Glean what you will from this story.
Me? I have found an intimate sort of peace and grace, perhaps a certain way of moving forward from wherever I have been by way of a gentle woman named Rosemary Jones who embraces both her age and her ancestry.
Friday is Miss Rosemary’s 104th birthday and she is the granddaughter of a Confederate brigadier general and his black housekeeper.
I had the honor of meeting Miss Rosemary last week. We sat on a small sofa in her room at a retirement home just north of Columbia. She wore pink; the color looked lovely against her ice-coffee complexion.
We talked about every manner of thing. To begin with, her family tree.
With a twinkle in her eye, Miss Rosemary pointed to a wall of framed photographs. “If you will notice, there are many different colors in my family.”
“My grandfather – my mother’s father – was a Confederate general in the western part of Virginia where there weren’t as many slaves. His name was General John Robert Jones. My mother’s mother was a maid and housekeeper, a slave descendent in General Jones’s household.
“My grandfather was very kind to my grandmother. He was really quite devoted to her. He would go and pick her up and take her to the white ice cream parlor and he also sent my mother to college.”
Miss Rosemary said that “somewhere in the family stories,” the general’s wife was “said to have sent my mother a doll.”
Her mother, Mary Magdalene Rice, graduated from Hartshorn Memorial College in Virginia.
She was married twice and had 10 children.
“Seven from her first husband,” Miss Rosemary said, “and three from my father, who had graduated from the University of Michigan law school.”
Miss Rosemary recalled how her mother characterized such a big family. “She would say, ‘I have a flower bed. My children are all different colors.’ ”
Miss Rosemary grew up in New Jersey.
“We had a pretty good life. Both of my parents were educated. My father opened a law practice in Newark, New Jersey. My mother became a civil rights activist.”
Miss Rosemary recalled an example of her mother’s activism, involving her graduation from public high school in New Jersey.
“The black graduates had to march at the end of the line. That got changed because my mother fought against it.”
Her eyes twinkled again.
“You see, I was going to be number two or three in line because my last name was ‘Allen’.”
Miss Rosemary also recalled another of her mother’s lessons in race relations.
“The lady who lived next door to us was white. My mother would tell us to speak to Mrs. Siegler when we saw her come out of her side door. I said to my mother, ‘But she doesn’t respond to us.’
And my mother said, ‘But I am not raising Mrs. Siegler, I am raising you.’ Mrs. Siegler finally came around and she would speak to us, and, she and my mother eventually became very good friends.”
Miss Rosemary graduated in 1934 from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. She taught math in the Newark public school system. She earned her Master’s degree and taught at a New Jersey school for pregnant girls. She got married and had three children. In 1988, she moved to Columbia, to be closer to a grown son.
And she has been a member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Columbia for 20 years.
She sits near the front of the majestic church, on the right hand side, just underneath the pulpit.
Again, her eyes twinkled. She recalled one of the first people she met at Trinity, a white woman named Barbara Kovacs.
“Barbara made me feel welcome, but nobody was asking questions. It worked out just fine.”
Miss Rosemary and I talked about the matter of her racial identity. Her skin color is hardly brown or black. I pressed my forearm against hers. Nearly the same color.
“No,” she said, “I have always felt that I was an African-American. I’ve never had a thought of ‘passing’ like people used to do.”
Miss Rosemary and I talked about a few other things, too.
Barack Obama, the country’s first African-American president: “I think it’s wonderful, but I wonder about the folks who are going to take his place. Obama had such a presidential way about him. When he walked down that red carpet, that did something for me and I’m sure it did a lot for a lot of black people.”
Dylann Roof, a white man charged with the massacre of nine black parishioners June 17, 2015 at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston: “It seems to me that boy should have had some mental treatment long before (the shootings) happened. It was a very, very sad and moving thing and I sure wish he’d had better care growing up. I hope he has looked up and asked God for his grace, love and mercy. It makes me think of that song that says, ‘When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there…’ I hope that someday that boy will get to a place where he can sing that song with feeling.”
The furling of the Confederate flag on the State House grounds last July: “Well, it should’ve been done a long time ago.”
Columbia: “I love it.”
Grits: “I found out about grits when I went to college (in Tennessee), but I didn’t eat them. Then I was at Lexington Medical Center and a big metal bowl of grits turned up on my breakfast tray. I didn’t eat them. Then I went to rehab and every morning, grits! I sent them back. But when I moved here (earlier this year), I got a dish of grits on the breakfast plate and I said to myself, ‘I gotta do something about these grits!’ So I put some butter and pepper in them and stirred them around and then I dumped them out on top of my scrambled eggs. Well, they were delicious. It took me 104 years, but now I like grits!”
On turning 104 years old: “Well, I believe that when a person turns 100, they should be able to start counting backwards. So I guess I’m just 96.”
Her wish for humanity: “I just wish we could see ourselves as God’s one people to whom he gives all of his love, grace and mercy.”
Grace: “I love the word ‘grace’. I can’t define it, but it is something good for me and everybody else.”
Her mother’s teachings: “It was my mother’s teachings that there are things you can be taught other than whether you are black or white. You get all tied up in knots thinking that way. We just need to be children of God and leave it at that.”
OK, Miss Rosemary, I’ll leave it at that.
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the early 1960s. She may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.