Genealogy doesn't just trace our ancestors, it also describes the history, family by family, of our country, and tells the story of how we became the people we are. I'm taking some license this time, to describe the backstory of a person I'm not related to and have never met, along with a family member who is not a direct line ancestor, but my favorite aunt. (Genealogy can be about the 1950's as well as the 1850's, right?)
I flew to Georgia to visit my aunt to join the family celebration of her 90th birthday. And as families do, we were sitting around remembering people and their stories. My aunt suddenly turned to me and said, "oh, did I tell you Emily Campbell passed away?" No, she did? That's so sad, Aunt Lucy. I"m really sorry to hear that.'
Let me tell you a little about my Aunt Lucy's friendship with Emily Campbell. They first met at Oxford College in Georgia back when it was a 2-year school. My aunt lived down the street, Emily Campbell came from nearby Mansfield, Georgia. Lucy and Emily became close friends. After two years at Oxford, they both went away together to finish up their next two years at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia.
They continued as close friends their whole lives, up until Emily died in 2009. So I have heard about Emily Campbell all my life. On her way to visit Emily, my aunt would stop off at our house. Or on the phone, "I was just speaking to Emily Campbell, and . . . " One year the two even vacationed together. Great friends for about 70 years. Below the Kos Squiggle, I'll tell you what I found out that was so surprising to me.
Back to the 90th birthday party. I was very sorry to hear about Emily's passing, because although I'd never met her, I knew and had known for years what a wonderful person she was.
"Did I ever tell you her son who went into politics?" my aunt asked me. I was surprised - I'd never heard that. I was wracking my brain - I wasn't really familiar with any politician named Campbell. "Her son graduated from college, I think in political science or economics, or whatever they call that course of study. When he went back to Ohio, he and some friends decided one of them should run for office. Emily's husband was a well-respected doctor in town, and the friends decided that the son of a doctor would do better, so he ran, and the others went around with leaflets and so on. And he's still in politics I believe." "Oh, really, Aunt Lucy? I don't think I know of any politicians in Ohio named Campbell."
"Oh, his name isn't Campbell. I always think of Emily by the name I knew her as for years before she got married. Her married name was Brown." Ok, still nothing clicks. Aunt Lucy continued, "He was named after Emily's daddy, Sherrod."
I think I've been successful in getting the stain out of my blouse when I nearly choked on my sweet iced tea. "Aunt Lucy, are you telling me that Emily Campbell is Senator Sherrod Brown's mother?" "Yes, that's what he is now, a senator."
Oh, lordy. Now I don't know if Aunt's story is correct in all details. This was, after all, her 90th birthday party. When I was able to spend a moment with Senator Brown at Netroots Nation in Providence, I told him how sorry I was to hear of his mother's passing. Once I mentioned her name, you should have seen his face light up.
And that's really the larger issue. We are the sum of our genes and own experiences - and our family is one of our biggest influences. Emily Campbell and my aunt remained friends their whole lives because their values were aligned. Sen. Brown said his mom wanted so much for Obama to be elected, and she held on until right after the inauguration. She was a civil rights supporter, and according to my aunt, interested in politics even back in college.
My aunt wasn't much interested in politics, She was, however, intimately involved with doing the right thing, every day, even when it affected her safety and her family's. She lead the civil rights movement in her town. She had three crosses burned on her lawn by the Ku Klux Klan. The FBI had to escort my cousins to school for quite a while. Late one night, the Klan showed up at their store, dressed all in their robes, and my aunt and her husband were alone at the store. They told the Klan to leave, and if they wanted to come back they'd be allowed on the premises only if they got rid of their robes. There was a tense stand-off until the Klan (cowards when facing white folks) left. My aunt and uncle gave land to the city for a park, with the stipulation that it be integrated. This was the 1950s. (I have to laugh - she was not intimidated by the KKK, and equally unimpressed by the little son of her friend.)
In 2010, my aunt was awarded the Governor's Award for the Humanities in the state of Georgia for her work in supporting the desegregation of the public schools, and for setting up her town's Native American Heritage Day.
Emily and Lucy - two women from rural Georgia, friends for life, who each in her own way contributed to making this a better country. Two liberals who understood injustice, and taught their values to their children and families. I can't even imagine the courage it took back in the 1950's to be on the side of civil rights.
When my cousin and I went out to get into the car in the garage so she could drive me to the airport to go home, I passed the charred remnants of the KKK cross my aunt had kept because, she said, we need to remember. True - we do need to remember, not just the burned crosses but also the people who defied the KKK. So here's to our families who set the example for us all, including one who raised a guy who went on to become a senator who fights for our side. Here's to Emily Campbell and Aunt Lucy. Not everyone in the greatest generation put uniforms on.