Interracial couple in 1950s: bravery, faith and turning the other cheek

Mark Whitaker's parents, Jeanne and Syl, met at Swarthmore College in the 1950s.

Story highlights

  • In new book, CNN managing editor tells story of his family
  • Mark Whitaker's father met his mother at Swarthmore, where she was a professor
  • The couple secretly dated in the 1950s before marrying
  • Parents shared "commitment to battling the world's evils by turning the other cheek"

Growing up, I always took it for granted that it was my mother who was first attracted to my father. After all, he was the exotic one, the gregarious one, the charm machine. She was the shy one, the one who stuttered so badly as a child that her parents sent her away to be treated by doctors in Paris and who still got self- conscious when she couldn't get her words out quickly. But when I went back and investigated, it turned out that it was the other way around: He became obsessed with her.

She had noticed him around campus, of course. As one of the few black students at Swarthmore College in the mid-1950s, he was hard to miss. She had heard him perform once or twice: He played the guitar and sang folk songs. For a while, he earned pocket money by recording radio commercials, and later she would hear one of his jingles playing on the air and feel a shiver of pride when the announcer said that if the young man with that voice ever turned professional, he would give him a contract. But that was news to me too, since I have no memories of my father singing.

They met in his junior year, thanks to a play. Jeanne Theis was a French instructor in her fourth year of teaching at Swarthmore. She was also the faculty adviser for the French Club, and she decided that it would be fun to help the students put on a production in the original.

She chose a satirical one-act play by Jean Giraudoux called "Supplément au voyage de Cook" that recounts the fanciful story of Captain Cook's arrival in the tropics. To direct, she enlisted Michael DeLaszlo, a junior from England who had taken one of her classes as a freshman. They cast most of the parts but didn't have anyone to play Chief Outourou, the tribal leader who greets the explorers. DeLaszlo said he knew someone who had the perfect look for the part: his roommate, Syl Whitaker.

CNN Red Chair Interview: Mark Whitaker
CNN Red Chair Interview: Mark Whitaker


    CNN Red Chair Interview: Mark Whitaker


CNN Red Chair Interview: Mark Whitaker 03:03

The only hitch was that he didn't speak French. When he agreed to take on the role, she had to coach him so he could learn his lines and speak with a convincing accent. They met before rehearsals and several times in her apartment, in a dorm called Roberts, where she oversaw French Hall, a suite of rooms for students who wanted to speak the language and attend her weekly teas.

She was impressed by how quickly he learned and by what a good mimic he was. They laughed at the part where the chief, to show hospitality, offers his daughters to the flustered, repressed Englishmen. She noticed how his cheeks dimpled when he smiled and how the worry lines in his forehead creased when he was making a serious point. In all, there was no mistaking how handsome he was, particularly when he put on his grass-skirt costume for rehearsals and bared his dark, muscular chest.

But she was startled the night of the wrap party, which she threw at Roberts, when they were talking in a corner of her crowded apartment and all of a sudden he kissed her.

Mark Whitaker's 'My Long Trip Home'
Mark Whitaker's 'My Long Trip Home'


    Mark Whitaker's 'My Long Trip Home'


Mark Whitaker's 'My Long Trip Home' 06:14

She pulled back, looking confused.

"I thought you wanted me to do that," he said. "The other day, when you touched my arm, I thought it was a signal."

"I'm sorry," she said. "That's just something I have the habit of doing when I'm talking to people."

He must have seen her blushing, since her skin was fair and freckled and framed by black hair that she wore, Jean Seberg-style, in a short bob. But her diffidence didn't deter him. In fact, it may have been part of the allure when he had fantasized about wooing her, as he must have done, since in 1955 a black student would hardly have dared to kiss his white teacher on the lips simply on a spur-of-the-moment whim.

"Would you mind if I visited you here again?" he asked.

"I suppose that would be all right," she replied.

He started to come by Roberts every few days, for an hour or so at a time. They would listen to music, and he brought his favorite 45s and introduced her to black jazz singers like the infectious Nellie Lutcher and Eartha Kitt, with her seductive purr. Sometimes he would kiss her or hold her hand, and she would primly consent, but mostly they talked.

He told her about growing up in Pittsburgh, about his parents the morticians and what it was like to live above a funeral parlor. When his mother came to visit friends in Philadelphia, he arranged for them to meet. My mother was instantly impressed by Grandmother Edith's light-skinned beauty and her elegant manner and entertaining way of speaking. He rarely mentioned C.S., the man he was named for, except to say that they didn't get along and that his parents were divorced. He confessed that his father had beaten him as a child. Eventually they discovered what was for him a humiliating coincidence: My mother had gone to graduate school at Bryn Mawr with a girl who came from Harrisburg and whose family had employed Granddad as a butler after he lost his business.

She told him about her parents, about how they met as Protestant missionaries in Africa, where she was born and spent much of her childhood before they moved to France. She described how she came to America on a boat with five of her little sisters when she was fourteen and went to live with the family of Dr. Enders, the Swarthmore biology professor, which was how she came to attend college there and later return to join the French Department. And she explained the reason her parents had sent her away, the dangerous work that caused Pastor Theis to be watched and arrested by the Vichy police. She told him how much she loved and admired her father and how sad she thought it was that he disliked his own so much.

