|Posted by UBC Trevilians on August 30, 2012 at 9:10 AM|
Gela Porte never forgot her roots in Louisa County.
When the comedic, yet poignant, movie “The Help” hit theaters and DVD, women of all ages and walks of life were driven to watch with a kind of frenzied urgency.
The film portrays young black women in the segregated south and the movie’s trailers teased the public so completely that even women whose mothers barely remember the era gathered to pour tall glasses of Chardonnay, light beer, or sweet tea and laugh, cry, and then laugh again and watch it together.
The first time Gela Porte saw the movie she was similarly moved.
“Oh, the first time I watched it, well, I just cried,” she pointedly professes. With a well-positioned, purple-plastic plate hosting fried chicken and all her favorite fixings, the 88-year-old paused from a church celebration to recount her own stories–not dissimilar from the movie’s characters.
Born in Louisa County in 1924, Porte remembers the struggles and her personal perseverance that brought her through decades of American history, as experienced by an African-American woman determined to make something of herself.
“When I was young I said to myself, ‘I got to get out of Louisa.’ I didn’t want to get trapped here,” Porte asserted, even as the church choir rehearsing near by nearly drowned out her words.
“Now I’m not criticizing people who didn’t leave, it just wasn’t going to work for me,” she explained, not ironically as she sat in the fellowship hall of her own church, Louisa’s Union Baptist. “My ideas were bigger than Louisa. When I left my father said, ‘Oh she’ll be back.’ He was right, but it took me 70 years!”
And yet, the spry Porte was never very far away from her Louisa roots and this church in which she was baptized.
“There was an older lady up in (Washington) D.C., every one knew her as Aunt Sue. Every girl coming out of Louisa would go up and lodge with her, in her boarding house until they could find work,” Porte explains. “My mother could write some, so she scratched out a letter asking if I could come.”
Porte tried to convince her mother to ask for $10 from a wealthy woman living nearby, but the then 18-year-old was soon disappointed. “My mother said she’d ask for only the train fare that was $1.97. She sewed the ticket and a little money she had into my clothes.”
Strongly discouraged from heading into the city by friends and relatives, Porte pauses with her plastic fork held momentarily mid-air and recalls the warnings. “They all told me, ‘You’re going to go up there and get in trouble. You’ll fall in love with some man and he’s gonna leave you like city people do to poor black country girls.’”
But Porte had other plans, as many Americans did at a time when the country was dissolving from The Great Depression into World War II. And perhaps it was the nature of that era, when the phrase “Can-Do Spirit” was coined, that she began to realize her ambitions beginning to bare fruit.
“I always had faith in God that if I did the right things, the best things would happen to me,” she reflects pensively, even as cheerful chatter from fellow church congregants echoes around the room. “I never knew I’d get where I am now. This is all a surprise to myself, a surprise just to be sitting right here.”
But she’s not surprised to be back at her childhood house of worship. She’s surprised that after nearly 60 years of commuting between Washington and Louisa for services here, she’s finally moving back home here.
“In the movie (The Help), one of the women said, ‘I’m gonna talk with my people,’ and I got to thinking about that. I said to myself that I had to come back to my people and tell them how they can make it too,” she emphatically explains, leaning in toward her listener to press the point. “You have to start at the bottom, not everybody can start at the top.”
The young Porte, by then barely 26 years old, had worked as a domestic in the city for eight years going to school at night. “I had to do high school all over again if I was going to get a better job,” she relates, explaining that a 1930’s era Louisa County education would not have carried her to where she was headed, into a very ambitious and successful career in the government.
“I took the civil service exam 14 times and I think the teacher finally passed me because she got tired of looking at me,” she says with a broad grin and slight laugh. With her new certification in hand, the real work of landing a government job then began.
Following up on job announcements, Porte was in and out of lobbies in all the newly built government buildings of post World War II. “They weren’t interested in me so I said to myself, ‘I’m going to walk the streets and if I see somebody nice maybe they’ll give me a lead!’”
