Woman recalls grandparents, importance of March on Washington
Terese Tann was born a decade after the historic March on Washington, when Rev. Martin Luther King proclaimed a resounding, “I have a dream.”
But 50 years later, Terese embraces King's words as if she had heard them herself Aug. 28, 1963.
Terese understands the importance of the pivotal demonstration and speech, largely because of her grandparents.
Theresa and Alton Tann probably never intended to be pioneers in the Civil Rights Movement. They only wanted to love each other without the weight of racism on their shoulders. But a black man and a white woman had little support in 1953 when they married. In fact, many states had laws making it illegal, and public opinion polls from the era shows that only 4 percent of people in the United States approved of interracial marriage, compared to 87 percent today.
Terese is director of the Blackhawk Technical College Student Success Center, which works with diverse student groups to help them reach their educational and employment goals. She is named after her late grandmother and spent a lot of time with her grandparents when she was a child in Chicago's Cabrini-Green.
“In my younger years, I was raised in one of the top segregated cities in the United States,” Terese said. “My grandparents had to settle in a substandard neighborhood because they were an interracial couple. There was an unspoken understanding of where they were welcome."
Even her grandmother's parents disapproved of their daughter's choices.
“They struggled with having biracial grandchildren,” Terese said. “There was never a real relationship for my mother or aunts with their grandparents. They had limited contact with uncles and recalled their grandfather visiting, but they never met their maternal grandmother.”
Just as Rev. King dreamed of a day when the sons of former slaves and slave owners would sit together “at a table of brotherhood,” Terese's grandmother and mother dreamed of a better life for the next generation.
“In the late 1970s, my teacher talked with my mother,” Terese said. “She told her to do whatever she needed to do to get out of Cabrini-Green.”
The Cabrini-Green public housing development on Chicago's near north side regularly boiled over with violence, gang activity and drug abuse.
Terese's grandfather had died. Her father and mother had separated when she was 2, so it was up to her grandmother and mother to make changes. Grandmother Tann looked after Terese and her siblings so Terese's mother could work an extra job. Eventually, they moved to Kenosha and later to Beloit.
“I am always in awe that my mother and grandmother worked together to change the future for the whole rest of the family,” Terese said. “They created the opportunities for us to own a home and to go to college.”
Today, Terese does not take their sacrifices for granted.
“I am really blessed,” she said. “I have five children, and it has always been really important that we push education and civic involvement based on the examples that my family set for me.”
Terese has taken her children to some of the touchstones of the Civil Rights Movement, including Atlanta, where a memorial honors Martin Luther King.
“I've never seen children so reverent about a memorial,” she said. “It's been instilled in us as a family to recognize the sacrifices made by those who have come before us.”
Terese is working on a doctorate in higher education leadership at Madison's Edgewood College. She is researching the disproportionate number of minorities and women at community colleges compared to the number of white and wealthier students attending elite and four-year colleges.
“Education ties people to employment,” she said. “I don't think that we can be complacent that we have arrived until we have higher levels of graduations of all students at both two- and four-year colleges. But I am confident that we will continue to move in the right direction.”
Terese is co-chairwoman of the Racial Justice Committee of the YWCA Rock County and a YWCA board member.
“It may not be Dr. King out there doing the work today,” she said, “but there are still people who are fighting the fight and giving voice to those who are lacking a voice. We promote racial-justice equality and inclusion across all our programs.”
On the anniversary of the March on Washington, Terese said people often don't recognize the importance of their work until they see the outcome years later.
“For our family, we got the opportunity for equal access to a good education and housing,” Terese said. “I am not talking about preferential treatment. I am talking about equal access. My grandparents and parents never owned a home, but I own a home where I want and travel freely where I want. Things are much different for me than they were for them.”
She said strides have been made toward Rev. King's dream of racial and economic equality.
“But we cannot be complacent that the work is done,” Terese said. “We have to provide economic opportunities for everyone because it makes our neighborhoods stronger.”
The memory of her grandparents gives her courage.
“Every time something seems impossible,” Terese said, “I draw on the strength of knowing that I came from strong people.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email email@example.com.