On the morning of April 5, 1968, my parents were scheduled to have a meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Our family lived in Atlanta, Georgia then, a family of Northerners living in the South by company transfer. One of my mother's volunteer efforts during those years included her work with the Atlanta Council for International Visitors.
The purpose of this meeting was to introduce a group of visiting Nigerian women to Dr. King, they had been travelling all over our country for weeks. Their last stop, and the highlight of their American visit, was to come to Atlanta and meet Dr. King. The Atlanta Council was quite excited to have made this meeting happen.
With news of Dr. King's assassination the evening before, my parents didn't quite know what to do. The women were staying at a hotel near the airport, over an hour away from our house, their flight back to Nigeria was due to leave that afternoon.
These visitors had to be as stunned as my parents were, as the rest of the world was, by this sudden act of fatal violence. They were possibly frightened to be African women sitting alone in the American South of that time. There was no contingency plan extended from the Council for them on this day, there was just chaos and grief.
My parents made the decision to go get them and bring them home for an early lunch.
While Atlanta billed itself as 'The City Too Busy to Hate' during the riots and civic unrest of the sixties, this city was in actuality as racially divided as much of the South was, as much as the country was, and not only in attitude. Most whites lived in the northern half of Atlanta then, while most blacks lived in the southern half.
While we didn't have "help" coming to our house in the northern suburbs while my father was alive, most of our neighbors did. My world was so segregated at the age of seven, that the only black people I ever saw in our neighborhood were the maids and gardeners walking to and from the buses that took them from their homes too long a ride away, to the northern neighborhoods where many worked.
Times were so different then.
I wish I knew more about the finer details of this lunch gathering, I was off at school that day, but I can surmise a few things. They likely ate lunch at our kitchen table, the old pine table that sits in my kitchen now. Then, the table overlooked a woodsy front yard, with the outdoor bird feeder centered in the window's view. My father loved birds, and hated the squirrels who incessantly tried new tricks to steal the bird seed, so I'd guess a few funny tales of his acts of squirrel sabotage ensued.
Mom always made soup and a sandwich for lunch: Campbell's Tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches likely, or turkey cold cuts...possibly carrot sticks. Coffee would definitely have been served, with tea offered as well. There were usually sweets stashed somewhere in our house, hidden from their youngest child's raging sweet tooth (me, that is). Were the chocolates brought out for these guests? Probably.
My parents were curious, they had the gift of easy conversation, so I'd guess these women were asked about their lives at home and how their tour of America had been going. They were also not afraid to ask direct questions, so possibly political stories of our two countries, of their personal lives, were discussed.
I imagine the main conversation would've been about the immediate tragedy of Dr. King's death, but the larger story of racial relations in America, and in the South, must have come up. This conversation my parents would've found very important to discuss with these women from Africa.
They found this topic important to discuss, period.
I wish I'd asked more about this lunch when my mother was alive. What were these women wearing? The designer/artist in me wonders what patterns, what colors, did they wear? Traditional dress? Western dress? Did they speak English? I don't know. The conversations did happen, so probably an interpretor was with them if they didn't know our language.
I do know this: when the lunch was over, coats and shawls were being gathered for the long drive back to the airport. While the group was in the hall, in the middle of last-minute chats and clothes' adjustings, one woman put her arm on my mother's -- and all the motions stopped. The women's smiles grew broad while this one woman spoke.
"I would like to thank you very much for a day we will never forget. We have been in your country for many, many days now and have seen many sights, met many people. What we will never forget is you-- your home, your kindness to us all today. In all of our days in your country, we have not been invited into one American home, until today.
"For that, we will remember."
An interesting epilogue ~ two years ago, I was told by an acquaintance that by Nigerian custom, it is an insult not to invite a visitor to one's home. The person who told me this felt that it is very likely that this tale has also been told for many years among those women's families in Nigeria, as it has been in my family, and that my parents would be remembered by them with honor.
I like the idea of that.