popular one.  Our extended family spent countless days in that swimming pool, including many a July 4th holiday.  My children, Zoe and Dylan, learned to swim in that pool… and they went on to become phenomenal swim team competitors.

My kids adored their Great-­Grandmama, as we all did.

This past Monday in the hospital, Grandmama knew the end was near. She said to Tom and me: “Tell everyone I had a good life, and I love them.”

For so many of us, she was one of the greatest blessings in our life.  Until this week, I could never imagine life without my Grandmama. She was with us for so long, many of us convinced ourselves she would be with us forever. Now I know she will be.  Grandmama, we will always love you, and you will always be part of us.

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  • James Burr Gregg

    What a beautifully written and meaningful tribute to an incredible woman of strength and just purpose.
    I never met your grandma, Eason, but am grateful for knowing you, David and Perry during that brief time back in the early 80′s, when I was at KKB. I even went for a dip in that pool, I believe. Black Fox Rd was it?
    I am truly sorry for your loss.
    Regards,
    -JB Gregg (Richmond, VA)

  • Anonymous

    JB,

    Thanks for much for your thoughtfulness and kind words. Yes, it was Black Fox Drive.

    Eason

  • Jim Reed

    Here is a review I wrote about Sara’s book way back when. Hope you enjoy it:

    CATHEDRAL OF WHITE WOMEN

    I’m standing in the Great Hall of one of Birmingham’s largest cathedrals, chatting amicably with two nicely-dressed white women in their late 70′s–women who are pillars of their church, patrons of their community. I can’t help wondering how it is possible that these two genteel ladies turned out to be so very, very different from their contemporary, Sara Mitchell Parsons, author of FROM SOUTHERN WRONGS TO CIVIL RIGHTS: THE MEMOIR OF A WHITE CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST (University of Alabama Press $24.95 ISBN 0-8173-1026-6).

    All three women are what is nowadays termed Privileged White Class people. They’ve been educated in the ways of the Old South. In those days, they each employed black maids who were fondly considered to be “part of the family,” as long as said domestic help remained in subservient roles as lower-than-minimum-wage-earners. Each woman has enjoyed a comfortably social existence, membership in all-white country clubs, freedom from racial persecution of any kind.

    What made one of these women reverse direction, give up social standing and become an Atlanta civil rights activist in a day and time when to do so was actually a life-endangering act? Why did the other two women remain placid and content in their social roles and blatantly disdainful of all civil rights activities of African American people, even to this day? As the two Birmingham women tell me, “They (Those Black People) just aren’t grateful. They don’t appreciate the fact that we (White Folk) gave them good livings and brought them up from the savages they were.”

    I would imagine that Sara Mitchell Parsons has heard this kind of talk throughout her life, that she would not be surprised to learn that even today, in the 21st Century, some educated women her age are still walking around acting as if they’ve never gotten The Memo. That’s The Memo that says the way they are loudly talking in this church hallway is Politically Incorrect.

    Parsons says of her Civil War ancestors, “Despite their loyalty to the South and their bravery, they were driven by misplaced bravado and egotism and at worst by a desire to keep slavery alive.” In her case, she learned to hate the idea and practice of slavery. In the case of the two nice ladies at the church, “You know, they (Those Black People) were happy as slaves, and they were treated really well by their owners.”

    On the other hand, author Parsons took time in her life to gather additional data about black-white relationships: “Most southerners will say that they seldom heard or even used the word ‘prejudice.’ We lived without thinking, for the most part blindly ignorant of our multiple sins against blacks…it would take a vast library to hold all the examples of white people’s prejudice against blacks before the civil rights movement and afterward.”

    FROM SOUTHERN WRONGS TO CIVIL RIGHTS is a thoughtful read. It is a simple story of a simple woman who became more complicated as she allowed herself to be exposed to racial strife in Atlanta society. The more she learned about racism, the more active she became, the more at odds with her community she became, and with predictable losses: her marriage to a racist husband faltered, her country club friends deserted her, and she learned how very alone an activist can be when activism goes against the grain of the community.

    Parsons’ contemporaries, the ladies in the church hall, took a road more traveled: “Why I have never been to the Civil Rights Museum, I would never go. They’re (those black people again) just not thankful for all we’ve done for them.”

    When I gently protest, in the manner of Sara Mitchell Parsons, that my African American black friends have done much to educate me about their angst, their horrible memories of the pre-Movement days, the two ladies hastily correct me: “Why you are just brainwashed. You are just repeating what you have heard in the liberal media. You don’t know the real history of the South.”

    Unlike me, Parsons doesn’t seem to be brainwashed. She learned each of her lessons, not from the media, but from dealing directly with individuals she befriended in the black community, a community where one could only hope to run successfully for political office if one’s photograph were never published–in other words, if the voters didn’t know you were black, you stood a better chance of winning election.

    The two church ladies’ idea of successful racial integration runs parallel to the idea one church in Atlanta had during the height of the Movement: “If a Negro tries to enter our church he is to be met by two ushers at the door who will escort him/her to the back row. The two ushers are to remain seated one on each side of the Negro.”

    FROM SOUTHERN WRONGS TO CIVIL RIGHTS is a simple, straightforward narrative about one woman’s journey from narrow privilege to open acceptance of diversity in a formerly closed society. Though Parsons shed tears when she lost her favorite maid, she also learned to shed tears when she realized how much pain black people of her era experienced, pain that few white people could ever really feel in quite the same way.

    Parsons says, “Once Martin Luther King listened while a white woman raved on and on to him about how much she loved Inez, her servant. ‘What is Inez’s last name?’ he asked. The woman did not know even though Inez had been with her family for twenty years.”

    One of my church ladies says, “Well I’ve known black people all my life. My maid was part of the family, only she let us down and we never forgave her.” She remembers the long-ago incident as clearly as if it were yesterday. “She had put a bicycle for her son on layaway for Christmas, but she couldn’t pick it up because she had no car. I want you to know I went all the way down to Woolworth’s and got that bicycle for her.” She pauses and almost sputters in anger. “And you know, she showed her appreciation by resigning just a few weeks later. They (Those Black People) have no gratitude!” she concludes.

    Sara Mitchell Parsons lives in a universe parallel to these church women. They are the same age now, but I would imagine they would have very little to talk about were they thrown together socially. I think the value of Parsons’ little book is that she admitted her racism early on and tried for the next fifty years to make amends for it. My dream is that somehow all the privileged white men and women who’ve never faced up to their prejudices will be exposed to people like Sara Mitchell Parsons and realize that it’s OK to be a recovering racist, much better than remaining in the ranks of unrepentence and inaction

    –Jim Reed http://www.jimreedbooks.com
    Birmingham, Alabama