My grandfather on my mother's side was part of the "greatest generation." He was poor from birth. He, like many in his clan, did not finish high school. His father was an alcoholic. At the age of 18, he volunteered to serve in the Navy and was stationed in Britain where he worked on planes during WWII. He returned home aboard the St. Mary to a “hero’s welcome”, a young wife, and opportunities to join America’s middle class. He claimed his GI Bill money and opened a tire shop in Greenville, SC. This shop allowed him to purchase a home in the suburbs and raise a family of five children, including my mother. This shop put food on the table and clothes on the kids.
That is not all the “old shop” did! In 1969, it helped my mother become the first woman in her family to graduate from college. Over the next forty years, the tire shop paid for weddings, vacations, part of a new church building, a larger suburban home, and a number of new Buicks along the way. When my grandfather died in 2009, the family gathered to remember his life. His oldest grandson, my cousin Todd, mentioned something rather remarkable. He said, “It occurs to me that Jack Ballew’s five grandchildren hold in total 12 college degrees. That is remarkable con- sidering that Jack never finished high school.” Yes, that old tire shop funded by his GI Bill did a bunch of good for my family. In the early 2000s, my grandfather was very proud to sell the shop to some retail developers on Pleasant- burg Avenue in Greenville, SC. He would never tell me how much it sold for, but I knew it made him proud.
And so, it is not a stretch for me to credit my success not just to my own hard work and industry, but to the GI Bill— a law created by FDR, arguably the most liberal-minded president of the 20th century, to help bolster the American middle class. The opportunities given to my family by the GI Bill cannot be overstated.
Yet, the same government program that created the "greatest generation" did little to change the lives of black servicemen at the end of WWII. Like many New Deal programs, the administration of GI benefits was designed to work within Jim Crow norms. Shannon Luders-Manuel recently wrote, “Blacks were also pushed away from G.I.- sponsored home loans, which enabled white vets to own property that they could then pass down to their children
and grandchildren. In the summer of 1947, three thousand VA home loans were issued in Mississippi, with only two of those loans being granted to black veterans.” (“The Inequity Hidden Within the Race-Neutral G.I. Bill,” 2017)
When my cousin Todd celebrated the accomplishments of our grandfather’s family, no one protested. We all love the story that says my grandfather pulled himself out of abject poverty, along with other heroes, to create the American middle class. That is the story of his generation. That’s why we call them “great.” What’s more, we want to claim a touch of that greatness for ourselves; that’s partly why Todd said what he said at the funeral – that we might aim at that standard of “greatness.” And while I try to live up to my grandfather’s standard, which is inspiring to me, I still know that much of my success in this world has to do with the color of my skin—or rather, the color of my granddad’s skin.
As Keith said last week in his prophetic post, we need to talk about “reparations,” some form of financial, legal, and even cultural amends to repair the effects of past wrongs. I have struggled, as have so many others, to find a way into this discussion because I know that nothing could possibly repair 401 years of slavery, segregation, and prejudice. Face to face with such immense evil, the temptation to wash our hands and disengage or worse yet, pretend the evil doesn’t persist to this day, is strong. When faced with such immensity of evil, it is good to remember my grand- father. It is good to remember why he went to Europe. The greatness of his generation certainly gives me a measure of hope for ours.