Labor Day, the first Monday in September, commemorates American workers. I commemorate Elizabeth. Elizabeth was the granddaughter of slaves. She was born in Texas near where her grandfather found his freedom at the end of the Civil War - a freedom that for the most part meant that he continued to work on the farm where he had been a slave. For him - at least at first - emancipation meant that he had to pay for his lodging and that he had the freedom to leave. The freedom to leave didn't mean as much when he couldn't get a job and would starve without work.
I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and I am a product of my environment, education and experience. Elizabeth was a great part of these three elements of learning. During the time that I grew up it was not unusual for a family to have a housekeeper living with the family during the week and returning to her own home on weekends. Elizabeth was our housekeeper. I wince at referring to her as a housekeeper because she was so much more than that.
Elizabeth was an early part of the Civil Rights movement - she joined the NAACP shortly after its founding in 1909. I remember her telling me that a man near her hometown was lynched just for joining the organization. Elizabeth didn't preach at all, but she made clear that she was a woman of iron faith and perseverance. Her Bible was tattered, old and underlined. I think that she knew it from beginning to end. She would sing or hum gospel tunes while she went about the grinding work of ironing for a family of five.
When JFK was running against Nixon in 1960 she had a picture of JFK. She didn't like Nixon at all, I think that she said he was mean and nasty. She didn't tell me that JFK was more sensitive to African Americans - in the lexicon of the 1960s - "negroes" - but it was evident in the events of the early 1960s. Elizabeth humanized these events for me - they meant something. Why would someone blow up a church in Birmingham, Alabama and kill four little girls and injure 22 others? What was so bad about a black person (someone like Elizabeth whom we loved) attending a university? Some of the meanness of the time just seemed ridiculous.
There is so much that I can say about Elizabeth, but this is a brief memory. She impacted all of our lives - my daughter and in turn my granddaughter are named after her. My dad and I were the only white people at her funeral - we for the first time saw the joy of her church that she so cherished. Elizabeth worked hard, and she suffered silently. Her life of service epitomizes an example of a life made eloquent by the actions of a great human being - one of the greatest that I have met in my lifetime.