“No race can prosper till it learns there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”
–Booker T. Washington
Frederica Kathleen Stephenson, the matriarch of her family, was a resilient and beautiful woman with deep brown skin, a gorgeous smile, and a stylish poise that carried her through all of her 86 years.
Despite her regal manner, “Aunt Freddie” took no mess-at least not according to my girlfriend, Ndela Edwards, one of her grandchildren. Quick-witted and opinionated, she never apologized when harsh. Often surrounded by her two sons, her grands, and great-grandchildren, she reveled in their progress and their close-knit family.
Growing up, I’d see Aunt Freddie at all the family gatherings. But sitting at her funeral, I realized I barely knew her at all. As I listened to her obituary, the chronicle of her so-called ordinary life revealed an extraordinary journey.
Aunt Freddie grew up in New York City and graduated from George Washington High School during the 1930s. She received her bachelor’s degree from Hunter College, one of New York City’s most selective schools at the time. She majored in math and physics.
To hear that Aunt Freddie went to college was surprise enough (none of my grandparents went to college), but math and physics? Putting aside the sheer difficulty of that combination, I struggled to imagine a woman who pursued the course of study she loved when opportunities for a black woman scientist, or any woman scientist, must have been slim to none. Today, we talk about the glass ceiling that exists for top black corporate executives. Aunt Freddie broke the glass ceiling just by getting accepted to Hunter.
She broke it again when, after graduating, she secured a government position as a junior physicist. But in 1942, as a young mother, she refused to relocate for her job. For 37 years, until her retirement, Aunt Freddie worked for the U.S. Postal Service. Depressing? Not to her. It was work-well paying, secure, and honest.
That’s what folks expected from their jobs then-security, not love, and not personal validation. Aunt Freddie needed a paycheck. Getting it from the post office rather than a government research facility didn’t change who she was, what she loved, or how she thought of herself. She had a passion for math and physics and she’d pursued them because of it. And, despite the outcome, she enjoyed her journey and made the best of it.
You can build a life of pride and prosperity even if you’re unable to achieve all of your dreams. That is what I thought, sitting in a side pew in Harlem’s packed Church on the Hill. You can be whole, happy, and inspiring, even when there remains a gap between who you’d hoped to be and what you’ve become. What’s important is that you try as hard, as often, and as best you can-and that you don’t define yourself by the outcomes of your efforts, but rather by the efforts themselves.
Frederica Kathleen Stephenson did that, and her family couldn’t have loved or