A Year to Remember: 1965 (Part 2)
by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Urbanna, Va.— Now the sole support of her law student husband and mother to a toddler, while at the same time holding a new job as service rep with C&P Telephone Co., her life had evolved to hectic pace. While they looked for a house in Williamsburg, they lived for several months with their Buxton in-laws in Newport News in the adjoining guest house. Still the tiny seed of unrest grew; a dream that one day she could become a writer.
But where were women writers in 1965? There was not one female newspaper columnist in the Commonwealth who wrote opinion and dared to sign her name. How could she break into the male-dominated field of journalism? The world seemed strangely hostile to women in almost every profession outside of fashion, nursing or education.
She noticed Julia each day as she worked in the kitchen of the big house, preparing the family meals and later standing over an ironing board pressing every article of clothing the family wore. Julia worked hard. Maids were paid $35 a week at that time, which included meals, bus fare and, in Julia’s case, free life long medical care for herself and her family. Did Julia dream, as she did, of wider opportunities and further horizons? Did she also dream of becoming a writer?
She suddenly realized she and Julia were caught in the same trap. They were both doing what was expected of them, as if they were playing roles in some grand theatre production . . . not necessarily what they wanted to do or what they were gifted to do . . . but what they had to do, as if by some prearranged system that had been put in place to rule over women.
Her life was now so different from the life she had left in Ohio. In a doctor’s home, when patients could still call their doctor at his home, the phone rang around the clock. Dr. Buxton had to sit by the telephone every evening so he could talk to patients who called him all night long.
The family was devoted to medicine, the grandfather having built the first hospital on the Peninsula in 1906 along with a nursing school that the grandmother and then the daughter, Elizabeth, had directed. The nurses were trained in the “old school.” There was a German gene in the family, and the facilities were managed by a family driven for perfection.
She knew her new family had done good things for African-Americans, yet being raised in Ohio she held the usual northern attitude that white southerners had been unfair to blacks. This was not the case with Buxton Hospital, which had served black patients right from the start, even in a world where public hospitals denied blacks medical attention. The family had ignored state law simply because its hospital was private and did not come under the state law that prohibited integration in the public domain.
She was surprised to learn that her father-in-law, like many doctors in Virginia at the time, gave free medical care to black patients. She learned this by dropping by his office on Main Street on every occasion she was nearby. She began to notice if she stopped by in the morning, the reception area was filled with white patients awaiting the surgeon, but, after lunch, all his patients were black.
She finally asked the surgeon why this was the case. “My morning patients pay for my services and my afternoon patients I serve pro bono,” he replied.
But why? She did not understand such a strange system that was in place of helping blacks even at a time when they were oppressed. “For the same reason I work January through May to pay my income taxes to the federal government and I work the rest of the year for my family,” he explained.
Which explained nothing, and in a time long before she, herself, would pay income taxes, she wondered at the society she lived in . . . why would the fruits of labor of any man be taken from him, either by another man or by a government?
She knew her father-in-law had not only personally helped needy people apparently to great extent, but he had also paid high taxes. In her eyes he was a fine and noble man who carried a heavy burden throughout his entire life.
Yet, still, she saw something was lacking. Her family had “just hearts” backed with genuine acts of continued giving to those in need as they quietly bucked segregation at their own hospital. But they had not been vocal. They had not gone public to speak out to change an unjust system.
How easy it was to find fault in what others do. But what would she have done? The question haunted her. What kind of writer could she ever hope to become if she could not confront such painful issues?
(Continued next week)