Women of substance
Three generations of Sacramento women describe their family’s journey from slavery to the middle-class life of American blacks
In the rich, amber light of a recent late-autumn afternoon, Eva Rutland sat waiting for me under the fall-tinted canopy of a massive sycamore outside the Curtis Park home she shares with her daughter and granddaughter to discuss the republication of her 1964 book of personal essays, When We Were Colored: A Mother’s Story.
The 91-year-old author’s tiny frame filled just half of the wheelchair’s width and her feet dangled to the pavement. Ginger Rutland, 60, a longtime Sacramento broadcast and print journalist, guided her mother’s manicured hand into mine to shake. “I wish I could see you,” Eva said, setting me immediately at ease about her blindness with a Southern charm that’s smooth and sweet as molasses. She rose smiling and led the way inside the house.
We settled ourselves at one corner of a table long enough to seat a dozen diners and were soon joined by Ginger’s 23-year-old daughter, Eva Fields. Ginger sometimes refers to her daughter as “Eva the Younger” to avoid confusion with the elder Eva, whose mother was also an “Eva.” If he was home, Eva’s father, Don Fields, never appeared and left the discussion to the women of the house.
Together, the three generations of women run the publishing enterprise for Eva’s book, operating the business and promoting the paperback through joint presentations at book signings that tell the story of the family’s history from slavery to the middle-class life of blacks in America that rarely gets told. Eva wrote the stories at the height of landmark civil-rights legislation that brought about integration in the 1950s and 1960s. Some were first published in Redbook, Woman’s Day and Ladies’ Home Journal, and Eva’s thinking was that if she could just talk to white women, they’d understand that her children were just like theirs.
These are tales of goodness in the face of bigotry and cruelty, of hope and the tenacity to survive, of pride and ultimately the ordinariness of Eva’s middle-class black family in Sacramento. Eva’s cast of characters are mostly likable sorts, though she writes into each story a least one twist that reveals terror perpetrated behind the walls of segregation, the sting of rejection she witnessed in her children’s faces and the barriers erected in her family’s path despite the guarantees of equal rights. The fact that the stories ring true today is shown in the book’s sales—more than 5,000 copies of the self-published book sold.
But before we began talking about When We Were Colored, Ginger—who has served on the editorial board of The Sacramento Bee for the past 20 years—ran through a list of her mother’s ailments in a practiced way that was meant to set things straight upfront. Eva is blind, hard of hearing and speaks with a raspy voice because of a tracheotomy.
Then the storytelling began, with the three women interrupting each other and finishing each other’s sentences in the easy way of families. Eva lost her eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa four decades ago, though it’s not immediately evident since she looks at whoever’s speaking in the same way she had for more than 50 years before going blind. The hole cut into Eva’s throat a half-century ago allows her to breathe, after a botched surgery blocked her airway and paralyzed her vocal chords.
“She went through an entire pregnancy not being able to breathe,” said her granddaughter, clutching at her own throat and imitating her grandmother gasping for breath. “The trach was supposed to be temporary until she’d given birth to her twins, and that was when Grandma said, ‘I can breathe, leave me alone.’”
“And now this dang thing gives me so much trouble,” Eva said, after reaching behind the inch-wide gold medallion that hangs on a short chain to put a finger on the opening in her throat so she could speak. “I wish I had done something. You know one thing? We’re here to talk about the books, aren’t we? We ought to stop talking about the aliments.”
‘People are people’
Eva’s writing career took off after she began losing her eyesight. With a steely resolve she persevered—though she says she was just “having fun”—writing more than 20 books using a tape recorder, typewriter, the help of friends and family and, ultimately, an old DOS-based computer equipped with a voice synthesizer. Nearly all are “sweet romances”—translation: no sex—for Harlequin. Copies are piled atop the table’s white lace cloth, along with Eva’s powerful book of essays about leaving the protection of the “the ermine-trimmed, diamond-studded velvety cloak of segregation” of her young life among the black elite in Atlanta for the uncertain promises of integration in mid-1950s California where she reared four children—Elsie, Billy and fraternal twins Ginger and Patty-Jo.
In her stories, Eva tells of her richly sheltered life growing up in Atlanta in the house her grandfather built after he was freed from slavery at the end of the Civil War. Her own father was a pharmacist. All the siblings graduated college; Eva earned a degree in economics at Spelman College. The family attended the Congregational Church with the rest of Atlanta’s upper middle-class blacks; Eva was a debutant. The schools Eva attended expected her to excel, Ginger explained, and within the community she was loved and respected. Life was fun.
“People don’t know how much fun it was to be black. We are so full of ‘woe is me’ and all these bad things that happened to us and how mean they were to us,” Ginger said, her voice a deep, slow singsong. “Mom had a great life in that ‘terrible’ segregation.”
