Growing Up Republican
I still remember the day that I found out I was a Republican. It was November, and in school we were learning about the electoral process. It was very basic, so I think I was in the third grade. Mrs. Spellman told us to find out tonight whether our parents were Republican or Democrat. We would share our family affiliation in class tomorrow. Finally, I had a homework assignment that I could share with my parents. Momma only had a fourth grade education and my schoolwork was starting to get too advanced for her to assist me. Daddy couldn’t read nor write, so I never asked for his assistance. But today I could!
“Daddy, are we Republican or Democrat?” It was 1964 and Daddy had recently retired from the Montour 4 coal mine. Even though he was retired, he remained active in our small community. On Election Day, Daddy had mimeographed sheets of paper with the names of all of the registered voters in Hills Station. I had glanced at the list of my neighbors and the parents of my friends, with an “R” or a “D” after each name. I knew that my parents were on the list, but I didn’t recall which letter followed their names.
Some of the names had notes next to them, indicating the voters who needed a ride to the polling place on Georgetown Road, the main street in town. Momma wrote the notes for Daddy, her contribution to his Election Day assignment. Even though I considered Momma unconcerned with community work, I knew that she had been very active in the past. In the forties and fifties, she had been President of the local Hallie Q. Brown Club, a civic organization of African American women. She had even been featured in The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important “colored” newspapers in the country. I had also seen the clippings describing her political fundraising efforts for local candidates.
I waited for Daddy’s reply. “We are Republican; just like Abraham Lincoln,” he said proudly. I couldn’t wait to share this information with my classmates.
At school the next day, Mrs. Spellman asked for the results of her parental survey. It didn’t take me long to notice a pattern – all of the other black kids were Democrats. My heart sank. I was already adopted, left-handed and Catholic; I didn’t need another attribute to separate me from my black friends and classmates. But Momma and Daddy taught me not to lie. When my turn came, I told the truth.
“Republican.” I heard the other black students start to laugh. I wondered if I could run all of the way home after school without encountering any of them. I lived across the street, so if I could get past the schoolyard, I’d be safe.
No such luck. “Marvella, why are you a Republican? You trying to be white?”
“Why you always gotta be different?”
After a few days of teasing, the survey was forgotten, but I wanted to know more. Why were my parents Republican? Like most things in my young life, it had to do with their age. Years later I learned that after the Civil War, many emancipated African Americans registered as Republican, the party of Lincoln. To my adopted parents, who were born in the South in the1890s, Lincoln wasn’t a historical figure. He was the good President who was assassinated less than thirty years before their births. Former slaves raised both of them – my mother by her grandparents, Isaac and Amanda Harper, and my father by his mother, Sally Hogg. My parents grew up believing in the promise of the Republican Party and moved north to escape the Reconstruction backlash of white Southern Democrats. Around the time of the New Deal, the demographics and ideals of the parties switched, but my parents remained party loyalists.
My mother died during the first Nixon administration. Even though I didn’t talk much about politics with my father as a teenager, I knew that he liked Johnson, disliked Nixon and was ambivalent about Ford. He died in December 1975, so he never got a chance to vote for Carter or Ford. I wondered if he changed his party affiliation in his later years. I doubt that my strong, obstinate Daddy ever strayed from the Republican rolls, even though the Republican values strayed away from him.
I can honestly say that I have no idea who my father would have voted for in the most recent presidential election. He might have been enamored of the Republican candidate’s promise to bring coalmines back, or he might have seen through the empty rhetoric. He might have been disgusted at the ways of a noted philanderer or he might have overlooked them, having made a few indiscretions in his own marriage. He might have agreed with the ideas of the Democratic candidate, but his misogynist beliefs might have deterred him from voting for a woman Commander-in-Chief.
But I’m proud that my parents were active in their community. Besides his Election Day activities, Daddy was also a volunteer fireman and auxiliary policeman. In her church, Momma had been a Worthy Matron of the Order of the Eastern Star. Even though I registered as a Democrat, I wouldn’t have become an involved, aware, and civic-minded person without the guidance, love, and support of two Republicans.