A Minor American Hero

My grandmother was the first non-white child to attend Atlanta Public Schools. Three years ago, on Memorial Day, I wrote a post about her. It has always been one of my favorite posts in the 6 years of this blog. Today on Memorial Day, I am re-posting it in her memory. I hope you enjoy it.

Today is Memorial Day, when Americans remember those who died during military service to defend the liberty, equality, and freedom of being an American. They were heroes. But this post is about another American hero, one who was not even in the military. This is not a post about my usual subjects: hospitals, medical economics, or electronic medical records. But it is about one small step in making the world a better place for us all to live in.

After his internship, my father put his neurology residency on hold and joined the Navy – he was stationed in Japan as a medical officer during the Korean War. His father (my grandfather) dropped out of law school to join the cavalry during World War I – he ended up riding a motorcycle to deliver dispatches to the front lines in France. Both are worthy of hero status but the hero of this story is not my father or grandfather, the hero is my grandmother.

The story begins in 1873 when my greatgrandfather was born in the Canton region of China. His last name was Jung and he adopted the Anglicized first name, Joe, when he arrived in Portsmouth, Virginia at age 12 with his uncle as immigrants to the United States seeking a better life. He eventually moved to Elberton, Georgia where he ran a laundry and became president of the Chinese Merchant’s Association of America. He married Leila Colson, my greatgrandmother and together, they raised their family in Atlanta, Georgia. Their oldest child was Jessie Ruth Jung, my grandmother, born in 1902.

Atlanta in the early 1900’s was a racially segregated community, with whites-only schools. Today, we think of racially segregated schools in terms of “white schools” and “black schools” but back then, there were white schools and non-white schools, the latter meaning anyone who wasn’t caucasian of European descent, and that included the Chinese. And so, my grandmother and her siblings were not permitted to attend Atlanta’s whites-only schools. They learned at home and had a private tutor through elementary school but Joe and Leila wanted their children to have the same kind of education that other children had.

So Joe enlisted the help of the pastor at his church and for two years, they petitioned the Atlanta Board of Education to have his children admitted to the Atlanta school system. Finally, in 1913, he succeeded and my grandmother was allowed to attend 5th grade classes. And so she became the first non-white child to attend Atlanta’s previously whites-only schools. It was not accomplished by public demonstrations, nor by a lawsuit in a Georgia court. It was done by the quiet perseverance of a mother and a father who wanted their children to have an equal education. At the time, there was an article in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper about them (my grandmother is in the center of the photo) and then the Jung’s story faded from memory.

But sometimes heroes pay a terrible price for being heroes. Although my grandmother, her brothers, and her sister were allowed to attend the whites-only school, they were not allowed to be a part of Atlanta whites-only society. It was not easy to be of mixed race in the south at the turn of the century, regardless of the specific race. As Chinese, they were considered to be inferiors. They were ostracized and lived apart from the rest of the community. Joe Jung eventually died and then together, my grandmother and her siblings all agreed to change their last name from Jung to Young. They disavowed their Chinese ancestry in order to escape the prejudice and discrimination that they experienced as children and still as young adults. The Chinese heritage of the family was hidden and never again mentioned.

In fact, my father lived his entire life and died at age 55 never knowing that he was a physician of Chinese ancestry. Eventually, all of the Young brothers and sisters died and at my grandfather’s funeral, the last surviving spouse of one of the Young siblings told the secret story that she had sworn to her husband, Ollie (my grandmother’s brother), to never tell. To their generation, their Chinese ancestery was a terrible secret that they were ashamed of. It had only brought them the pain and scorn of being considered second class people. But a hundred years later, my family celebrates and takes pride in the fact that we have such a rich racial and cultural heritage.

American heroes come in all ages, both genders, and all races. And today on Memorial Day, I think about the courage of a 12-year-old girl who walked into a 5th grade classroom for her first day in a whites-only school and made a small dent in racial discrimination. It would take another 50 years before the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. And it would be 60 years before another of my (more distant) relatives, President Lyndon Johnson, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ruth Jung did not want to be a hero, she just wanted to be a regular kid. But the battle that she and her family fought for her to have a normal education is at the core of what liberty, equality, and freedom of being an American really means.

May 27, 2019

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital