90-year-old's memoir filled with ageless lessons on race

Louie Favorite/Staff
(ENLARGE)

Eva Rutland, 90, pursued a part-time career as a writer while rearing four children and keeping house for her husband. She's the author of 25 books and continues to write despite being blind.
 

Louie Favorite/Staff
(ENLARGE)

Eva Rutland, a 1937 Spelman graduate, on campus Friday as she signs copies of her book, 'When We Were Colored.'
 

LOUIE FAVORITE/AJC
(ENLARGE)

Eva Rutland during her Spelman days, courtesy of her family.
 

Eva Rutland wrote her name in a careful scrawl on the first page of her memoir, "When We Were Colored: A Mother's Story," and included an endearment for her old friend Ruth Hill Thompson.

Rutland, who is blind, could be forgiven the poor penmanship.

When Thompson quickly checked the signature, as if to verify its authenticity, Rutland protested: "I can write my name!"

And a great deal more.

The 90-year-old graduate of Spelman College, who joined the 70th reunion of the class of 1937 (the most senior alumna to attend this year's graduation ceremonies), pursued a part-time career as a writer while rearing four children and keeping house for her career military husband.

A resident of Sacramento, Calif., she wrote most of her 25 books, mostly romance novels, after she lost her eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa.

At Spelman on Friday, as young ladies in mortarboards dashed through Manley Center, Rutland sat before a table stacked with books and talked about her latest work, a repackaging of her out-of-print memoir, first published in 1964. It tells a homespun story of life in pre-integration Atlanta, a mixture of domestic comedy spiked with the more dramatic challenges of raising children in a world where they will, occasionally, be hated for their color.

Many of the stories were collected from magazine articles Rutland wrote for Redbook, Woman's Day and Ladies' Home Journal.

In the course of the book, her brothers are attacked by a white gang, her daughter is told she can't play with a white neighbor's child, and real estate agents won't sell the Rutlands a house in Sacramento. Yet the story brims with an optimistic determination to return positive for negative.

That vibe still radiates from the smooth-skinned nonagenarian, who gave an interview in her Atlanta hotel room with her three daughters and a granddaughter hovering about.

"We need to recognize people as people and respect each other," Rutland said.

In the new book's introduction, she apologizes for the "cussing" by her late husband that she included in the original. She also asks forgiveness, in particular, for his uninhibited use of the "N" word. But the contemporary fixation on such terms, she said, is no indication of progress.

"We've gotten so picky about little things that don't make a difference," Rutland said. Deeds speak louder than words, agreed her daughter Patty-Jo, a lobbyist in San Francisco, who calls politically correct language "oral justice."

Hence the contrarian title of the book, which refers to a time in Rutland's youth when segregation was legal but when life was, in many ways, better.

Eva Rutland grew up in a house built by her grandfather, Isaac Westmoreland, a former slave, who became a prosperous shoemaker after the Civil War. He sent all of his nine surviving children to college.

Rutland's father, Sam Neal, became a pharmacist and had a practice around the corner from their house on Crumley Street in downtown Atlanta.

The extended family had one of the few telephones in the neighborhood. They lived on a double lot with a vegetable garden, a wide screened porch and a library full of books. Their neighbors included black and white families, their children went to private schools and their life was relatively comfortable.

This was the world that Rutland left behind when her husband, William Rutland, a civilian employee of the Air Force, moved his family to Ohio and then California.

Rutland wrote of that departure: "How beautiful it seemed — Atlanta, with its ermine-trimmed, diamond-studded velvety cloak of segregation. How beautiful it seemed as I turned my back upon it and headed West."

The integrated world of California wasn't a bed of roses, she writes.

After her husband died recently, Rutland, still a Sacramento resident, moved in with her daughter Ginger Rutland, though she has kept her own house across town. She is driven there every day, where she keeps the voice-synthesizer-equipped computer she uses for her writing projects. (Next in line is a book about being a grandmom.)

Ginger Rutland, an editorial writer for The Sacramento Bee newspaper, decided to push her mother to republish the memoir after reading sections of it to a rapt congregation at William Rutland's funeral. This spring, the daughter took a three-month leave of absence from her job to help her mother promote the self-published new version. (It can be found at www.evarutland.com.)

"I can do something I've wanted to do all along, which is market Mama," she said.

The book appears to strike a sympathetic chord. At Spelman, Michelle Staes, class of 1999, bought a copy and pointed out that though the book's story is more than 50 years old, "It is still relevant to me. It speaks volumes about issues in this country that it is still relevant."