By Lisa Mitchell Sennaar
On my father’s first birthday in 1940, his father wrote a letter to him that started with “My Precious Little Son, …I want you to know that from the very beginning that you were loved and greatly wanted. From your earliest hours with us, you have shown yourself to be a child of great possibilities. You bear the stamp of heaven’s approval in your manner and on your face.” His mother would often say, “My children are my claim on eternity.” We were taught that faith and family formed the foundation from which everything else emanates. Our children are precious gifts from God, who we are responsible for, but who do not belong to us. And they will chart our future course.
It’s especially important now, for us to accept that struggle is a constant. Simply put, “freedom is not free.” We cannot allow the daunting battles against COVID-19 and continued structural racism to dim the memory of our history of waging successful battles on multiple fronts. My paternal grandparents were born in 1911 and 1913 during World War I. In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in response to the ongoing violence against Black Americans in the United States and its Baltimore Branch was founded in 1912.
In 1933, my 22-year-old grandfather traveled to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to cover the lynching of George Armwood, who was just 23 years old, for the Afro-American Newspaper. He testified several months later in front of the House Judiciary Subcommittee in support of anti-lynching legislation. Also, in Maryland starting in 1935, Black plaintiffs, represented by the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall along with other counsel filed a series of successful lawsuits against the University of Maryland for discriminating against Black applicants by denying them admission based on race to the schools of Law, Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing, Pharmacy, Graduate Program in Sociology and Undergraduate Engineering Program.
My parents were born in 1939 and 1942, during World War II when the “The Double V Campaign” was initiated. The two V’s were for victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home. The Pittsburgh Courier, the Afro-American and other Black-owned newspapers helped galvanize the campaign which labeled American Jim Crow segregation and discrimination as “Hitlerism.”
Our ancestors fought for full citizenship under the law, battling to have their very humanity acknowledged. Among the most harmful violations was denial of access to equal public education. The Baltimore City junior high school that my father attended was overcrowded, had fewer resources and the curriculum was a year behind its White public counterpart. Additionally, there weren’t even enough chairs to sit in, causing fights between students, who did not want to sit on wooden milk crates all day as alternative seating. This led my grandparents to try to enroll my father at a local catholic school, Loyola Blakefield. We were told that my father was denied admittance in 1953 because he was Black. Since my grandfather worked in D.C., they applied for my father to attend Gonzaga College High School. He was admitted and graduated. He never complained, but it’s a stain on Maryland that a 14-year-old had to commute to D.C. daily for four years because it chose not to fulfill its constitutional and moral obligation.
My grandmother often talked about the foundation of love and support that she and my grandfather received from their families. It undergirded them and they lovingly provided that to their children. They worked together to rear the next generation, even in the midst of war. When my grandparents were organizing late evenings, weekends and traveling out of state working with the NAACP, it was their parents, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins that filled in to babysit and attend my father and his brothers’ recitals and sporting competitions. Family helped rear them as their parents fought the war for first class citizenship in America. As my daughter often reminds me, “We’ve got this.”
Lisa Mitchell Sennaar’s career includes a decade in television and radio production and broadcast. Her family left their imprint on the Civil Rights Revolution of the 20th Century, helping to build local, state and national organizations; also serving simultaneously at every level of government: The United Nations, House of Representatives, Maryland State Legislature and Baltimore City Council. Lisa works in state government, is a Baltimore resident, married and the mother of two teenagers.