Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Frankie: A Teaching Moment

Frankie was one of the first African Americans I ever met and I was twenty-one at the time of our meeting.  I had grown up in an all-white suburb outside of Chicago, a very segregated city even today, had attended two land grant universities where I do not recall meeting any people of color and had moved to DC with my new husband.  This was only a few years after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision to integrate American public schools. 

I was hired to be a “speech improvement teacher.”  There were ten people in the program, three whites and seven African Americans and our job was to attempt to remove the “Negro dialect” from the students we were selected to teach.  Frankie, one of the African Americans, was in my program.  Since I was the new kid on the block (the program had been in existence for a few years) I was instructed to accompany each of the “veterans” for a few sessions so I could pick up some of the techniques that were used in the program.  


When it came my turn to accompany Frankie, I knew I was in the presence of someone special.  I was in awe of her intellect, her ability to connect with her students, with her creativity and especially with her drive.  This was a woman, I learned, whose mother was a maid and her father was a postal worker and she was filled with determination to rise above her modest upbringing.   I didn’t have to fight what she was fighting, I was a middle class Jewish girl, but I had some of that determination too.  Hers was more fierce and her outcome much greater.


I returned to Illinois after one year in DC but in some way must have continued to stay in touch with Frankie.  I learned that she had applied and been accepted at Michigan State University for a master’s degree in communication.   I continued my speech teaching career for several years and then applied to Northwestern’s graduate program in communications.  It was ironic that at the same time, Frankie had been accepted into their PHD program.


Frankie was always in a hurry and had little time for me.  She was always “fitting me in” to her busy schedule.  I think the last time I saw her she had been in an automobile accident and asked that I bring her something to eat at Evanston Hospital.


The next thing I knew she was the first African American White House correspondent for CBS.


Although I don’t know the specifics, I know her career evolved through stints on public television and ultimately wound up with her professorship and deanship at the University of Maryland. Once I found her on the internet at a roundtable with the iconic African American journalist Gwen Ifill. Wow!

Five years ago  I received my regular Northwestern alumni magazine and when I thumbed through the pages, I stopped on the obituary page and rested my eyes on the photograph of someone who looked very familiar.  It was my friend Frankie Thornton (later known as Lee Thornton) who I had met in Washington, D.C. in 1965 when she and I were both in the same teaching program in the DC public school system.  She was only a few years older than I, and she had died after a brief bout with pancreatic cancer.


Her death came as a shock.  I have so many feelings that I harbor inside of me though our relationship was really pretty superficial. 


The most important is that I was honored to meet her and the many other accomplished and able African Americans that were in my DC program.  Their stories were pivotal in formulating my own view of America.  I was never the same after that year.  These women ran the gamut of reactions to the suppression of their race.  Some were angrier than others.  Some were more lighthearted and not as committed to “the cause.”  I was especially proud to have been in the company of Frankie/Lee.  She was someone to look up to and admire regardless of her race and her humble upbringing.