A few years ago, I attended a nationwide church gathering in St. Louis, MO. It was held at the St. Louis Union Station convention center. After lunch, a friend and I were talking in the lobby, when an Afro-American man crossed our path. He was young, wore a black hoodie, black Levi jeans, and a pair of vintage-type Air Jordans. His pants were hung low on his hips, and he walked briskly. My friend, a fellow minister, said “how disrespectful!” stating that this young man must be up to no good. I asked him how he knew. He answered, “well, just look at him!””Let me tell you a story,” I responded, and began.
In my home town of Ash Grove, Missouri, there was a lady named Miss Olivia Murray. She was born in 1897 and died in 1991. She was the daughter of an enslaved woman, Fannie Murray, who was 12 years old at the end of the Civil War. Fannie’s master set her free and on her own to roam the Ozark hills. Later, when word of this got to my great-grandparents, also freed slaves, they set aside a parcel of land for Fannie, where she could live out the rest of her days.
Miss Olivia was a tall, strong woman who walked around town with a bonnet on her head and a long dress and apron going nearly to the ground. She often carried a basket under her arms, and her little dog Wiggie ran in and out around her legs. She was quite an embarrassment to me, in the late 1950’s, when were trying to shake off the fetters of subserviency. There she was, looking like Aunt Jemima. I don’t mean the new, cute Aunt Jemima, but the old “Hattie McDaniel” version. I once complained to my mother about the way Olivia Murray looked. My mother asked – do you know what she has in that basket? She has eggs from her chickens and canned goods from her garden, and she goes around giving them to people who are down on their luck. Mom went on to say, “She’s saved many a family around here, including ours.” I felt so ashamed. I could have known a saint.
We often accept or dismiss people on equally as flimsy evidence, and we could have known a saint. So be careful, brothers and sisters, how you treat your neighbors. Watch out, and don’t make up a backstory for them based on a glance. You could miss someone precious, just like I missed knowing Miss Olivia.
This is a photo of Fannie Murray, approx. 1935.