My grandma loved working with her hands. She always wanted to be a nurse, but with 9 children and moving everyone from their farm in North Carolina to the big city of Washington DC, starting a college degree would not have been an option at the time.
My grandma was a housewife. Her father, Floyd purchased 2000 acres of land in 1910. Her family was among the who’s who in town. She married an army blues musician, my grandfather, Benjamin. After relocating to create their own life, she did have a job; she worked at Swift Cleaners at 17th & R St in DC.
She enjoyed working with her hands, and she was very proud to work at the cleaners. She always told me that whatever you do, be the best at it, and she really meant that. Everything that she did embodied that.
The owner really thought highly of my little grandma because she was very meticulous about her work. She took great care to sew hems by hand with precision and iron pleats and creases with love. Customers would never know her personally, but she took her time as if she was doing this for one of her own children: the collars, the skirts, the slips,and the wedding gowns.
I remember hearing the proud stories about how my sweet little grandma would gently take care of the elaborate gowns and formal dresses for Mahalia Jackson. In 1963, there was only one gospel singer to be reckoned with, and that was Mahalia Jackson. She was the first gospel music artist to ever receive a Grammy! Constitution Hall wasn’t too far away so it wasn’t unusual to have last minute famous customers. Whenever he came to town, she also cleaned and prepared costumes for The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, James Brown.
Mahalia Jackson was America’s Number 1 gospel singer and was referred to as "The Queen of Gospel”. My grandma was a Pentecostal minister, so Mahalia Jackson was definitely her idol. Harry Belafonte referred to Mahalia as "the single most powerful black woman in the United States" In 1961, she sang at John F. Kennedy's inaugural ball, and that’s how amazing she was in terms of being an entertainer and popularity in this country.
She performed at the March on Washington in 1963, singing in front of 250,000 people where Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Unfortunately, she also sang at King’s funeral after he was assassinated in 1968. Mahalia Jackson said that she hoped her music could "break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country”
Grandma’s equally proud duty was attending to President Lyndon B. Johnson's. President Johnson demanded that my grandma personally clean and press his clothing!
LBJ was the 36th President of the United States. His term was from November 22, 1963 – January 20, 1969. Johnson succeeded John F. Kennedy as President following his assassination. The country was in a bit of a raw place. Races were divided, Kennedy’s assassination made the country feel a bit exposed, vulnerable. LBJ was from Texas, and he was a no-nonsense type of guy. Johnson signed several civil right bills while in office: banning racial discrimination in public facilities, the workplace, and housing. His presidency was monumental.
Here was a tiny round woman born and raised on a family farm in Kinston, North Carolina. Recently moved to the “big city”, she was sweet but firm. My grandparents traveled to a new state with 9 kids. One of the few jobs that she ever had, Swift Cleaners was probably one of her favorites. Blacks were still struggling with rights and racism but to have this experience had to be very exciting. From the President to The Queen of gospel, it had to give her hope. It gives me hope and I couldn’t imagine living those times.
I think about my grandma’s experiences as I go through my days. Whenever my ego overshadows my actual job, I quietly align myself with my grandma’s stories. You see, it was never about cleaning and ironing those clothes, it was about the pride that this little lady took in doing whatever job she was asked to do.
Published by Tanika Belis