They reminisced about student work camps. After the war, she had returned to France for several summers to attend the work camps at the boarding school that her father had founded in the mountains of central France, joining young people who came from across the country and as far away as Britain and America to build classrooms and dorm barracks. In high school, he had started going to summer work camps run by the Quakers. His Bible school teacher at Bethany Baptist, his family's church in Pittsburgh, had first told him about a Friends camp in Ithaca when he was fifteen. He decided to go there after some local Quakers offered to pay his way, although for the life of him he couldn't understand why well- to- do white kids from places like New York and Boston and Chicago would spend good money to do manual labor in the hot summer sun.

When he arrived in upstate New York and was first introduced to Quaker ideas about nonviolence, "I told them that I had never heard anything more preposterous," he would later tell the author of a book about the Friends. But before long he found himself drawn to the faith's teachings about simplicity and pacifism and the subtle power of silent prayer, so different from the raucous call-and-response of the black church services he was used to. Around the campfire at night, the work campers sang folk and protest songs, and when he returned to Pittsburgh he told his mother that he intended to worship as a Quaker and to teach himself how to play the guitar.

He recounted the harrowing time he had at a work camp the next summer, in the backwoods of Harlan County, Kentucky. A Pittsburgh Quaker named Spahr Hull, who later became my godfather, told him that the Friends were looking for a black student to integrate Pine Mountain, their first camp in the Deep South. Locating a Time magazine article about "Bloody Harlan," my father learned that there had been a murder indictment in the county every month for 132 years.

Still, he agreed to go, confident that the force of his goodwill and winning personality would see him through.

On his second night there, a dozen hillbilly kids came to the camp for a square dance. Seeing one of the local white girls sitting alone on the other side of the camp's lodge, my father worked up the courage to ask her to do-si-do. She nodded and he took her hand, but she never looked him in the eye, and her damp fingers and the red tips of her ears betrayed how nervous she was. Afterward he discovered that the night watchman, who was called Old Martin, had complained to a nurse at the infirmary. "I can't stand to see a n----- touch a white woman like that!" the guard said. "They'll soon run that n-----out of here, and I won't do a thing to stop them!"

Before long, a group of hillbilly boys started lurking on the outskirts of Pine Mountain day and night, asking where my father slept and once hanging a white rope over a tree. "Hey, which of you gals wrang that n-----'s neck until it got black?" they called out to a group of girls as they passed by with a female counselor.

One day the work campers went on an overnight trip and had to search for hours to find a spot that wasn't marked "White" and "Colored" to set up their tents. In the middle of the night, four cars pulled up with headlights flashing. A dozen drunken men got out, announcing that they had come to get "that n-----." The camp director, a local Kentucky minister named Sandy Sandborne, grabbed a flashlight and went out to the road to talk to them. He calmly insisted that the person they were looking for wasn't there, and eventually the drunks got back in the cars and left, giving the campers a terrible scare but also an object lesson, as my father described it to my mother, in the power of nonviolent resistance.

He told her about another terrifying incident that happened later that summer. Toward the end of the eight-week camp, the brother of the girl he had asked to square-dance came back to town and joined the loitering pack of local white boys. All of a sudden, they started to be suspiciously nice to my father. They shouted out to invite him to join them on a hike, then on a rifle-shoot. The other campers told him to ignore them, especially a white Jewish girl from New York with whom he had been taking long walks. What if they were trying to lure him into an "accident"? she warned. But he replied that the whole point of work camping was to teach people from different backgrounds to get to know and respect each other. If he didn't go, he would always wonder what was really in their hearts. So when the local boys arrived in a car to pick him up, he climbed into the backseat.

They drove to a clearing in the woods with a big tree stump at the end. Shotguns were handed out and everyone took turns firing at cans placed on top of the wooden nub. Once all the cans were knocked down, one boy at a time would walk across the clearing and set them up again. When it was my father's turn, he set off slowly toward the stump, his back to the other boys.

He said that he never experienced so powerfully the physical effects of fear. Every muscle in his body tightened up, and he felt like he was going to vomit. After setting up the cans, he turned around and faced what looked like a hillbilly firing squad: six local boys with long scraggly hair, dressed in tattered overalls, holding shotguns. His breathing stopped and he almost fainted as he walked back toward them. But no one fired, and from then on the white boys treated him like one of them, as though he had passed a tribal test of manhood. On the last week of camp, the family of the girl at the square dance invited all the work campers to a chicken dinner. After that, he told my mother, he felt he really understood what the Quaker belief in searching for the Light in every human being was all about.

As they talked, visit after visit, my mother found herself falling in love. It was partly a physical condition, with all the usual symptoms: She couldn't stop thinking about him when they were apart, and she longed for their next rendezvous. As she walked across campus, she found herself humming a Nellie Lutcher tune: "He's got a fine brown frame, I wonder what could be his name. He looks good to me, and all I can see is his fine brown frame."

