For her fifth birthday in 1857, my great-grandmother Georgia Taylor Allen received a gift from her father: a 5-year-old human being. The gift's name was Mary Jane Fairfield Hodges Perlina Green Scott, but our family called her "Aunt Mary."
The two women were born in the twilight days of slavery and died on the eve of the civil rights movement, within a few months of each other, when both were 96 years old. In the last years of her life, Aunt Mary still wore her starched white maid's uniform and took her meals in the kitchen with the "Negro help." She did not vote, eat in public places or drink out of public water fountains. Since 1868, Aunt Mary had been guaranteed equal protection under the law. But she and Georgia Taylor Allen were not, in fact, protected equally, and they could scarcely dream equal dreams.
Somehow, the two shared a companionship, one I am still struggling to understand. Looking back, it would be easy to say a friendship between two people of such unequal societal standing could only have been a sham, a one-sided "benevolent" condescension, quietly tolerated by Aunt Mary out of necessity. But what I saw as a child made me believe that the affection between them was sincere.
I never really knew Aunt Mary. When I was a little girl she was old and unwell, so my memories of her center on the stories my family told. My mother's and grandmother's generations spoke of her in reverential tones. They told me that in the two women's final months of life, Aunt Mary chose to sit in silent company with the woman she called "Miss Georgia," her lifelong companion, former employer and onetime owner.
After Georgia died and Aunt Mary became too weak to leave her own house, my Aunt Annie Belle delivered hot meals every day to her home in Shakerag, the black section of Tupelo, Mississippi. And at Aunt Mary's funeral in 1948, Aunt Annie Belle stood up in the Shakerag church and told the congregation, "Aunt Mary was our friend, and we loved her."
But my family's love had caveats. Aunt Mary would not have been welcome at our family's church or at our dinner table on Sunday. And it never occurred to me as a little girl that by calling Aunt Mary by her first name only, we robbed her of her dignity. It is a mistake that I cannot rectify, except to change that practice now.
To my knowledge, Aunt Mary — Ms. Scott — never spoke to any of my family about race, status or lack of opportunity while she worked in my Aunt Annie Belle's house on Jefferson Street, considered one of the most "distinguished" streets in Tupelo. Nor did she mention the economic intimidation, violence and lynchings that supported the absolute power of white society.
As I follow the resurgence of public discourse on race surrounding the Charleston tragedy, Confederate flag controversy and protests against policing that targets minorities, I wonder what Ms. Scott would make of the current state of race relations in America. I wonder what she would have thought of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or the election of President Barack Obama. Did she ever dream that her great-grandchild and "Miss Georgia's" would stand in the same line to vote for a black president?
Or did the boundaries of our society limit even her dreams?
I want to believe that Ms. Scott instinctively knew black lives have always mattered. Her life mattered very much to my family, to her own family and to herself. But that life was tragically undervalued by the society of her day. And it was many years before I came to understand the ways that my own family undervalued her, because of our myopic adherence to the "right order" of the era.
At the time, Ms. Scott would have challenged that society at her peril. And I can only guess what she might think if she could see her great-grandchildren's generation today. I want to believe that she could put aside her careful silence and express her pride for them, for speaking their righteous anger out loud and dreaming bigger dreams than she ever could.
Ann Walling's memoir, Sunday Dinner: Coming of Age in the Segregated South, was published this week.