OdysseyJ. McRee (Mac) Elrod
12 May 2010
I was born in Gainesville Georgia, March 23, 1932 (born and bred in a briar patch as I like to say), but the family moved to Athens, and then a rural area outside Athens (Hull), after the Gainesville Tornado, when I was in the first grade.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to visit Gainesville in the wake of the tornado. That he used a wheel chair and crutches came as a shock to me; that was never in the media. That the media did not tell the whole truth was a startling realization for a six year old. All newsworthy events in which I have been involved subsequently, including the Southern Civil Rights Movement, have been equally only partially reported.
Second grade through an A.B. (history magna cum laude) was at the University of Georgia. The elementary and high school were a demonstration school for the Faculty of Education of the University.
My mother drove through two school districts to get me to the only decent school in the area, even though its class rooms were heated with coal stoves. A state which could ill afford one good school system, was attempting to support two, because of segregation. "Journey Toward Wholeness'" contention that Whites benefited from racism infuriates me. No one benefits from racism. Racism is an unmitigated evil. My Granny's nurse could not be with her as she died because Georgia law did not allow a Black person to stay overnight in a white house. I still tend to equate law with right less than most Canadians.
While walking to town with school mates one afternoon, those with me yelled "nigger" at some Blacks our age on the opposite side walk. Because I knew how "fatty" sounded in my ears (I was almost obese as a child), I had some inkling of how that word sounded in their ears.
That I was a blank slate to have that realization happen, I also owe to my mother. When she was boarding to attend school (there was no secondary school in her rural area), she was awakened by a fire in the square. She later learned that her elder brother had helped burn a Black man alive. This so horrified her, that she did not allow my father (Klu Klux Klan member though he was) to give me the Southern White male indoctrination. In the 1920s she took her one room school house of White students to visit the county's Black school. In the 1950s she quit her job as Executive Director of the Georgia Tuberculosis Association, because the Board members were using dimes sent in by children to buy their smokes and drinks for meetings. She left another job when the man she trained was paid more than she. My wife, daughter, sister-in-law and I conducted her funeral, because the Methodist minister refused to use readings other than the Methodist Discipline, and she deserved better. She had avoided that traditional Georgia Methodist funeral for her parents, by having grave side services conducted by her friend a liberal Bishop, but by the time of her death, most of those attending were too elderly to climb the hill to the family plot. The local Unitarian minister refused to conduct the service in the chapel my mother helped construct at the First Methodist Church in Athens, Georgia, where I felt it should be.
While attending the University of Georgia, a Black student applied to attend the law school, Horace Ward, later appointed as Georgia's first Black judge by Jimmy Carter. In the States, criminal law is by state, and there was no Black law school in Georgia. I started a campaign to have students support his admission. My committee made the stupid mistake of taking our statement to the local paper, rather than a wire service. It was never printed. Within the hour we were all in our respective Dean's offices. They did their best to expel us, but we were all A students (apart from my grades in physical education).
Later I was in a room with my Minister, my Dean, and a local Judge, all telling me I was wrong. I knew I was right. As Basel Stuart Stubbs, when Librarian of the University of British Columbia and my boss said, "Even when Mac is wrong, he thinks he is right". Bill Richardson's "Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast" has a character named "Mac", who has pot-lucks, of whom Bill writes "Saying 'no' to Mac when he expects to hear 'yes', is an ineffective as standing in front of a heard of stampeding buffalo".
We failed to get Mr. Ward admitted, but he was the lawyer for the first Black student who was admitted, Charlene Hunter Gault.
In my last year at university, I attended a student conference in Lawrence Kansas. There I met the first young woman and the first Black to look me in the eye, and discuss politics and religion. Young women and Blacks could be intelligent people? Who knew? It was this exciting news about Blacks I took back to university, and which formed the basis of the experience I just described. I asked the young woman to marry me five days after meeting her. We spent the rest of the school year corresponding, reading and discussing the same list of 100 best books. We were married at the end of the following school year, after I had joined her "up North" in Nashville, Tennessee, for graduate school.