But it’s from her experiences growing up across town in an integrated neighborhood that Eva draws some of the earliest of the essays published 40 years ago under the title, The Trouble With Being a Momma. Running through each is the truth she learned growing up in a place where the closeness of neighbors trumped the prejudices of race that “people are people”—and it’s the mantra she’s recited for close to a century now. Stories of her idyllic childhood twist and turn as they gently reveal the reality of life in the segregated South, sometimes shocking readers with the brutality of bigotry.
There was the time that a young Eva sat eating apples with a girlfriend in her house, when suddenly they saw a white policeman climbing in the window and another walking down the hall. There had been reports that white women were meeting with black men at her house. The women had come to use one of the only phones in the neighborhood, but it was still a close call for Eva’s innocent brothers who had left the house just minutes before the cops arrived. Another time, her two brothers were badly beaten—their throats slit—by white neighbors. The boys survived, and Eva writes of the depth of the scars that bothered her brother, Sam:
Past the surface scratches of the hoodlums’ switchblades, buried under the sugarcoatings of the Mrs. Brookmans and friendly whites we knew, were the deep, ugly bruises of a lifetime of blows—the long, long walk on a cold, wintry day to the segregated school, the push to the back of the bus, the climb to the “jim crow” section of the theater to see a special movie, the longing walk past the spacious parks and swimming pools reserved for whites, and his job—truck driver, under the supervision of a man whose education could not touch his own. The switchblade scars were only surface marks—a symbol of ‘what they think I am.’
Once in California, Eva wrote with power and grace of her family’s experiences as they moved with quiet determination into integrated workplaces and neighborhoods and schools in Sacramento. She captures the pain of integration her daughter experienced when the mother of her schoolgirl friend refused to let her come over because of her blackness. She reveals the kindness of whites like her husband’s colleague at McClellan Air Force Base, who agreed to buy property that he then resold to the Rutlands, allowing them to break into a middle-class neighborhood beyond Second Avenue, where illegal racial covenants nevertheless maintained de facto segregation. And she gets readers laughing with an account of how she was so dazzled by the praise Ginger’s English teacher heaped on one of Eva’s “ordinary and slightly lazy children” that she got hopelessly lost trying to find the rooms for other teacher conferences one parents’ night.
The three women collapsed in laughter at the mention of that 40-year-old story during our interview, and Eva, delighted at making the connection to her grandmother, explained: “I went to that same school. I know exactly what rooms she was in and how she got so lost. You think the room numbers should go in a certain order, but they don’t.”
No right to fail
It was Ginger’s reading of one of Eva’s stories—“Trouble With Papa”—at her father’s funeral three winters ago that provided the impetus to get serious about republishing her mother’s book. It’s a tale of Bill Rutland’s fierceness at report-card time that recounts a dinnertime argument that broke out over a news report that James Meredith, the first black student at the University of Mississippi, might have to leave college over low grades and ended with Bill’s furious pronouncement: “A nigger’s got no right to fail!”
Later that night, as Eva tells the story, her husband roared privately to her: “Don’t you dare plant the idea in my children that it’s all right to fail. A nigger’s got to win.”
Then she mused about the deserved promotions for her husband that went to less-qualified white men, the waitresses who refused to serve her husband meals and the hotel rooms he wasn’t allowed to sleep in while he traveled the country as a manager of logistics for the Air Force. Eva concluded: “I know at last what my husband is roaring about: ‘The doors are open. Be ready.’”
The story reduced mourners to fresh tears. And so many of them asked where they could get a copy of the long out-of-print book that family members decided to form a company and self-publish. Named for Eva’s grandfather—the son of his white slave master—Isaac Westmoreland Publishers is “a symbol of more than adversity overcome but of triumph and hope.” It’s headquartered in a small A-shaped room at the top of the stairs in the Curtis Park house.
A twin bed fits snug against one wall, while boxes of books, postcard and bookmark tchotchkes, and papers fight for space with bargain-sized packages of toilet paper piled high along the other wall. “I bought a file cabinet, but …” Ginger said, leaving it up to me to judge her organizational skills. A wooden chair, painted white and dotted with bright splotches of color and “Eva” along the top, sits next to another facing an enormous old-fashioned computer monitor that displays the guts of the business: hundreds of files, dozens of folders.
Ginger took a three-month leave from her demanding job at the Bee last spring to publish and promote her mother’s book. The files and folders on the computer tell a complex story of what’s involved in self-publishing: the details of changing the book’s title, hiring designers and tracking down photographers to obtain permission to use photos, getting an ISBN number, writing to Iran to plead for a break on royalties for use of a snippet of Kahlil Gibran’s poetry from The Prophet in the audio recording of When We Were Colored.
