It’s true. A South side of Chicago black woman with the world on her shoulders just died younger than she should have. She made an incredible decision in her life that was certainly burdensome to her. She moved to rural Northeast Iowa where she was one of only 10 black people in the town residence (the college was a tiny bit more diverse).
From rural Iowa, Phyllis Gray became a local legend. She helped countless white and black families escape poverty through helping them finish high school, and either enter the military, go the college, or go to a technical school.
Phyllis was so beloved, she had two memorials at Luther College, our alma mater. Both filled auditorium-size rooms.
Phyllis never said she had a mission of fighting racism in rural Iowa, but I was curious if she thought God had made it her destiny, anyway. It is fundamentally true she could have gone to the South Side of Chicago, she could have moved to her family’s ancestral home of Mississippi.
She was fully aware of how much need there is in the black community. She told me coming to college at Luther had influenced her opinion of poverty.
She was surprised at how entrenched white poverty could be. She was not surprised by all of the dysfunction she found going along with poverty: mental illness, violence, incest, substance abuse, etc,
She was laser focused on her goal of directing Upward Bound for over 30 years at Luther College. Upward Bound is the federal anti-poverty educational program.
One of the things she did with gargantuan amounts of her time was lift up the self-esteem of white youth: just as you wrote, she had plenty of her own hard-earned self-esteem to role model.
But I believe this all came at a cost to Phyllis. I know she faced micro-aggressions. One of the things I loved about her is she could sit and swap poverty micro-aggression stories. This helped me learn to cope with them a little bit. I just let her talk when she told yet another story of racism. She’d always end her story with what she did about it. I would tell her how proud I was of her.
But I believe this stress affected her body. She died younger than she should have statistically of a condition I associate in part with stress: heart disease.
All the racism Phyllis faced, but she soldiered on. She won over the hearts of thousands of poor white families from northeast Iowa.
Phyllis got really sucked into rural Iowa life. Two of her pre-sets on her Toyota Corolla were country music, which caused countless teenagers to tease her. Not that there’s a lot of choice where we’re from. She had to explain to stereotyping white kids that she could like country music, too.
I bet Phyllis struggled with the decision whether to work with needier black children or mostly poor whites. But I know she knew she was an ambassador to a community where kids said things like, “You are the only black person I know.”
She never gave up her identity. Phyllis wore her hair natural. She was pressured about her hair and resisted. She won. Phyllis knew how to practice effective code-switching. She’d start off serious conversations in standard English, but raise her intensity and the use of Black English as the situation called.
When I went to college and graduate school, I had to learn how to code-switch, too. Phyllis taught me how with a metaphor about raisins and peanuts.
But she’s gone, too soon. I am convinced that she lost years of her life due to the stress of racism, I am full of grief. I’m so sorry she sacrificed herself to fight racism.
She was an empowered woman making her own choices, so I don’t mean to denigrate her choice. I just lament the costs of the choice. And I want to appreciate her for being there to bolster my self-esteem. We, white people, have obviously done nothing to earn this love. I feel so blessed to have gotten it.