Gail Milissa Grant Bio2017-02-27T15:59:56+00:00

ABOUT

gail milissa grant writer

I always fancied myself an actress or a director or a producer or a playwright or a costume designer . . . or all of them at the same time. In other words, I wanted to be in show business. From the way I memorized every show tune from every hit musical in the late 50s through the 60s and performed them in front of our dining room mirror ad nausea, I knew I was destined to shine as brightly as any light in Times Square. “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, sung, or rather warbled in full Spanish accent, waving a ‘lace’ fan I fashioned out of paper doilies and twirling, wrapped in one of my mother’s starched tablecloths, was one of my favorite numbers. Did I say there was a long, lean crack in that mirror that my parents never got around to fixing? Well, I think that may have been a sign.

I never made it to Broadway but after more than twenty five years of chasing other muses (a wanderlust satisfied by traveling extensively on four continents and living abroad on two as a diplomat, and a love of art fulfilled by teaching art and architectural history at a university), I returned to my childhood dream of writing, books instead of plays. The first of which, an award-winning family memoir, was a love letter not only to my ancestors but also to a whole generation of black Americans who fought the good fight way before the more publicized civil rights movement of the 1950s.
I also wrote it because their stories were left out of our history books.
I’ve resurrected my thespian talents as a public speaker, talking about my book and unknown civil rights activists and their accomplishments at more than sixty venues (and counting) in Europe, the United States, and North Africa, with my all-time favorite being Oxford University. I’ve also produced art exhibitions, directed conferences, and organized film programs.

My book was recently translated into Italian and I have been presenting it at bookstores and on television and radio in Italy.
I am currently working on a novel, loosely based on some of the characters from my memoir and I find fiction a lot more challenging. Stay tuned.

So, I really did get to be in the ‘business.’ It just took a while.
Singing? Well, I confine my trilling to the bathtub or in a group where I can’t really be heard! And costumes? Just look in my closet!
Oh! And by the way, did I mention I live in Rome? An outdoor theater without parallel!

Gail Milissa Grant

PS – If you would like more details, find here attached my full Curriculum Vita.

AUTHOR

“At the Elbows of my Elders”

For a video snapshot of the book, click here!

I am especially proud of my family memoir because it was conceived in order to honor my elders who, as black Americans, worked hard, went to school and through one courageous, everyday act after another paved the way for the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and beyond.

Even while in grade school, I felt that one day their story and mine would be of interest to others.
Besides the innumerable stories my parents told me about how they navigated through a segregated America, they also broke a residential color line when, in the late 1940s, they created our home in an all-white neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri.
We were the only blacks, the only professional family, and my brother and I, the only Protestants in a Catholic grade school.  An intimidating situation, to be sure, but one that was ultimatelyfortifying and uplifting.
I invite you to sit with me and my elders (as a child, my chin was just about level with their elbows as I sat with them at our dining room table, hence the title of my book), and listen to my father’s tales of working as a railroad porter and as a waiter and jazz musician on pleasure boats that still plied the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River before becoming one of St. Louis’s premier lawyers and civil rights activists, and enjoy my mother’s recounting of her coddled upbringing as the only child of one of Missouri’s first black women embalmers.
You will also hear about the celebrities we hosted during the 1950s because they could not stay in any of the major hotels since St. Louis was still in the grips of Jim Crow laws, which divided blacks from whites—in schooling, housing, and most public facilities.  Through one vignette after another, I draw back the curtain on those times and present vignettes of a part of U.S. history most Americans know nothing about.

My book is filled with dozens of photographs many of them never published before and some dating from the late 1800s. Click here for the photo gallery!

Winner of the Benjamin Franklin Book of the Year 2009 (autobiography/memoir).

Award of Merit from the American Association for State and local history 2010.

Read excerpts from the book
From Chapter 1
From Chapter 12

Available in hard copy and downloadable version on:
www.amazon.com
The Missouri  History Museum
gail milissa grant benjamin franklin award

REVIEWS

From Publishers Weekly online review, Week of 10/27/2008


In this well-written family memoir, former U.S. foreign service officer Grant presents an African-American family history that forgoes the epic sweep of the Civil Rights story to illuminate the difficult everyday life of a middle class black family in the first half of the 20th century.
Focusing on the lives of her parents and grandparents, Grant’s St. Louis story captures the strong voices of her family and the ambivalent tenor of their times. The facets of institutional racism are many and not always expected; Grant’s father, a lawyer and an early activist, found himself in jail more than once: “the police had been told, ‘Just call him boy and he’ll give you grounds to lock him up’ which they did, and I gave them reason.” Grant’s mother claims she never felt racism during her “cocoonlike upbringing,” and remarks that on Chicago’s south side, “It was actually quite a lot of fun being segregated…. There was music everywhere and there were so many swank clubs.”
Grant also shares tales of her own upbringing in a mostly white neighborhood, her pioneering grandmother—the first African-American embalmer—and a few marquee names like Cab Calloway and Josephine Baker.
Covering an underreported facet of the 20th century American experience with detail and devotion, this insightful read should hold meaning for many. 60 color illus. (Oct.)
David Levering Lewis, Professor of History, New York University
, Two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography


Gail Milissa Grant’s achingly honest family memoir is social history at its finest. Accessibly, engrossingly written, At the Elbows of My Elders brings alive an era already but dimly remembered when privileged, proud, productive people of color in towns and cities everywhere defied the logic of racial prejudice in their domestic and civic lives and, thereby, set an indispensable example for the civil rights triumphs of the coming generation of Americans black and white.
Francille Rusan Wilson, University of Southern California
Author of The Segregated Scholars: Black Social Scientists and the Creation of Black Labor Studies, 1890–1950


At the Elbows of My Elders is an engrossing memoir that deftly chronicles a family’s private lives and political passions. Grant’s extensive research vividly brings to life St. Louis’s confusing and contradictory forms of segregation and its black citizens’ determination to fight Jim Crow. Attorney David M. Grant’s pioneering activism sharply illuminates the long civil rights movement in St. Louis. This is a major addition to the history of social justice movements in Missouri and to the study of the black middle class in America.
From Booklist, by Vanessa Bush. October 15, 2008
Decades before the beginning of the civil rights movement as most Americans recognize it, black families across the U.S. were fighting the battle against discrimination. Grant’s father, a lawyer and civil rights activist in St. Louis in the 1950s, was among the less well known resisters of segregation, eventually working with more prominent figures, from Thurgood Marshall to Ralph Bunche and A. Phillip Randolph, to fight racial inequities in St. Louis. Grant recalls a long line of family resisters, middle-class business owners who were always on the forefront of the racial divide, challenging Jim Crow laws and practices while sustaining the social and economic underpinnings of the segregated black community. Grant describes growing up with the gut-wrenching “unknowing” of whether she would be welcomed in a store or business or turned away because of her race. As barriers were broken, Grant went on to a 20-year career in the foreign service with the U.S. Information Agency. This is a fascinating look at the struggles of one black family that mirrored the national struggle for civil rights.
The Honorable James W. Symington, Former US Congressman from Missouri
Gail Milissa Grant has done a great service by presenting this riveting memoir of her remarkable father, my friend and mentor in matters of civil rights. It was to Dave Grant that I repaired for guidance and encouragement when I was assigned the task, nay privilege, of drafting the opinion on the constitutionality of a proposed city ordinance to ban discrimination in public places.