I got a sense of the work-at-home experience as Ginger handily fielded a call from her mother calling from downstairs (“She calls my cell phone when she can’t find me in the house”) and forwarded on another to the landline from a neighbor who wanted to speak to Eva without missing a beat in describing details of the publishing business.
The Rutlands hired a “book shepherd” to guide them step by step through the process of publication. One key to making sure the book didn’t look self-published was to enlist people to endorse it in blurbs on the back cover and inside front pages. Comments appear from an array of prominent Californians—Willie Brown (former Speaker of the state Assembly), Kevin Starr (state librarian emeritus) and Janet Clayton (assistant managing editor of the Los Angeles Times). The one Ginger is most proud of is the endorsement from David Levering Lewis, a professor of history and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography W.E.B Du Bois: 1919-1963: The Fight for Equality and the American Century.
“David Levering Lewis is this monumental academic figure, and my mom always said she knew him,” Ginger said. “Well, you know, you listen to your mom with half an ear. I wrote him and didn’t expect to hear back. But he e-mailed me right back and said she was the first black person he knew who had ever been published.”
Lewis not only wrote a blurb endorsing Eva’s book, but he also invited Eva, her daughters and granddaughter to his private club when they were in New York to promote the republication. Publishing the book has opened up a lot of doors and new experiences for everyone involved, but Ginger says it’s not been easy.
“I’m not a business woman—I don’t even balance my checkbook,” she said, describing details of dealing with sales tax that differs depending on where the books are sold, and with things like the state Board of Equalization and distribution. “Eva created these Excel files.”
Eva Fields, a.k.a. “Eva the Younger,” steps into the office space from the hallway where she’d been examining her image in a full-length mirror assessing how well a pair of shoes matched a dress she planned to wear to a friend’s wedding: “Do you know how to use them?”
“No,” her mother said.
“These are incredibly simple,” Eva said, taking over the computer. “See, here we have IWP expenses, and here’s the date, and … ”
Ginger shook her head, glad to leave some aspects of the business up to her daughter. Since graduating from Reed College in May, Eva has moved back into her parents’ house and taken over some of the business aspects of publishing and responsibility for promoting When We Were Colored—a critical role, since sales die as soon as promotion stops. Eva reached into the closet to pull out some promotional materials, playfully chiding her mother for making a mess of the press packages.
Black is beautiful
Daughter Eva seems more inclined toward business and publicity than her mother, who dreamed of becoming a journalist first at age 10. On the family’s black-and-white TV in their 27th Street house in the “poor” section of Curtis Park that bordered Oak Park, Ginger watched captivated as the civil-rights movement erupted in towns like Greensboro, N.C., and Little Rock, Ark. She wanted to tell those stories.
“To watch Selma, the dogs, the fire hoses, all of those things. Those were big events in my life and in the lives of all black people,” Ginger recalled. “I believed if I could just tell those stories, people would understand injustice and injustice would be eliminated.”
In the way most people fail to recognize the extraordinary in everyday events, Ginger didn’t, at the time, see the racial and social barriers being quietly broken by her own family in Sacramento. She arrived at Howard University the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, hungry to join the black-power movement then in full force.
“We were black and proud. I stopped straightening my hair, which I haven’t gone back to, and I had the most ridiculous Afro that you’ve ever seen,” she said, holding her hands out a foot from either side of her head, and laughing. “There was point to it—the point was black was beautiful.”
Ginger marched in all the big marches of the late 1960s, took part in the poor people’s campaign, even sat in (briefly enough to not risk losing class credit) at Howard, and in the end came back to Sacramento and got a job. Back then the Bee wouldn’t hire her, though the notoriously conservative Sacramento Union considered her. On a lark, she walked into KCRA 3, and was hired. After seven years there, she spent the next 10 covering the state Capitol for San Francisco’s KRON 4. Today, she’s heard frequently on Capital Public Radio, and her voice continues to shape the Bee’s editorial stance.
Equal rights haven’t solved America’s problems with race and class the way Ginger hoped in her youthful optimism they would. Though she doesn’t “feel oppressed in any way,” Ginger worries about the black underclass. She uses her position on the editorial board to speak out for people who have been mistreated because of their color.
In what might seem an unlikely pairing, the most radical of the Rutland children married a white man. But she is her mother’s daughter, and as often as Eva says it, it’s true that “people are people.” Ginger said, “And I just happened to fall in love with a white guy.”
“My daughter lives in a world in which nothing’s barred,” Ginger said. “She’s been embraced by both sides of her family—the white side and the black side.”
Race matters—class matters, Ginger explained, though her daughter has largely escaped the experiences of previous generations. Often family stories about race turn on humor. Like this one Ginger tells about the time she picked her daughter up after school at Bret Harte Elementary: “Eva’s probably in fourth or fifth grade, and there’s a little girl there who’s in kindergarten or first grade, and her eyes get this big: ‘Eva, your mother’s black!’ It was funny. Eva doesn’t care. She’s comfortable with who she is. She is not unusual. Sacramento lends itself to that kind of difference.”