But for her, it was an intellectual process as well. She fell in love with the idea of him. He was handsome in a way that particularly appealed to her, perhaps because she had spent her early childhood in Africa. She respected his bravery in coming to a virtually all-white school like Swarthmore and good-naturedly confronting the racism he had encountered in his life. And she was moved that he took his faith so seriously, that coming from such different backgrounds they shared the same commitment to battling the world's evils by turning the other cheek rather than demanding an eye for an eye.

She was taken with his charisma and the almost chemical effect he had on other people.

From the time he arrived at Swarthmore, he had "displaced a lot of water," as one of his friends described it. He told her the story of how, as a freshman, he had gone into the little barbershop in town for a trim and the barber had refused to serve him. Word spread across campus and soon scores of students joined a boycott. One Greek-American student from Massachusetts named Michael Dukakis even began offering haircuts in his dorm room, a story that decades later the Dukakis campaign would tout in his presidential run.

She saw that Syl Whitaker knew how to enjoy himself, when he would arrive with stories of sneaking off with Michael DeLaszlo in his roommate's car to go to a jazz club in Philadelphia or to get their favorite hoagie sandwiches at a delicatessen called Stacky's in Chester. (She didn't hear the story of how his roommates had once been shooting the bull late at night and played a game of How Would You Like to Die? "In an airplane crash while making love!" my father proclaimed, impressing them all with his bravado and the implicit implication that he had made love before.)

But she also saw him as possessing a maturity and talent for leadership beyond his years. That impression only deepened when, in the months they were meeting secretly, he was selected to run the Swarthmore Folk Festival. The three-day event had started in the mid-1940s, when she was an undergraduate, and by the time she came back to teach in the early 1950s it was the biggest thing on campus. Singers like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly had all come to perform, and each year hundreds of young people from up and down the East Coast descended on the college, filling the walkways with their cars and littering the dorm rooms with their sleeping bags. To headline the 1955 festival, my father booked Josh White, one of my mother's favorites, and the black protest singer got the crowd stomping and clapping and singing along to his renditions of "Lonesome Road" and "On Top of Old Smokey."

Yet as soon as it was over, Swarthmore's president, Courtney Smith, sent word through his deans that the festival had become too big and disruptive. My father was chosen to mediate and he spent days crafting a proposal for new rules that would have limited the number of outside visitors and required registration in advance. But Smith rejected the compromise and eventually canceled the 1956 concert. My father concluded that the WASP-ish president, who had once decreed to the student body that he would tolerate "no ostentatious displays of affection," was simply a prude. He didn't like the fact that students held hands during the festival and wore blue jeans. The jeans issue rankled my father so much that he decided to visit Smith in his office in Parish Hall to discuss the matter. He pointed out that as a financially strapped student on a full scholarship, he wore jeans to cut down on his cleaning bills, but Smith was unimpressed and curtly dismissed him after a short conversation.

Read another excerpt from "My Long Trip Home"

By the end of the school year, my mother had decided that her feelings for my father were strong enough that she needed to confide in someone. She chose Hal March, an older colleague in the French Department who had become somewhat of a professional father figure. March wasn't shocked or scandalized, but he expressed concern about what the consequences would be for her reputation if she were seen to have been in a frivolous affair with a student, especially one who happened to be black. So he summoned my father to a meeting in his office.

"Do you intend to marry her?" he asked.

My parents had never discussed the idea, and at that point it may well have never occurred to my father. But from the white professor's stern tone, he must have grasped that he had started something that could only be made respectable in the eyes of the college and the broader society of mid-1950s America by giving it the sanctity of an engagement.

"Yes, I would like to marry her," he answered.

The next time my parents met, my father recounted the discussion with Professor March and reiterated his matrimonial intentions. He didn't exactly propose, and my mother didn't exactly accept. It was as though they were at a Quaker Meeting and had reached consensus that they would eventually get married.

"I guess I just assumed everything would work out," my mother told me as she looked back. She hardly thought of herself as a spinster, but she was already twenty-eight. Some of her younger sisters were already married, and she always assumed that one day she would be too. She was in love with my father, as she understood it. She never stopped to think what marrying a black man might mean for his career or for any children they might have. And at the time, she didn't see what was so wrong with a teacher being involved with a student -- male professors did it all the time -- particularly if they waited until after he graduated for the wedding.

She also confessed that the engagement relieved her of another anxiety: what to do about sex. For someone of her religious upbringing, it wasn't something you did with a mere boyfriend. But now it could happen, and by the end of the semester it did.

What was my father thinking when they decided to get married? "He probably saw it as a big adventure that would impress his Quaker friends," my mother said. But I'm sure that it was more complicated than that. He must have believed that he was in love too, but at age twenty what did that mean? After all their long talks, did he think that he had found a soul mate, or was he still in the grip of infatuation? Had his summer in Pine Mountain stirred not only an attraction to white women but an appetite for risk? How noteworthy was it that she was an older, professional woman, someone like his mother, although as different from Grandmother Edith as she could be in outward appearance and personality? And how driven was he by his ambition and competitive insecurities, by the prospect that she could help him with advice and inside information on where he stood in relation to all the brainy white students of Swarthmore?