Mother’s role in the lives of her children is not only defined as the giver of life, rather also the source of early knowledge of the world, protector and caregiver in all senses.
On this Mother’s Day, we honour the contributions of all mothers to their families and communities. We take a special look at Julia (Davis) Rustin, the grandmother who raised, guided and ultimately mothered a human rights hero. Her caring extended to her entire community, as many mothers do.
On March 17, 1912, Julia Rustin, a nurse by training, attended the birth of her grandchild by her eldest daughter Florence.
Already a mother of 8 of her own children and just past 40 years old, Julia cared for him from the time he was 10 days old. She and her husband Janifer named this baby boy Bayard after Bayard Taylor. The name connected her to the strong Quaker culture that informed her entire life in West Chester, Pennsylvania where she was born and educated.
Like his namesake, a local poet and diplomat, young Bayard embraced the arts and involved himself in politics and civil rights.
The love, values, discipline and secure home Julia created for him, which would train Bayard Rustin up to be the Renaissance man he became.
“Florence is your mother, but we are one big family and we are all mothers for everybody,” said Julia on the day Bayard finally questioned his origins.
Julia was an exceptional partner in a strong and loving marriage. She was the first black in her county to have a high school education and she trained as a nurse. Through her mother, Elizabeth, she carried on from a long line of Pennsylvanians and she had some Delaware Indian heritage too.
Because of her own mother’s work and exposure in Quaker households, her employers saw to it that Julia was educated in the local Friends school. The Quaker lifestyle and values would impact her life and that of Bayard who would go on to become a hero of the American Civil Rights movement and other important movements of the century.
Janifer and Julia were American Methodist Episcopal (AME) members. Her education, work in the public realm set her apart in a type of black elite. Devoted to her family and her exceptional life partner, Julia modeled accountability as she merged AME, Quaker and African community ethics.
Many practical life lessons and wisdom were imparted to Bayard in how she conducted herself and in the traditional family discussion setting – the kitchen.
Above all qualities Julia maintained a calm demeanor and often said, “One just doesn’t lose one’s temper.”
Her African American roots in service and solidarity saw her caring for many community affairs. Bayard called her, “a dealer in relieving misery.”
She held that you should hear every side of a controversy, treat everyone with respect. She impressed the need to put oneself at the service of others.
Julia Rustin founded a day nursery for the children of black working mothers. Julia was a stalwart of member of the local Negro Woman’s Club and she served on the board of a society of visiting black nurses.
She organized the Vacation Bible School and imparted daily Old Testament lessons along with other volunteers. Bayard who grew under Julia’s tutelage to be a pacifist would say that her lessons, “made me extremely militant in terms of achievement.”
Julia exercised creative discipline when Bayard succumbed to peer pressure. She sent him to work daily for two full weeks in a Chinese laundry he threw stones at. He got to know the family as real people.
Ma and Pa Rustin often took in families into their busy home as they passed through during the Great Migration. In a useful and non judgemental way they taught many basic urban skills to they could get along in society. There were at times as basic as how to behave inside a proper home and how to use indoor plumbing.
“Teaching and learning were a part of her outlook, as well as “if there’s a problem you do something.” It applied from family to all human rights.
Later, her strength and unconditional love sustained Bayard through difficult prison stays. His participation in protests, the Freedom Rides, imprisonment for refusing the draft and his sexual orientation, made him very vulnerable to arrest and abuse.
At one time their spiritual connection called on each to read aloud a set bible passage at a set time each night together; He in prison, she at home.
Julia’s greatest motherly gift may have been the inspiration to find inner light; in other people so as not to judge them harshly, and within oneself to find meaning and direction in life.
From giving life to enhancing it over time, Julia lived the credo and desire of the Mother’s role we honour each May. She gently reminds us that, “We are all in this together.”
*Very few photos of Julia Davis Rustin exist. The photos and information were supplied by Margaret Chisholm at the Yale University Law Library and “Lost Prophet” by John D’Emilio.