A quarter at Emory was followed by two masters degrees at Peabody and Scarritt in Nashville, then a year at Yale learning Korean. Learning a non Western language is like putting on a pair of glasses at "Avatar"; it gives a different perspective on reality. For example, the "am" in "I am a man". and "I am hungry" are two unrelated verbs in Korean. My first dream in Korean was a startling experience.
Five years in Korea were spent organizing a Korean university library, and helping to set up their first modern library school. Korean is an alphabetic language - 10 vowels and 14 consonants - but it had never been used for modern library purposes because the occupying Japanese insisted they use the Japanese syllabury.
Korean society introduced me to close friendship groups, usually formed in school and lasting a lifetime, and to the values of the extended family. I came to see the nuclear family as a recent, failed, experiment. Friendships formed in Korea continue; three of my Korean former students took me out to lunch for my 78th birthday in March.
Arriving in Korea, we were faced with a 19th century style stone mansion, and five servants we were expected to hire to staff it. As 23 year olds who had only lived in student apartments, this did not appeal. Instead we set up a co-op house with a Korean theological student and his wife. She taught Norma Korean cooking, of which our sons-in-law continue to be fond; and Norma taught her how to make western pies. (It was with her lattice top cherry pie that my "Yankee" from Illinois then fiance won over my Georgia grandfather.) The son of the Korean couple, born in our home, recently visited us with his two grown children. His mother and I had visions of his marrying Norma's and my daughter Lona, but it did not work out as planned.
We returned to Nashville for further study (a third masters), teaching at Peabody, and training by Rev. James Lawson for the Nashville sit-ins.
Involvement in the civil rights movement led me to Highlander Folk School, which began (with the assistance of Eleanor Roosevelt) by teaching folk arts, by which highlanders could increase their income. It evolved into a training school for sit-iners and freedom riders. It was there than Unitarian trubador Ric Masten introduced "We Shall Overcome" to the movement. Then teaching cataloguing at Peabody Library School, I took my class on a field trip to Highlander to catch up their library cataloguing. To avoid conflict in the community, mixed race groups did not go shopping. Students and staff dropped money and notes in a box, and one person went to town. A student requested beer. The school was confiscated for selling beer without a license, and the beautiful building on a lakeshore burned. I tend to me more suspicious of the motives of government than most Canadians.
We also met some personal "push back".
Please allow me to read something written for the _Atlantic_, and published in the January 1961 issue:
"We live in a frame house in a white neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee. We have received a bomb threat for having invited Negroes* to our home. How could this have happened to someone whose ancestors since the Revolution have been buried in Georgia? We are forced by the dangers which now face our three preschool children to think back over the events which have brought us to this point.
Norma and I attended the non-violence workshops led by Rev. James Lawson, and joined the Nashville sit-ins later that year, sit-ins which succeeded in integrating the eating establishments of Nashville. Four decades later, we are still in touch with the Korean/Black "war baby" my wife brought back for adoption by one of the couples who visited that afternoon, the adoptive mother a home economics teacher, and the adoptive father the owner and driver of the school bus which brought the group to our home. Our adopted Black daughter visiting her biological family in the South, reports that the bitter minority did not in fact prevail.
The relationship with the Black churches resumed, and work with the civil rights movement continued, with my moving my ordination to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, (I had been ordained Methodist before going the the interdenominational Korean University.) After a time as an assistant pastor in a city church, I pastored what were called "three point charges". Rural Black churches were built when you had to milk your cow, walk to church, then walk home and milk your cow. With the move of many to cities for jobs, members were too few to pay a minister. I would initiate rotating social events among the congregations, with the resulting one congregation able to hire a minister.
