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Take Five: Gail Milissa Grant, award-winning author, talks of her father, St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 2, 2009 - Gail Milissa Grant barely realized she had won.

"All I heard was, 'At the'," she said, recalling last Thursday night in New York when her memoir "At the Elbows of My Elders: One Family's Journey Toward Civil Rights" won the top Benjamin Franklin award for memoir and autobiography.

"I guess I heard the rest of it, but I was just in shock for a couple of days," Grant said.

Grant, who was born in St. Louis in 1949, wrote the first chapters of her award-winning bookmore than a decade ago, but the book wasn't published until 2008. Much of the book centers on her father, David M. Grant, an attorney and civil rights activist in St. Louis in the decades before the civil rights movement. In 1947, her parents bought a house in an all-white south St. Louis neighborhood, something quite unusual for the time.

When did you decide to write "At the Elbows of My Elders: One Family's Journey Toward Civil Rights"?

Grant: When I was a teenager, but I did not start working on the book until November 1997. It was in the back of my head for quite some time because I felt that the reality I lived was quite unusual, growing up in an all-white neighborhood on the south side of St. Louis with a father who was pioneer in civil rights pioneer and a mother who was very forward-looking and somewhat unconventional.

Why did you want to write this book?

Grant: I wanted to use my family as representative of families of color throughout the United States during the first half of the 20th century -- before Martin Luther King (Jr.) and before the modern civil rights movement -- who had fought some very tough battles to pave the way for the movement and, I can even now say, for our current president. These people had been unrecognized, a part of American history that had not been talked about.

So my father happened to be a leading civil rights activist beginning in 1930s. He and the few black Democrats at the time convinced the black electorate to leave the Republican Party and become Democrats, a party that -- at the time -- was full of Southern segregationists. They were considered real rebels and turncoats. My father said it was worse to be a black Democrat in the 1930s than to be a card-carrying Communist in the 1950s.

In 1947, my parents bought a house in an all-white neighborhood in south St. Louis on Arsenal Street. They didn't buy the house to be crusaders. It just so happened it was a good deal. That was the year before (the landmark Supreme Court case that came out of St. Louis) Shelley vs. Kraemer, which struck down restrictive covenants. That's how I was acculturated into American society.

It was difficult, but it was also helpful because it gave me great strength knowing (my parents) had endured a lot worse even though what I went through was not easy. I was the only Protestant in a Catholic grade school; my brother and I were the only blacks the entire time we were there; we lived in a working-class neighborhood as the only professional people. I was not particularly happy in that situation.

What was it like to sit down and think about this past?

Grant: It was fun, but it was serious work because it was reliving a lot of stuff.

In '97, somebody actually wanted to do a documentary on our family, and I was not very happy with (that project). That pushed me. I said to myself, 'Look, you said you wanted to write this book, you better do it now or else somebody's gonna try to come along.'

My mother, who kept all kinds of photographs and newspaper clippings, was fortunately still alive. My father who died in '85, I had interviewed him. And other people had interviewed him as well. So I had him on tape, but I had heard these stories so many times that many of them I could repeat them verbatim. 

How did you approach writing the book?

Grant: Chapter by chapter. I started with my mother's upbringing because she was the only child of the second black female embalmer in the state of Missouri. Her parents had a small undertaking establishment so she was very spoiled and coddled.

Then I did the chapter on Josephine Baker. (She) stayed at our house one time because she couldn't stay any place else in St. Louis. My father brought her in for a benefit concert. I wanted to get those two things down first because there were still people alive who remembered that concert.

I did those two chapters pretty fast in '97. Then I was still doing a lot of traveling. I planned on retiring in 2000, 2001 and finishing the book.

But then, instead of retiring and staying in Washington, I met a man I had known a long time ago who was Italian and lived in Rome. He basically swept me off my feet. Before I knew it, I retired from the Foreign Service and moved to Rome. That put everything on the back burner.

But I still kept working on it, piece by piece. In 2005, I got in touch with the Missouri History Museum. They printed the chapter on my mother's background (in a quarterly journal). It's called 'Upstairs, Downstairs: Recollections of an Embalmer's Daughter.'

Maybe in 2006 or early 2007, I sent them the Josephine Baker piece, and they put it in their online journal. They kept bugging me about the book. I finally got the book proposal to them, right after my mother died. I think that's why I did it. That was in June 2007. On Aug. 10, 2007 I got the book contract from them and a deadline.

I had a wonderful experience with the Missouri History Museum. When I received the award the other night, I wondered if I would've finished it without the book contract from the Missouri History Museum.

This book has been nominated for a number of awards.

Grant: The first nomination was from ForeWord magazine. I didn't win anything on that one. I was just really pleased to be nominated. Then when the Benjamin Franklin came in, there were only three finalists in each category. I was really happy of course. 

Then, when I actually went to the award ceremony and they said, 'And the winner is...' all I heard was 'At the...' I guess I heard the rest of it, but I was just in shock for a couple of days. I just couldn't believe it. It's been such a long road. To have (my family) acknowledged in this way was overwhelming.

Christian Losciale is an intern at the Beacon.

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