Howard was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1914; Grace came into the world five years later and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Howard’s brother used to say that two major disasters occurred in 1914: World War I and Howard’s birth. Grace was born the year women finally obtained the right to vote. Many changes lay ahead that would affect their lives forever.
Young Howard’s mother punished him for playing with little black children who lived across the tracks; he was sent to bed without supper as she told him, “Thank the Lord God above you weren’t born one of them!”
Grace’s father was a postal worker and owned a barber shop; although he had advanced degrees from Pratt Institute in both architecture and engineering, he couldn’t get a job in either of those fields because he was black. He made the most of it and life went on.
Howard, the son of a dentist, had privileges; he attended a Swiss boarding school and became fluent in French. He went to Princeton University and received his Master’s in Art History. He traveled the world and took in the breathtaking art of Europe on a Fulbright Fellowship.
Grace, a precocious student, went to college at the age 15 of but dropped out the first year due to a debilitating depression caused by the untimely death of her mother.
Grace and Howard got married to their respective first spouses; neither union was satisfactory. Grace returned to college, where Howard had become a professor. Feeling it was unnecessary, Grace walked out of the requisite Humanities class; her advisor told her to speak to Professor Davis, which she did. A week or so later, Professor Davis noticed Grace sitting in the back of his classroom. Although he had excused her from the Humanities requirement, she was charmed by the young, well-dressed professor and had returned to audit his class.
This being the era long before constant cries of sexual harassment prevailed, Howard told Grace he had tickets to the ballet and asked her if she would like to go with him and have dinner afterward. She replied yes and he would meet her at her railroad flat in SoHo and the two would go from there.
The door was unlocked when he arrived; he turned the handle and walked in. There sat a grinning Grace, in bubbles up to her chin, sipping champagne in a bathtub with feet in the middle of the living room.
They never made it to the ballet.
Howard and Grace began dating. Howard went to Reno to get a divorce from his wife; Grace’s marriage was also in the process of dissolving. It wasn’t as easy to get divorced in 1949 as it is now.
Grace’s father and brothers approved of and liked Howard a great deal; her family valued education and higher learning and so accepted him. Howard’s mother was an extremely difficult woman and racist to boot; Howard had done an emotional cut-off from her years earlier.
Grace and Howard got married. They talked about having children and the challenges of having a “mixed” child. They went ahead and had one anyway. The kid came out very light, and Grace used to joke that she married Howard because she “wanted to have a child with straight hair.”
Howard felt that despite his mother’s heinous prejudices, he was obliged to let her know that she was a grandmother.
One month after their baby was born, Howard looked her up and called her, only to learn that she had died several months earlier.
During their 42 year marriage they saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the miscegenation and segregation laws overturned, the Vietnam War, and many other cultural events and changes.
Howard noticed that when he and Grace rode the subway together, Grace would look downward and avert her eyes when black men would glare and eye her with disdain.
It was not always easy, but love endured and they got through it all, one way or another.
Grace smoked cigarettes and developed emphysema. Howard provided her with the best of care. She lost her fight with the disease at 72.
Howard was never the same after that. His career had risen to great heights with Grace by his side and together they raised a child they both adored. Without Grace, however, Howard’s will to live evaporated, and two and a half years later he left the earth for a better place, a place with more peace and perhaps no color divide.