Five years each was spent in Fayette, Missouri, and Delaware, Ohio, in Methodist college libraries. Correspondence from a close Korean friend working for the U.S. Army in Korea led Norma and me to decide the Vietnam conflict was evil, our departure for Canada, and assisting war objectors to immigrate. For ten years I was Head of Cataloguing at the University of British Columbia, my first secular job.
Upon arriving in Canada, we found the Unitarians to be the most hospitable in housing Vietnam war objectors. Both Norma and I had become Unitarian in belief while in graduate school. We visited the Nashville Unitarian Church. The speaker/minister entered, took off his tweed jacket, slung it over the pulpit, and lit a cigarette. That was our last Unitarian experience for two decades. We found Unitarianism in Vancouver to have outgrown that adolescent rebellion, and soon joined, followed by my second move of ordination.
We had hundreds of war objectors pass through our home. One of the more memorable was Rex Weyler, a co-founder of Green Peace, founder of Hollyhock (a retreat centre on Cotes Island), and author among other titles of "The Sayings of Jesus".
One thing which impressed me about talking with the hundreds of war objectors who passed through our home, was that most had had a cross-cultural experience - serving in Vista or Peace Corps, their family moving from one section of the country to another, e.g., New England to the Deep South. In knowing them over the years, it is impressive how many are in social service and artistic pursuits: school teachers, social workers, museum and artistic group directors.
I served the North Shore Unitarian Church as a community minister working with war objectors and other refugees, then the Westminster Unitarian Church, until its merger to form Beacon.
There are at least three legacies of the Westminster Unitarian Church. With federal Local Initiative Project ("LIP") grants, The Church founded an oral history project which later migrated to the British Columbia Archives; and a talking books project which migrated to the British Columbia Library Service Branch, supplying talking books to public libraries across Canada, and later moved to the Vancouver Public Library. The church also established Common Ground Housing Co-op, intended to be in Coquitlam, with the common room serving as sanctuary for the church. Neighbours, including a Black family, rose up in righteous indignation at having these strange Unitarians in their neighbourhood lowering property values. We would have been in the middle of a wooded area, with trees screening the project. Instead, a developer scalped the land. My faith in the ability of people to make decisions rationally rather than emotionally was severely damaged. The plans drawn up by an architect member were turned down by the granting agency as being "too attractive" for social housing, and more expensive but less handsome units were constructed in White Rock. White Rock was too far for most of our members to move, so the congregation divided between Blaine (later Fraser Valley) and the new Beacon congregation then forming in White Rock. I retired from the active ministry, apart from services of passage.
Norma in Korea had taught in the school for foreign students in the country - military, diplomatic, business, and missionary.
She was busy raising our five biological and one adopted Black child, until we found living in Canada more expensive than we had expected. Norma became a school librarian in Langley. She was having her fellow teachers for a party, and said: "I'm so looking forward to your meeting Gary, the music teacher; I know you will like him". How correct she was. One look and I was in romantic love for the first time. We were each the other's first male completed sex experience (as defined by Bill Clinton).
Norma and I, always best friends more than romantic partners, opted to stay together in order to rear our numerous children, and remained together until well after our 50th wedding anniversary. We still spend time in each other's homes.
In North Vancouver we lived on the Seymour River, and attempted to recreate the extended family we experienced in Korea. As each child married, we purchased vintage windows and doors from a salvage yard and added a wing. The cousins were more like siblings. Had an adult been lost (as happened later with the death of our eldest son, and the bitter divorce of our younger son), the loss would not have been so traumatic.
The extended family also included both my and Norma's mothers.
One Thanksgiving eve, the families were all drying their laundry and cooking their turkeys, The electric service caught on fire, and we were discovered. I was unaware that my children were in duos: two elected to buy our Seymour River home, two moved to Kelowna, and two came with us to our log house on a mountain in Metchosin. Younger son built his own log house on the 25 acre property, where he still lives, his three daughters remaining with him when his wife departed.
