Saltwater Portrait

Rachael Grier-Reynolds: A lifetime of working for peace

November 1, 2011
Rachael Grier-Reynolds of Lewes has worked for peace since she was a child. BY HENRY J. EVANS JR.

Since the time Rachael Grier-Reynolds was a child, she’s been trying to help the world become a more peaceful place. Sometimes she has done it one person at a time. At other times she has faced widespread hatred that had endured for hundreds of years.

Grier-Reynolds grew up in Milford. In 1954 when she was entering 5th grade, Milford’s public schools were trying to become racially integrated.

“Sunday night my dad sat us down at the table and said we needed to talk. He said ‘Tomorrow you’ll be going to school and the school is going to be integrated. That means we’re going to start having all of Milford together in the same school.’ He said ‘You know, that could be dangerous,’” Grier-Reynolds said.

She said she and her twin brother Garry, also starting 5th grade and their sister Linda, starting 6th grade, had wondered why black children didn’t go to school with them.

She said her family had always thought segregation was wrong. Her father, Garrett Grier, and mother, Ellen Sipple Grier, told the children what would happen. “We’ve gotta do what’s right,” her father told them.

“That’s something we all agreed to. He said ‘There’ll be a lot of reporters there and people will be yelling at you. Just keep on walking,’” he told them.

Her father was right. There were crowds of angry people at the school and she said the display of hatred was extreme.

“It was just ugly, ugly, ugly. It just made me more determined that I wasn’t going to be in that camp, that’s for sure,” she said.

Her father was in the lumber business and he told the family he knew sending them to school would hurt business.

While most other white families in Milford kept their children out of school, Grier-Reynolds’s parents continued to send theirs to school.

The family received threatening phone calls. A picture of Linda landed on the front page of The New York Times.

“From that day on, if you were for integration you bought you lumber from Grier Lumber Co., and if you were for segregation you bought it from the competitor,” she said.

She said the integration attempt lasted only a few weeks and the school district “pulled back.” A few years later there were a few black students at Milford High School, she said.

“They had decided to start integrating older students first. They said the high school kids were more resilient and tougher. To put little children in that position, they didn’t feel would be safe – especially for the black children,” Grier-Reynolds said.

She graduated from high school in 1963 and went on to earn a master’s degree in social work. She now lives in Lewes.

She returned to Milford and, although she wasn’t trained to teach, the school district hired her to teach 5th grade American history.

At the beginning of the school year she asked her students to raise their hands as she asked who was white, who was African-American, and who was Hispanic.

“When I said African-American no one raised their hand. I said to myself, ‘We’ve got to do something about this.’”

She said she developed a history unit teaching about Africa as the cradle of civilization, and teaching how slavery came about.

“In the books that we taught from you never heard about Africans until slavery,” she said.

At the end of the school year she asked the class for a showing of hands in response to the same question she asked earlier in the year. “They all raised their hands,” she said.

She offered the black history unit to the school’s principal, thinking it would be a good segment to add to the American history curriculum. The idea was rejected. “They said if we do that for African Americans we’ll have to do it for Irish, Polish, and Chinese,” she said. She said no parents had ever complained about what she was teaching.

In the late 1960s, she worked with Milford Community Action and a group of community volunteers to help create Banneker Heights, a low-income housing project, and the Slaughter Neck Daycare Center, which also served low-income residents.

During three terms as a University of Delaware trustee from the mid-1970s to mid-1990s, she advocated for the school’s divestment in South Africa and sought more programs for women.

Seeing a need for performing arts instruction in Kent and Sussex counties, she co-founded the Delaware Music School, which is now the Milford branch of the Music School of Delaware.

In 1998, she and husband Rick Grier spent six weeks in Bosnia and Croatia.

She said Rick, who is a Quaker, wanted to take a trip to visit Bosnian Muslim students he taught who had come here as refugees.

“In the Quaker faith before you do something, you have what’s called a clearness committee. They asked me ‘Why are you putting yourself in danger? You have children. This is a danger-zone. The war has only been over five years. There’s still hostility. Why are you going there?’ And it just came out of my mouth. I said, ‘Because I want to see what the hope is.”

She said she had read about the death, destruction and rapes and wanted to witness the other side.

“I know there’s something hopeful that’s going on and I want to see it,” she said. She told them she was interested in what women were doing. In each town they visited, they met women’s groups to see what kind of peace and reconciliation work they were doing.

They signed on to be part of a work camp with Boston-based Fellowship of Reconciliation.

“We ended up going to this little town called Sanski Mosk in Bosnia,” she said. She taught English as a second language. People who lived in the town had returned to their homes only a week before she arrived. They hadn’t been home for five years.

“The Serbs had trashed their homes and had put a lot of them in concentration camps, so it wasn’t safe,” she said. But because she was an American, the group she was with said they didn’t think there would be trouble.

“They figured they’re not going to do anything if Americans are around,” she said. The day she arrived there was a funeral for 17 people whose remains had were found. She accompanied the funeral procession. She found a women’s group making clothing.

“Here were all of these women in a room who were formerly doctors, lawyers and bankers. Yugoslavia had one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Because it was communist they had a centralized education system. Everybody was a resource – women too,” she said.

She said the women didn’t suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, they had “post-traumatic growth.”

“These women were amazing. They came back even stronger. Those women are so resilient. Their goal was to reconcile with their Serb neighbors and go back and live in the community again,” Grier-Reynolds said.

On Oct. 20, she was honored by Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), a community peace education organization. In recognition of a lifetime of activism, Grier-Reynolds received one of the group’s Peacemaker Among Us awards.

Today’s world would benefit from having thousands of people who have qualities and character Rachael Grier-Reynolds, 66, has had all her life. Unfortunately, she’s a rare human being.

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