Lucimarian Roberts said the philosophy on raising successful children is pretty much the same today as it was when she was a young mother.
Societal rules may have relaxed over the years, but that should never trump home, insisted the 88-year-old Akron native and mother of four, including Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts, in a telephone interview from Pass Christian, Miss., where she now lives.
“You know that children’s song, This Little Light of Mine,” she continued, underscoring her point. “You have to be that light, no matter what. And you have to let it shine for your children to see.”
Lucimarian Roberts shares some of that philosophy in a new book, My Story, My Song: Mother-Daughter Reflections on Life and Faith (as told to Missy Buchanan, with reflections by Robin) published by Upper Room Books of Nashville.
As the book’s title suggests, music — namely those old-time spirituals — continues to comfort her, as it did when she was little Lucimarian Tolliver growing up at 492 Lucy St. in Akron.
Like so many families living in the Great Depression, her family was poor. Her father William Tolliver’s alcoholism added to their troubles.
In other areas, however, she recalled a childhood in East Akron that was “rich” — one filled with love and supportive grandparents, grounded in faith (in a little church on Robert Street that grew to be Arlington Church of God), and guided by caring teachers, one in particular who was her forever mentor.
While those things didn’t insulate her from the ugliness the world had reserved for her, it did help her to stay focused on the positive and not to be broken.
“Certainly Akron was not free of people with a racist mentality,” she writes in the book. “But our neighborhood in the Tenth Ward was a wonderful melting pot, as my mother described it, with immigrants from other countries and migrants from the Southern states. Russians, Jewish people, Germans, Czechoslovakians, Polish people, and African Americans lived there.”
She reminisced in the book about auditioning for a citywide select choir while at East High School, and a lesson learned from her own mother: “I prepared well and felt pleased with my audition performance. But when the names of the select choir were posted, I did not find my name on the list. Many of my fellow choir members were outwardly stunned, even angry that I had not been selected. I ran home, devastated by the news, and complained to my mother that I had not been selected because of my skin color. I had expected her to share my anger about the injustice of the situation.”
To her amazement, Sally Suddeth Tolliver refused to acknowledge the racial bias, not to her daughter anyway. “Later my heart was lifted when I discovered that I had been selected for the choir after all,” she wrote. “It appeared that the choir director had had a total change in attitude and bent over backward to include me.
“Over a year passed before I discovered that my mother had gone to the high school principal to share her concern about the choir selection process. She did not want me to know because she did not want to encourage me to use racism as an excuse for something that had gone wrong in my life. Instead of making a big scene, she quietly but effectively stood up to prejudice. It was a lesson I have tried to pass on to my children.”
Mentor offers hope
The funny thing about racism is that for all of the folks who will slam doors in one’s face, there are just as many willing to hold a few open.
Lucimarian Roberts learned that early in life, as shared in Chapter 4, Angels Watching Over Me.
“I have often wondered what direction my life might have taken without the influence of certain individuals, especially Wilma Schnegg. Miss Schnegg was a woman of German heritage who taught at Robinson Elementary School in Akron. When I was in second grade, Miss Schnegg would stand at the classroom door and smile at each child who entered. I always looked forward to the way she would flash her lovely smiles, then gently pat the top of my head. Actually, she repeated the scene for every child who came into her room, but I remember how extraordinary it made me feel.
“Miss Schnegg, a gifted educator, made storybook characters come alive for me.”
Fortuitously, Miss Schnegg was always there — long after second grade — to nudge her in the right direction. Like when she was considering what classes to take as she was moving into her freshman year at East High School: “In her quiet but firm way, Miss Schnegg directed me to the more challenging college-preparatory classes, including Latin and algebra, speech and chemistry. … I was keenly aware that my family could not afford to send me to college, but Miss Schnegg had planted the seed of possibility in my mind and helped me to envision a future much bigger than I had ever imagined.”
East principal A.J. Dillehay proved to be a door opener as well, introducing her to a recruiter from historically black Howard University in the nation’s capital. “About the same time, Miss Schnegg made me aware of the John S. Knight scholarships given by the founders of the Akron Beacon Journal newspaper to students who had proved themselves academically, showed leadership qualities, and passed the college entrance exam.”
Thanks to that scholarship, which she received in 1942, and money she raised at a recital at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Lucimarian went on to graduate from Howard, where she got the opportunity her junior year to talk to Eleanor Roosevelt. It also was where she met her future husband, Lawrence “Larry” Roberts, who became a pilot with the famed Tuskeegee Airmen and a colonel in the U.S. Air Force.
Lesson in racism
The couple made homes in 27 places around the world during his 32-year military career. Roberts shared one episode about being the only nonwhite member of the Officers’ Wives Club when her husband was stationed in Japan. “I had become a substitute teacher at the American Dependents School, and the school’s principal was known as the best bridge player in the Officers’ Wives Club,” she wrote. “Over the course of a few weeks, I began to notice that when I was paired as the principal’s partner or even playing at the same table, her game somehow seemed off-kilter. It became obvious that she was distracted, and I was pretty sure it was because of me.”
Eventually, they developed a friendship and the woman opened up to her over coffee about what she had been feeling during those bridge encounters. “When I was growing up, there were always colored people in my home, but I never had to socialize with them,” she said, adding she was accustomed to having African-Americans on the backstage of her life, not as equals. “Then she said something that gave me pause. She confessed that she’d had an aunt who often said that if she got to heaven and there were colored people there, she’d rather go to hell.
“I tried to imagine what it would have been like to have been in her shoes, raised in an environment where hatred and skewed perceptions were deeply ingrained in her life from a young age. I was also grateful that my mother had helped me understand that if you focus on building relationships, the walls of prejudice eventually will come tumblin’ down.”
She was widowed in 2004 after 57 years of marriage, mourned the death of her son-in-law, had the knees knocked out from under her with Robin’s breast cancer and survived Hurricane Katrina (which left her home uninhabitable). Roberts credits her strong faith with getting her over those rough waters.
“When I visit my hometown of Akron, I am reminded of how much life has changed,” she wrote. “Many of the things of my childhood are gone. In reality, change is natural. Life goes on. Loved ones die or move away. Expressways stand where familiar buildings used to be. The neighborhood where my childhood began is not the place of its ending. Nothing stays the same except my steadfast God.”
The former social worker, college counselor and educator — forever grateful to have received that John S. Knight scholarship — was able to come full circle, serving on the Knight Foundation Advisory Board.
And there’s this. Her father William Tolliver became an early member of Alcoholics Anonymous, working with Sister Ignatia to integrate Ignatia Hall at Akron’s St. Thomas Hospital, the world’s first alcoholic treatment ward. Delpholia “Dee” Sims Butler of Akron, Lucimarian’s sister, still treasures the copy of The Following of Christ in Four Books by Thomas A. Kempis, signed in 1947 and given to their father by Sister Ignatia herself.
“As my father continued his sobriety, he began to speak to groups around the region,” Roberts wrote in her book. “One of the AA founders heard him and was so impressed with my father’s compassionate leadership and his progress in dealing with his own addiction that he helped my father obtain the capital he needed to open a Pure Oil service station in Akron. Gradually, life for my parents began to improve. My father’s business became successful enough so that my mother would finally retire from housekeeping jobs.”
As Lucimarian Roberts said in the interview, “With God all things are possible if you only believe.”
The other takeaway here, especially for young mothers? “You only have a little while to work with [your] children. So, give them your time, and show them by your actions, not by your words.”
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.