I remain convinced that the extended family, reducing the need for welfare, orphanages, old folks homes, and unemployment insurance, is the basic best building block for society; and that the nuclear family is an experiment which has failed. Zoning laws prevent that from developing in our society. We know a South Asian family who purchased a motel in order to live as they wished.
We had two sons and four daughters. The daughters are brunette, redhead, blonde, and adopted Black. The eldest daughter's bachelorette party consisted of the four daughters taking me out to a dance club. Nobody was asking them to dance, so they took off to find partners. A lady in short leather skirt and high leather boots came over and asked me to dance. "I like your taste in women" she said. "Thank you" I said. "I'm not too happy with my present pimp", she said, "may I join your group?" "They're my daughters!" I said. "Nobody has brunette, redhead, blonde, and Black daughters" she said. "I had outside genetic help with one" I responded.
We have a Black daughter because one evening working late a fellow worker stayed late as well. "We have a problem" she told me, "my sister-in-law is pregnant by a Black man". In small town Ohio of the time, white women did not have Black babies. They had been told there were no adoptive families for a Black baby. "That's OK I said", we're moving to Canada. and will take the baby." I 'phoned Norma and said :I've found us a baby". There was a long pause. "We were looking?" she asked.
We lost our elder son Mark to a heart attack at age 44, induced in part, according to his doctor, by nicotine. He had been healthy with his pot plant on his TV, until it was discovered by the RCMP. Perhaps this contributes to my son Matthew's and my strong interest in drug law reform. Rev. Jane once introduced her son Dr. Paul Bramadat at the First Unitarian Church of Victoria by saying "This is my son in whom I am well pleased", I am well pleased that at least three of our children are deeply engaged in social equity causes: Matt in drug law reform, creating the website for Unitarians Universalists for Drug Policy Reform, among others; Lona in freeing the unjustly convicted and imprisoned through her writing; and Cara in services for children with special needs. None have rebelled against their far left parents by swinging to the right.
I might have believed that children were blank slates to be written upon by their parents before having these six children. All were very far from being "blank slates". From the time they were first picked up at bedside in hospital, each had a different personality with, as they grew, differing degrees of empathy, differing ethics, and differing interests in social justice.
One may respect each as having worth and dignity, but they were complex individuals, allowing no simple single explanation of why each was as they were. What happened to them influenced them of course, including parenting, but those influences were filtered through the prisms of their own personalities. Nature vs. nurture is a complex interrelationship.
While "moral neutrality" may apply to the collective, no one description applies to all individuals.
January of 1979 I left UBC and started a business to catalogue for special libraries. I became aware of the need watching librarians from small libraries copying information from the UBC catalogue in order to catalogue their own libraries. Today we have up to 20 cataloguers working at a distance, and have catalogued for such libraries as the World Health Organization, and the International Atomic Energy Agency. A new customer is the Irish Newspaper Archives, reflecting the fact that 75% of our work is for electronic publishers and aggregators, rather than directly for libraries. Our quality control person is Gary mentioned earlier, who first supervised the already mentioned talking books project founded by the Westminster Unitarian Church when I was its minister.
Norma was ready to leave our remote mountain log house before I was. As she put it, "You have to drive somewhere to take a walk". She is now in the inlaw suite of our home on the Seymour River, which was purchased by daughter and son-in-law, but we each, as I mentioned, spend time at the other's abode.
On the denominational level, I am excited by the work of the two monitoring groups I helped found: Diversity Monitoring Group (I hope each of you will consider Celebrating Diversity Certification), and the Alternatives to Drug Prohibition Monitoring Group. It was an honour to arrange for the Canadian Unitarian Council to appear before the Supreme Court of Canada in support of equal marriage rights. Legal services were donated by the ex of an ex; the gay community is a supportive network. It is now a joy to perform gay weddings in my log house.
Since I haven't time to read it, I've brought for each of you a copy of an account of an incident in Atlanta, Georgia, written by Norma.
Thank you for listening.
Last modified: Thursday, 23-Mar-2017 11:14:30 PDT