Bumping into another young woman, coincidently a classmate from Louisa 20 years earlier, Porte did get her lead. That lead led to a job as a clerk typist, just barely qualifying for a “GS-2” ranking. “I really got discovered after that, they could see that I worked hard, was faithful, and I didn’t take those long lunches,” she proudly professes. And as she began to march up the ladder of government service, she learned a thing or two about getting ahead.
“When I took the mid-level exam and passed it, I went to my boss at that time, wanting a promotion. So he says to me, ‘I wish I could promote you but I can’t, even though I’ll never find a tech as good as you.’”
Porte was wise to her boss as she explains what happened next, telling the man she would be leaving in order to get her promotion. “I told him that on a Monday and that Wednesday I had a new GS-13 promotion from him. I knew he had been using me and holding me back.”
Over the following years Porte would see positions in the Departments of Labor and Commerce, and the General Services Administration.
“I had 13 different bosses during all that time,” she says, noting that when it came time to retire she was the boss to 14 employees under her supervision. Still, throughout her working days and well into retirement, Porte traveled from her home in a DC neighborhood to Louisa where she was supporting family members.
“I tell you all this like it was an easy thing,” she said. “But in some ways, for me, I took it on like there wasn’t a choice. I worked real hard because I had an elderly mother, a blind brother, and an uncle that had one leg, all living within yards of each other and right here near the church.”
“I supported them and then buried those people,” Porte flatly recounts, yet momentarily falling into reflection. And despite the passing of those family members, she has always embraced a need to help out others here in her home town.
After 60 years in the city how did she decide to pull up stakes and leave the DC neighborhood that affectionately knows her there as “Granny?”
“It was born in me that I should do this. God and the Lord in Heaven have been kind to me. I’ve had to work real hard, I had a lot of rejection but a lot of kindness too. I was never bitter,” she reflects and remembers her struggles not just as a young woman on her own, but as an African American single woman in the turbulent era of the civil rights movement.
Again, Porte references the movie so clearly indicative of what she experienced and knew all too clearly. She remembers well all her friends that were living out jobs as “domestics,” as she did for a time, acknowledging the dangers and heated rhetoric of the ‘60s.
“It was a nervous time back then. We had to be careful. Sure I remember all the ‘Whites Only’ signs,” she said. “When those black girls were killed in Atlanta, it was snowing that night up in Washington. We all slept on the ground in Layette Park across from The White House, in the snow and told them, ‘We’re not moving until you send the troops in.’”
“People say I should be so full of bitterness being in all that, but there’s a phrase by one of the girls in the movie, ‘I’ve learned to smile,’ and I was the same way. I’m living proof you can make it through,” she says, preferring to recall the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King over the vitriolic hated of that time. “You don’t have to fight back, in fact sometimes if you don’t fight back you win the battle.”
Still she acknowledges that America remains polarized around race. “Oh, there’s prejudice on both sides, Whites and Blacks,” she said, pointing out that there are sometimes one race to the left of her DC home, and another to the right.
“Up there they call me ‘The Sheriff,’ because I don’t care if you’re black or white I’m gonna tell you like it is.” Porte said that there are inter-racial marriages in her family, a topic that brings her conversation back into church she attended on its 146th anniversary.
“A lady in the movie is talking about her boss and says, ‘That lady was white and I treated her like family, cleaned her house, took care of her babies, and washed my hands all to benefit her health,’” Porte describes, recalling the dialog.
“When there was a new couple here at church I could see they were worried they’d be rejected for being inter-racial, you know from some blacks,” she said. “But they are some good people, I wasn’t gonna let that happen.”
Rising slowly yet deliberately from her folding chair, Porte rests her hands for support on the now vacated fellowship hall table. The church’s pastor stands in the doorway, calling stragglers into the sanctuary.
Turning to go, Porte finishes her testimony on her life by linking the black women of The Help, who treated their white bosses like family, to the newly joined members of her church, that interracial couple.
“If I were gonna have another son, that man would be it,” her voice beginning to trail off through the passageway. “His family, whites and blacks, would be mine. These are all my people.”