Eva Fields has lived the ordinary and happy life her grandmother wrote about wanting for her four children, and she talks about how normal her life has been: “My parents are pretty straight-laced. They own that house. They both work. Having two parents who still lived together—that was more unusual than being half black and half white.”
“People are very surprised to hear that I’m black—they stare,” she explained via cell phone from the White Pine motel in the tiny town of Ely, Nev., where she and her father had traveled to do what they could to turn the state in favor of a Barack Obama presidency. “They ask if I’m adopted, and when I say no, they ask: ‘Are you sure?’”
It’s an issue that comes up frequently now that she’s taking the lead in promoting her grandmother’s book. Her look is exotic, definitely mixed-race, but not obviously black. At the New York Book Festival, she felt sensitive to questioning looks from people who didn’t see how she fit into the black family pictured on the cover, or with her grandmother, mother and aunts who have traveled to New York to promote the book. The experience prompted her to write an opinion piece on “My Rich, Mixed Heritage” that was published last February in The Christian Science Monitor. In bookstores and at readings, when people look at her, she knows what they’re thinking:
What is this girl of unknown race … doing with a black mother and grandmother? And what is she doing using the word ‘colored’? Doesn’t she know that’s not politically correct? (Grandma is working on a new book that she may call Tales of a Negro Grandma, and I dread going to bookstores with that word.)
It’s easy to explain. “Colored” was the polite word for blacks in the 1950s and 1960s when her grandmother wrote the essays, and her father is white. That usually takes care of the questioning looks. Eva the Younger’s passion is black history—she wrote her thesis on the turn-of-the-century race riots in Atlanta and Wilmington, N.C.—and her gratitude for the personal history of her family told through her grandmother’s book is immense. Since picking it up at age 10, she’s read When We Were Colored 15 times. It got her through lonely times while away at college and helped her explain herself to friends whom she’d encouraged to read it. Her grandmother is her inspiration; the book is her heritage.
“It’s really cool that I have ancestors who survived slavery. And they survived the KKK. And they survived Jim Crow segregation, which in many ways was worse than slavery,” Eva Fields said. “It’s a disgraceful part of our history, but I am very proud that I come from a long line of survivors, who survived—even prospered—when everything was stacked against them.”
They did it one by one, as Eva’s father—a college-educated pharmacist—did by working as a train porter and bellhop during the Great Depression to feed his family, or as Eva did in Sacramento by taking her place as the first black woman in the PTA to make sure her kids got a decent education. They did it in smaller groups, like when the 14 white men stood up and walked out of a Southern restaurant that had refused to serve their black colleague, Bill Rutland. They did it by the tens of thousands that Ginger joined as they marched on the nation’s capital. And sometimes they did through fakery and a good laugh with the help of “converted” white friends, like the time Eva’s husband was traveling with white colleagues in Colorado Springs, Colo. The men wanted to go into a restaurant, and fearing their friend would be refused service, Eva explained: “So one white guy said, ‘Come on Bill, put on that fez, and I’ll tell them you’re from Saudi Arabia.’
“He couldn’t speak any English … he had to speak in French phrases,” Eva said, laughing at the memory. “But when they were going to get the photographer from the town’s newspaper to take his picture, they said, ‘I’m sorry, he has to get down on his prayer rug at this time, but we will come back.’ They left and took the next plane out of the city.”
“I always thought that story was fantastical,” Ginger said; then the three women in unison said: “Yes, it’s true.”
Then just last month, that courage, perseverance and triumph was evident when the country voted overwhelmingly to send the first black man to the White House. Although the Bee endorsed Obama in the presidential primary, Ginger was one of the dissenting voices to that recommendation. As a black woman she felt compelled to explain why she didn’t vote in primary for the “first truly viable black candidate for president of the United States”: “Despite the obvious demographic connection—I’m black, he’s black—I’m voting for Clinton because I think she’s more seasoned and more prepared to lead this country.” Ginger speaks of the “discrimination” of voting for candidates simply because their race mirrors yours. But once Obama won the nomination, Ginger’s daughter and husband knocked on doors in remote sections of Nevada to support his election, and all three generations of women—Ginger, Eva and Eva the Younger—cast their votes for Obama.
“When Grandma was growing up it was almost impossible for a black man to get a decent job, and now only two generations later we have a black president,” Eva Fields said. “I wasn’t excited about Obama being black until he won. Once he won, I started jumping up and down. I cried. I could not believe that this had happened, and I was so happy.”
And when she called her grandmother on election night, Eva, close to tears, marveled at Obama’s win: “Never in my life.”