Rejecting historic prejudice: My father’s quiet accomplishment

Photo by Bill Bouton

My father grew up between the two world wars in deeply segregated Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was a community so racially divided that for nearly half of the 20th century, the Fourth of July was not officially celebrated because that date also marked the day that Vicksburg fell to Union forces, a major Civil War turning point.

As states across the South confront our complicated racial history and growing calls for removal of Confederate monuments, I’m reminded in this season of Father's Day of my own father’s quiet accomplishment in rejecting historic racial prejudice.

My Dad, Albert Henry Melsheimer, was one of seven brothers raised in Vicksburg in the 1920s and 30s. You can't really appreciate the feelings that run through the white South if you've never been there. Vicksburg’s battlefield is a national park now, and the divisions inherent in that battle dominated the town's psyche during my Dad's childhood and long after.

He was the only brother to leave Vicksburg and create a life for himself somewhere else. We made the long drive from Dallas every summer — my uncles never visited us — and it was apparent that my Dad had worked very hard to separate himself from the prejudice and bigotry that defined many in his hometown. We always visited an elderly African-American woman named Mariah Mack, who had helped raise him and his brothers. She cooked and cleaned for the Melsheimer family 10 hours each day and then returned home to her ramshackle house to do the same for her family. She was in a nursing home whenever I saw her, and my Dad treated her with as much or more reverence than he treated his own mother. He told me that Mariah had instilled self-confidence in him as a boy by repeatedly saying, in a thick southern accent, "Mister Albert, you could be president." He also recalled being bathed as a young child alongside Mariah's own boys. After she died, trips to Vicksburg always included pilgrimages to her grave.

I was struck during our visits with how my Dad would admonish family and friends who used racial epithets. I heard words in Vicksburg that I never heard at home, and it wasn't just the horrible "n-word." I heard him try to steer family and friends away from any racial description at all. On one occasion in the late 1960s, my Dad got into a loud argument with a friend who said that an African-American could never be a quarterback in football. My Dad insisted that was nonsense.

I don't want to elevate my Dad in death to something more than he was in life. His good will and tolerance certainly had limits. But he did something that wasn't easy. He left the familiar confines of his hometown and refused to embrace historical racial prejudice. His decision came at a cost. He returned home as an outsider, someone whose attitudes towards race were not "traditional." None of his brothers or other relatives took to his gentle encouragements to remove race from the topics of ordinary conversation. Instead, his efforts had their most positive effect on my older brother and sister and me. We all took to his keen interest in the political process and the good it could do for minorities and the poor.

If you think what my Dad did was easy, you need only scan recent news reports of protests surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments in the South to understand the ingrained strength of attitudes towards race in places where those monuments still stand. The contribution of my Dad — and no doubt those of many other men of his era who spoke up, spoke out or just quietly refused to be captives of the environment in which they grew up — is not something heroic to be celebrated in the history books. But, on Father's Day especially, it's celebrated by me. Were he around today, I'm confident that his answer to the efforts to remove Confederate monuments from prominent public display would be: "What took them so long?"

Author’s note: With appreciation for my brother Jack, who helped inspire this article.

Tom Melsheimer

Managing partner, Dallas, Winston & Strawn

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