How many readers remember Elizabeth Ekford, a member of the “Little Rock 9,” the first Black students to attempt to enter White, segregated, Little Rock Central High School in 1954? Her entry was barred by the bayonets of National Guardsmen while a crowd of hundreds of Whites taunted her and threatened to lynch her.
Do you recall the iconic photo of 6 year old Ruby Bridges being accompanied by federal marshals into Franz Elementary School in New Orleans six years later? After she entered the school, all but one of the teachers refused to teach her. For a year she sat in a classroom of one and endured daily death threats during her walk to school. Her father was fired from his job, the local grocery store refused her family’s patronage and her sharecropper grandparents were run off of their land.
How about Rosa Parks who refused to sit in the rear of a Montgomery bus in 1955. Her court case led to the abolishment of bus segregation. It also led to her being fired from her seamstress job. She received death threats for years afterwards.
Parks, Ekford and Bridges were but a few among the many courageous women whose insistence on simply being treated like human beings opened the door to the equality that, though supposedly guaranteed by our Constitution, is still far from reality. There are far too many Whites committed to slamming it shut. Isn’t it ironic that the Republicans preemptively characterized any candidate who would be Black and female as unqualified for the Supreme Court, while, at the same time, keep denying there is such a thing as systemic racism?
As I wrote this, a Black female candidate, one who as far as I can see is the model of what a Justice should be, stoically endured hours of farcical harassment by Republican demagogues. They had no other recourse, (other the logical one of treating her with respect) since they had nothing, zero, negative to pin on her. Their virtually self-professed mission, besides desperately trying to bar the door of the Court to a Democratic nominee once again, was simply to keep a Black woman in her place and, of course, to curry favor with the despicable demographic who comprise their base. That this woman could sit there calm and cool while subjected to the hollow harangues of white men who are not fit to shine her shoes, reminiscent of little Ruby walking to school with her head held high amidst the death threats, was a testimony to her character and to her strength.
Early in my professional career, I was the beneficiary of the courage of a strong Black woman. Unlike the women cited above, but very much like a large number of her peers, Mary Pickett never gained public recognition. She was just a hardworking federal employee who, if given the opportunity, probably could have risen to a much higher position. Hers was a less conspicuous type of courage, but courageous nonetheless. Solely on the basis of competence, perseverance, hard work and an iron will, Mary had risen to the top of one of the the limited career options that were available to her in mid-20th century America.
Mary entered my life, or I suppose I should say, I entered hers when, fresh out of my psychiatric residency, I reported for work at the Albany VA Medical Center. As executive secretary to the Chief of Psychiatry, she was tasked with keeping our department running as smoothly as a department composed of nutty shrinks and their nuttier charges could run. Mary had seen many department chiefs come and go during her years of service. While the latest chief, Cullen Burris, well qualified as he was, had the title, Mary had the power. Nothing got past Mary and nothing got done without her cooperation.
For some reason, Mary took a shine to me from the get go. I still feel a warm glow when I remember walking into her office every morning to pick up the requisition slips for psychiatric consultations from the medical and surgical units. “Here come the Dove!” she’d crow, her smile lighting up and warming the room like her native North Carolina sun rising on a summer morning. Mary was not alone in her affection toward me. Just about everyone I worked with came to like and respect me. All but one, but I’ll get to that soon.
I was careful to never give Mary cause to doubt her faith in me, treating her with the same warmth, deference and respect I directed at all the administrative and clinical staff who were, technically, my inferiors. Not only did I truly respect and like her, but I knew my welfare as a cog in the sometimes dysfunctional machinery of the department and the hospital lay, to a great extent, in her hands.
Though I don’t really know why Cullen assigned me to the two plum positions, consultation-liaison and the outpatient clinic, I was grateful for the opportunity the former role gave me to improve my medical and surgical knowledge and the latter gave me to hone my chops as a psychotherapist. It was a charmed life. For a while. As my colleagues languished in chaotic inpatient wards and substance abuse units, I was permitted to go happily about my business doing exactly what I wished to do.
After a while, though, a burned out private practitioner arrived on the scene. A dour, compulsive, controlling and probably depressed fellow in late middle age, he could find something to criticize wherever he casts his gaze. It was easy to see why he had failed at private practice where empathy, patience, flexibility and developing rapport with patients are essential. Let’s call him “Louie.”
Louie had been assigned to the least desirable ward in the hospital. It was basically a nursing home for former state mental hospital patients, most of whom had been medicated into a zombie-like state. Having nothing really to do, Louie roamed the hospital looking for things to get upset about and people to criticize while assuming an officious demeanor as though he, not Cullen, was the head of the department.
As a young whippersnapper who, in his mind, was occupying the positions he more rightly deserved, I became his favorite target. Until a severe back problem caused Cullen to take a prolonged leave of absence, he protected me from Louie’s machinations. But in Cullen’s absence, Louie quickly insinuated himself into the role of acting chief, in which he doubled down on his scheme to reverse our roles.
Little did Louie understand, though, that it wasn’t the chief who had all the power, but Ms Mary Pickett. As a mother hen will defend her young from a weasel, Mary pulled every bureaucratic lever in her impressive arsenal to hold Louie at bay until Cullen’s return.
Louie, however, took a new tack. He achieved a position in the hospital administration from which he could go over Cullen’s and Mary’s heads.
One day, on returning from a short vacation, I arrived at work to find that the key to my office no longer opened the door. Louie smirked as he informed me that my post, from then on, would be on the alcoholism and addiction wing which was second only to his former post in lack of desirability.
But, fortunately, Mary had held him off long enough. Unbeknownst to Louie, I had just purchased the private practice of the most successful psychiatrist in town and was departing the VA within a week.
When I think of what I owe to Mary, what many of us owe to women such as she, it saddens me that people like her have been pushed, shoved and marginalized for so long.
Here’s to Mary Picket and to strong Black women all over this land. How wonderful that, despite the efforts of the White elite, a strong Black woman is probably headed for the pinnacle of the legal profession. Lord knows she’s earned it. Like Ruby, Elizabeth and Rosa before her, and, yes, like Mary, she courageously leads the way for the many to come who, let’s hope, will finally achieve the recognition and equality so many strong Black women so richly deserve.