The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.
A conversation with 96-year old Marie Davidson of Milwaukee is like opening a living window on history. A singular voice that has witnessed the administration of every President since Warren Harding, she is especially frustrated by the one in charge now—the one who seems bent on reversing the progress made in voting rights and equal access to education.
“I had enough of that nonsense growing up,” said Davidson. This Wisconsin grand-mother has little patience with foolishness.
Born in Alabama in 1921, Davidson is the granddaughter of slaves and grew up learning life isn’t fair. White school children rode the bus. Black children walked to school, dodg-ing rocks thrown by the white kids.
The Civil War was nearly three generations past, but African Americans in the Deep South then knew there were still rules. If they forgot their “place” in society they could be killed. For Davidson, it was the generations who came before her that taught the future teacher her most critical life lessons.
“I remember my granddaddy as a serious man. He came to live with us after his wife passed. His right foot dragged because he was a slave as a boy and they beat him and beat him,” said Davidson. “A proud man. He struggled to walk but he kept repeating, ’I am a man. I am a man.’”
Holden St. Clair was indeed a proud man. And he passed that pride to his son, Henry, Davidson’s father. Pride and a love of education – especially reading – defined their family.
One of Davidson’s most vivid memories of her father is with a newspaper tucked under his arm, walking towards town. Henry was going in to teach other black folks to read. Dangerous in those days, because teaching blacks to read in the segregated South just wasn’t done.
Already derided for being a “smart n – – – – r” by his white neighbors, St. Clair was putting his life on the line. Not only could he read, but as a farmer, coal miner, and union member Henry was a threat to the status quo. “Those were scary times. Because the Ku Klux Klan often paraded through our community and we never knew if Daddy was coming home or not.”
St. Clair didn’t stop at reading lessons. Each election he went into town to vote, knowing all the while that the all-white poll workers wouldn’t allow him to do so.
“On his deathbed,” said Davidson, “he made us promise we would always vote.” Just like reading, Henry St. Clair knew someday voting would matter and made sure his chil-dren understood that.
1950 was a big year in Davidson’s life. She married her high school sweetheart, Andy, and they moved to Wisconsin.
The Davidsons built a life in Milwaukee, with Marie, who was a teacher in Alabama, working at the family-owned grocery store. Son Steven came first, Vicki a year later. Andy retired from AO Smith after 30 years.
Marie is not just the family matriarch, but a pillar of her north-side Milwaukee communi-ty. Everyone in their neighborhood knows “Miss Marie,” or “Mother Davidson” and while she doesn’t always remember their names she always has time for a kind word.
The light of Davidson’s life these days is her thirty-year old grandson, Travis. A manu-facturing engineer, the youngest Davidson was blessed with two strong women as pri-mary role models in his life—his mother and his grandmother. “Travis still calls me every Sunday night. Those calls mean the world to me.”
When Trump called the protesting NFL players “sons of bitches,” Davidson was ap-palled. “Imagine a man of his age, the President of the United States, saying that. An insult to all mothers, including his.”
Her biggest fear for the future is that we haven’t hit the political bottom yet. “It’s gonna get worse because we do not have a sensible man as a leader.” The former teacher says she would give Trump a failing 40% grade. “A leader drops good things along the way. He just drops things to make people angry.”
After the steps forward America took in twice electing Barack Obama, Davidson is sad to see the country tilting back to the bad old days of eighty years ago, when the KKK had almost free rein to persecute minorities.
“Nothing has changed. [This president] wants to stop others from being educated. And having an education is the key to controlling your life.”
Somehow it seems unfair that Marie Davidson cannot be more at ease at this point in her life. She wants the President to know how profoundly disturbing his erratic behavior is to her.
Davidson’s family line stretches from the Civil War through the struggle for Civil Rights. And now she’s witnessing an administration trying to reverse the progress made in her lifetime. The disappointment she feels in this President is palpable.
Davidson raised her children to always do more than was expected. Do more and you will succeed. Do less and you’re a disappointment, not only to yourself but your family.
Just like this President has been to her.
Jerry Huffman, an Emmy award-winning journalist, is the owner of Go2Guy Communi-cations in Madison and has been friends with the Davidson family for 25 years.