Couple credit love and respect as keys to any strong marriage

Tuesday, March 08, 2005By Linda S. Mah 388-8546

Two things caught Jim Houston's eye when he first spied his future wife -- and neither was her race.

"She had this long hair down to the middle of her back, and this miniskirt up to the middle of her thighs. Being an airman at the time, those things caught my attention," he says with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes.

Marianne Houston, now 69, rolls her eyes, laughs and says, "Oh Jim, stop it."

But that miniskirt made an impression because when they parted, Jim told a friend, "Did you see that girl I was talking to? I'm going to marry her."

They married in 1968 and now live in Portage, and although their life has been happy and adventurous, it also has captured a certain period in American culture when interracial marriage went from illegal to accepted.

Fearing white people

Jim Houston, 61, was born in Alabama and spent the first nine years of his life in a place called the Danzy Settlement, which was named after his mother's family and consisted mostly of family members. There was no running water, no electricity.

"Our house was a couple of steps above a shack," he says. "You could lay in bed at night and see the stars outside through the walls."

Although he'd see white people in the nearby town where his family sold things in the market, he had no interactions with them.

"It was communicated to me that you feared them," he says. There were family stories that underlined the danger: His paternal grandfather was once taken out to the forest and whipped by a group of white men. He spent several years in the hospital recovering from the beating.

In 1953, his family moved to Detroit, where his father sought work and a better life for his children. There, Jim was thrown into an interracial community for the first time.

"I remember being in school and looking all around," he says. "I watched my teachers and my classmates carefully."

Eventually, his family moved to Dowagiac, where he became a standout jazz musician and all-around athlete.

As he got older, he found it easy to associate with people of different races. Even though his parents had instilled in him a certain fear of whites for his own survival, "they also taught us to respect each person as an individual. I've carried that forth with me," he says.

Convent to coffeehouse

Marianne Houston grew up in Sterling, a rural community in northern Illinois, where her father went to work in the steel mill after losing his business in the Great Depression.

The community was largely German and Irish. Being a mix of Polish, German and French, she says, made her feel like an outsider.

There was only one black family in town, but her family helped her develop an acceptance of other races, she says. She distinctly recalls one time riding in the back seat of her father's car while he drove around town with a business acquaintance.

"Mr. Love started talking about 'n-----s,'" she says. Her father argued with the man and when Mr. Love said, 'What would you do if your daughter brought home a n----r and wanted to marry him?' My father said, 'Well, I guess I'd ask if she loved him.'"

She attended a Catholic school run by the Sisters of Loretto. When she graduated from high school, she got engaged, but one morning she knew that was not what she was meant to do. She broke off her engagement and joined the Loretto convent.

As a nun, Marianne taught in urban schools in St. Louis, studied in Europe, and "found (her) bliss in teaching."

She was on her way to earning her doctorate at Columbia University in New York when she had another revelation: "I decided I needed to be married and start a family."

She left the convent on Aug. 1, 1966. That was the same day Jim Houston, who had dropped out of Western Michigan University because of financial problems and found himself facing being drafted into the Army, decided instead to enlist in the U.S. Air Force.

And that's how they both ended up in Madison, Wis., at a Lutheran-run coffeehouse, where he would sometimes sing in his off-hours and she would sometimes stop in wearing a miniskirt.

A mother's worries

She moved to Madison because she had a sister living there, and the Air Force sent him to Wisconsin to have some dental work done.

"I thought he was a nice man and I thought he was older than he was," Marianne says of their first meeting. "He was 23 going on 30 and I was 30 going on 19."

After a year of dating, they decided to marry in 1968. Although Madison was a liberal community, friends and acquaintances tried to dissuade them. But, of all their parents and siblings, it was only Marianne's mother who had trouble with the impending union.

"I think my mother was shocked," Marianne says. "I'm sure she thought, 'First she comes out of the convent wearing a miniskirt and now she's going to marry a black man.'"

Her mother was worried what the neighbors might think and worried about the prejudice their children might face, so she took her worries to her pastor and admitted her discomfort to him, Marianne recounts.

"Monsignor Greene said, 'Well, Loretta, the only question is, does she love him?'

"'Apparently so,' my mother answered.

"'Then I don't think there's anything else to say,' he said."

That was all her mother needed. She told her daughter, "If you and Jim choose to marry, we will accept him as a son." Her parents fully embraced Jim and later in their life considered him one of their greatest supports, Marianne says.

Sometimes people fear how their families will react to an interracial relationship, Jim says. It's understandable that parents might at first have difficulty with such partnering, but most parents are able to overcome those feelings, he says.

"Most parents, no matter how accepting they are, want their children to marry someone like themselves, in their own image," he says. "But the second feeling they have is they want their children to be happy."

Faced with racism

Days after they married, they drove across country to Tacoma, Wash., where he was to be stationed. They really didn't worry about racism affecting their life together.

Driving across the rural countryside, for example, he worried less about possible prejudice they might encounter on the road than about trying to keep their faulty muffler attached to the car.

Still, when they arrived in Tacoma, they were confronted with a landlord who wouldn't rent to them because Jim was black.

"I really thought the world was different," Marianne says, confessing she was perhaps naive. "I thought people were more like me."

Jim, however, was not surprised by the landlord's decision. Even when he was a student at WMU, he says, he had landlords tell him, "Sorry, we don't rent to coloreds."

"I felt he didn't want to talk about it," Marianne says, "that he felt humiliated and embarrassed by the situation."

But Jim says, "I was hurt for you. I was so accustomed to it, it was just another incident for me to deal with."

Then there was their first trip to Alabama as a married couple, when to Marianne's surprise, her new father-in-law told her not to worry about any encounters with rednecks.

"Don't worry, daughter, I've got my gun in the glove compartment," he said and gave the dashboard a pat, Marianne Houston says with a laugh as she recalls her shock.

But the couple agree that through the years they have not faced much prejudice as an interracial couple. They've learned that they get better hotel rooms if she goes in to get the key, and on occasion when their children were young, they met people who had issues with their family.

"But you live beyond it, by loving each other, loving your kids and loving your work," Marianne says.

Light and shadows

The couple moved to the Kalamazoo area in 1970 so Jim could complete his bachelor's degree at WMU -- he completed his doctorate two years ago. He was an accountant with Kellogg and First of America Bank. She taught for many years in Vicksburg and now works as an educational consultant.

They raised two "remarkable" sons, says Marianne. James, 35, is a professor and basketball coach at a university in Pennsylvania, and Ben, 31, does computer work for a Portage tool-and-die maker.

Some of the old friends who predicted a dire future for their relationship are no longer married themselves, while the Houstons have shared 37 years together. But there is no secret to why their marriage has endured, Jim says.

"The two main reasons are, we love and respect each other and we've learned to live with each other's faults," he says.

Marianne agrees. "You learn within a marriage to dance with the light and the shadows. Just as within individuals there is a constant dance of light and shadow, so it is in a marriage. You look at and choose to embrace the light and you deal with the shadows and are willing to deal with your own shadows -- whether your marriage is interracial or not."

© 2005 Kalamazoo. Used with permission

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