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A Life Transformed by Education

Current Events & News, Who We Are | 02/29/2016

Curley Johnson
Video Producer

Curley produces videos highlighting Stand's impact on education in our 11 states.

My grandmother Bea died in 2014. She was 96. Most of my life I knew her as a strong presence: her commanding voice, her impeccable sense of fashion, and the generous Christmas checks she sent to me and my siblings every year.

My father spoke of her achievements, so I knew she was an important person in education, but we lived in separate cities, so I never knew much more than that. When Bea was in her eighties, I was asked to drive her to a family reunion, and in that three hour drive - just the two of us - she told me the story of her life, and it completely changed how I see her.

In 1936 at age 16, Bernice Miller (Bea) was a top-performing student in Chicago Public Schools when she became pregnant. In that era, few other paths were open for African-American women, and it was clear that society expected her to leave school and start a family. It would have been a straightforward decision if not for her own family’s history.

In the mid-1800’s, her great-grandmother had been the lead house slave on a prominent Virginia plantation. Her owners had taught her the skills needed to run one of the largest and busiest plantation house staffs in the country. When she was freed after the Civil War, she was rare: an African-American woman who knew how to read, balance budgets, and so much more. She and her husband moved to Boston, where they became wealthy business owners. In the coming decades, they raised two generations who continued to thrive, in large part because they were educated in a time when most were not.

Around the turn of the century, there was a white supremacy backlash, and many white people took action against successful African-Americans in terrible ways. The family business was burned to the ground, their fortune illegally seized, and they were exiled from Boston. Now in Chicago, their legacy of education carried them once again, and they were able raise the family back to middle class status by the time my grandmother Bea was born in 1920.

So here she was, pregnant at 16, in a time when most women like her had few options but to raise a family, but because her family knew better, they rejected that future. My father was born and sent to New Orleans to be raised by an aunt and uncle, and my grandmother returned to her studies.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing; she lived a passionate life. She loved the raucous jazz scene in Chicago nightclubs of the 30s and 40s and hanging out with famous musicians and writers of her time, but through it all, she remained dedicated to her education. She was a brilliant woman, and by the mid-1940s became one of the first African-American women to earn a PhD from Harvard University.

Dr. Bernice Miller went on to have an impressive career. She dedicated her life to education and her work has touched the lives of thousands, if not millions of students. In our family, she set a tone that still persists to this day about the power of education. What resonates with me is how different her outcome might have been, how her story is proof of the way in which education transforms lives.

At Stand, we know there are far too many kids out there, especially children of color, with the same kind of potential that never gets realized. My grandmother’s story reminds me that the work we do here at Stand matters. The way we educate parents through Stand UP to help them understand the ideas that educated families take for granted, the way we empower members to stand up for what they believe, to face school boards and legislators, to fight for laws, to make sure we all work to change the shameful and unfair distribution of education between the haves and the have-nots, all that is worth fighting for.

Our work at Stand has a direct impact, not only toward substantive change in education, but hopefully inspiring more parents who will push their kids with tremendous potential through all the obstacles they will face. In the end, we are ensuring there will be more kids like my grandmother, who will be able to push through - even in the face of these obstacles - and will go on to further change in a very real way.

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