Ken Coleman: Granny is too important to risk sitting with at the Thanksgiving dinner table

May Ella Crouther | Ken Coleman photo

It’s Thanksgiving and like millions of other families we are not celebrating the holiday with extended family and friends.

Following the advice of medical professionals and government officials, our family has chosen to not gather for a large dinner involving several households on Thursday but to have a virtual gathering via the Internet.

Each year, we enjoy seeing family and friends from as far as Saginaw. Not seeing May Ella Crouther, my only surviving grandparent, is particularly crushing for me. My siblings and I grew up next door to her and my late grandfather, Leon, during our formative years in the 1970s and ‘80s. Granny, as we call her, gave me my first car to drive to work and also helped to pay for my first year of college.

COVID-19 has rocked Detroit and Granny, at age 92, has several comorbidities. My family realizes that the virus is real. Detroit, Michigan’s largest city, is 80% African American. Blacks in Michigan make up 14% of the state’s population but about 38% of coronavirus deaths. In addition, other regions of the state are experiencing spikes in cases.

The COVID-19 crisis has rocked Detroit and my life. But it’s also inspired me. 

“As we get ready for the holidays, every one of us is going to have to have a plan and think long and hard about how to keep our family’s safe,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said at a recent press conference. “I know that it’s hard. No one likes Thanksgiving more than I do. I love to host and have the whole family come together. We’re not going to do it this year. It’s just too dangerous.”

The fourth of 10 children born in 1928 to Anderson and Ellen Gaddis in Jim Crow-era Carthage, Miss., Granny has endured racism, the Great Depression, World War II and an oft-times contentious Civil Rights movement. She and my grandfather migrated to Detroit in the late 1940s. Their rural hometown is only 90 miles from where Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, was murdered in 1955 by white men for supposedly whistling at a white woman. Carthage also is only 30 miles away from where three Civil Rights activists were murdered by whites in 1964 and their bodies discovered in an earthen dam. James Chaney of Meridian, Miss., and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner from New York City were helping to register Black people to vote one year before the Voting Rights Act was enacted to provide federal protection. Schwerner and Goodman had been shot once in the heart. Chaney, an African American, had been severely beaten, castrated and shot three times.

In Detroit, a city that saw its Black population double between 1940 and 1950, Granny sought a better way of life. She toiled as a short order cook during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1968, she was hired by General Motors to paint automobiles. She worked there until retirement in 1993. Granny has always loved to cook for her family and host holiday gatherings. Like many women in her generation, she used to make cornbread from scratch, baked turkey, fried chicken, and sweet potato pie. Older and now semi-wheelchair bound, she has retired from cooking. Nonetheless, her sharp wit and side-splitting one-liners continue to place her as the life of the party. But having as many as 12 to 15 people from several households gather is simply unwise and irresponsible. Granny’s health is too important to risk. As much as I want to see her, kiss her and talk with her, it’s not safe. My hope is that Michiganders take the same position that my family has. The spike in COVID-19 cases in our state is troubling. On Saturday, I arrived at my Aunt Lenora’s home, where Granny lives. I waved to her, Aunt Lenora and my mother, Pat Elmore, from the dining room window. I wanted to go inside because her upbeat sense of being brings comfort to me during trying times. I don’t know whether I have COVID-19. Health care officials point that you can have coronavirus without symptoms.

Poletown closing cuts deep

Granny is a tough cookie. She has endured racial hate against people who look like her for decades, the worst economic crises in American history, and a war in which her husband survived but 400,000 other U.S. citizens died. My bet is that she will survive the COVID-19 era, too. I have been so inspired by her amazing life, her dedication to family, and her vast experience as a Black woman who joined the workforce at a time when many Americans like her were discriminated against simply because of their race and their gender.

Granny continues to be a driving force in my relentless dedication to chronicle the Black experience in Detroit. As I research and write about people who look like us, I often think about her. So, it would be irresponsible for me to risk placing her in harm’s way. I’m sticking to Zoom calls and window waving.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.