Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.” Today’s story is an early look at my mother, Gloria Walker.
Gloria and others in the family, and a few close adult family friends referred to Oper Lee Watson Walker, my maternal grandmother, as Mother or Mudear. So I mostly called my grandmother “Mother” as well.
My grandmother was the disciplinarian in our house; Gloria was my fun big sister, at least in the early years. Tall, light brown-skinned with a slender figure, Gloria had soft, naturally dark-red hair. She was educated in public schools in Savannah, but at some point she was sent away to a boarding school for black girls in Jacksonville, Florida.
Boylan Haven School was created in 1932 after the merger of the Boylan and Haven Schools. Like many non-public schools in the South, this one was started by well-intentioned Christian white women from New England who saw fit to bring the model of their own cultured education from “Up North,” as we called it, south for promising African American girls from families who were willing and had the capacity to let their girls go to school away from home.
Gloria was one of those privileged few black girls from Savannah who had the benefit of this private school education for a while. Her own mother was a business woman and her three siblings were grown or gone from the house, leaving a void for making sure Gloria was cared for in her early teen years.
My grandmother, being the proper woman that she was, would probably not have considered what we called many years later a “latchkey child.” Sending her off to boarding school was likely the tolerable solution.
Perhaps because of her experience around the white Christian women who educated her at Boylan Haven School, in adulthood Gloria spoke not with the southern drawl of many of her friends who also grew up in Savannah, but she somehow acquired a proper, accent-less tone that belied discerning what part of the country she called home. And I never heard her use traditional southern colloquialisms like “y’all” or “fixin’ to” or “ain’t” like so many of us spoke growing up in the South.
Gloria had style. When I see photos of movie stars who were popular in the 1940s and 1950s they remind me of my mother, always neatly buttoned down in suits, wearing high chunky-heeled shoes and sometimes hats. Gloria matured in the era of stars like Lauren Bacall, Diahann Carroll, Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Dandridge, Joan Crawford, Eartha Kitt and Lena Horne, and she carried herself as if she were one of those celebrities. She adored the finer things in life.