The Graetz Neighborhood Dedication

By on 3 March, 2011 in City Living, Historic Midtown, Sandra Nickel with 1 Comment

Photos by Debbie Richardson

I have twice become nearly overcome with guilt about my youthful attitude to race relations. The first time, Congressman John Lewis had come to town for the dedication of an historic marker at the Greyhound Bus Station downtown location on South Court Street. Lewis was among the Freedom Riders who were beaten when a Greyhound bus carrying both African-Americans and whites rolled into Montgomery in 1961.

And the second time occurred a few years ago when the late Tommie Miller re-introduced me to The Rev. Robert Graetz and his wife Jeannie. It was then I learned of their astonishing involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Montgomery Improvement Association.

Pastor Graetz is a white Lutheran pastor. I am a Lutheran who somewhat prided herself on her lack of racial prejudice. How, I wondered, could I not have known the Graetz family and supported them in their efforts? How could I have been so totally oblivious to those who were struggling so?

Of course, I had not thought about the calendar. The Montgomery Bus Boycott began December 1, 1955. I did not move to Montgomery until mid-1964. I have subsequently learned that the Graetz family left Montgomery for a new pastorate in 1957, and the church they pastored changed its synodical affiliation and — I assume — its involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

How, I tortured myself, could I have been so blissfully unaware and unengaged in the upheaval that was ongoing in Montgomery at that time? The answer was pretty simple: I grew up in a time and place where “ignorance was bliss” … or perhaps worse!

An award-winning 1966 CBS Television documentary, “Sixteen in Webster Groves,” depicted a St. Louis suburb where parents shielded their children from all ugliness, in the hope that life would be better for their offspring than they had experienced themselves during the Great Depression. That, at least, was my take on what occurred. A 1996 report in a St. Louis publication saw it differently: “…what they chose to show after three months nestled amid the shaggy trees and century-old homes — was a Babbitt-like conformity, rigid and overbearing parents, an insular and soulless class and a callous indifference to the minuscule number of “negroes” in the community.”

I didn’t grow up in Webster Groves. And my childhood home was right next door in the suburb of Kirkwood, Mo. Our public schools integrated peacefully in the fall of 1955, right on the heels of Brown vs. Board of Education. While they may well have occurred, I don’t ever recall reading or hearing about a civil rights demonstration in our area.

As a college freshman at Washington University, also in St. Louis, I had a friend from New York whose older sister was a Freedom Rider. But my friend spoke little of that. Her concerns were more mundane: making decent grades and gaining social acceptance.

She and I, were we guilty of anything, were shamefully self-absorbed and terribly like the adolescents of every generation since WWII. Not an excuse, for sure. But an explanation.

My coming to grips with the reality of both prejudice in my childhood community AND my developing a real heart for equal justice has occurred only slowly over the intervening years since early adulthood. I like to think that now — given the chance — I will stand with any oppressed group. Stand tall and loud. (Friends in the GLBT community, hold me accountable on that!)

So it was with immense joy that I attended last Saturday’s dedication of the Graetz Neighborhood entryway sign at the intersection of E.D. Nixon Avenue and West Fairview, just two blocks west of Midtown. Guest speaker and historian Dr. Richard Bailey rightly observed that we in attendance were witnessing another milestone in Montgomery race relations, that of a nearly 100% African-American neighborhood’s decision to name their community after their beloved white friends, Robert and Jeannie Graetz. Amazing — utterly amazing!

Hat’s off, Graetz Neighborhood, for honoring Dr. King’s vision for a time when people are judged “not by the color of their skin but on the content of their character.” And hat’s off, Montgomery. We’ve come a long, long way. And, yes, we still have a long, long way to go!

Sandra Nickel has been listing and selling residential real estate for over 29 years, most with an intense focus on Montgomery’s Midtown neighborhoods. Sandra serves on the Mid-Alabama Coalition for the Homeless, the Cloverdale Business Coalition, Historic Southview, the Volunteer and Information Center, Landmarks Foundation and her own neighborhood Garden District Preservation Association.

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  1. Jay Croft says:

    Thank you for this, Sandra.

    I had a similar situation growing up in New England. It wasn’t until I came to Birmingham in 1996 and visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute that it all hit home.

    Since then I’ve rattled some cages here and there on the matter of accessibility. There’s still more to go!

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