This lesson is from Anita Bogan a whirlwind of a woman who captured many of life’s joys and was still active until just before she passed away this year at the age of 106.
As an African-American woman she didn’t allow bigotry, segregation, the Great Depression or the many problems we all face to hold her down. She made her life what she wanted it to be.
How? With a lesson she is going to share with us.
Born and raised in deeply segregated Louisiana, Anita’s mother died when Anita was a little girl and her father, a Methodist Minister, raised her. Others in his congregation got involved as well, so that she had a large extended family and the influence of women to love and guide her.
To have a better life, in 1918 one of those families moved to Los Angeles. Anita was very close to her father and in her best interest he encouraged her to go with them. But when they arrived, they saw Los Angeles had its own bigotry and treated blacks as second class citizens.
In Los Angeles, most African-Americans lived in segregated areas, attended segregated schools and were unwelcome in most restaurants and hotels except as janitorial staff. Other than menial work, there were few job opportunities available to them.
But with a positive attitude, Anita didn’t let this stop her as she worked the jobs she could get and she learned to create businesses. During the Great Depression, when many people of every color were out of work, Anita built a very successful business.
At that time, railroads were the major form of long distance transportation and black people held the lowest level of railroad jobs, often as porters carrying luggage. Trains arrived at all hours but most taxi cabs wouldn’t pickup African-Americans.
Anita saw the opportunity to build a profitable business transporting these unwanted people from the railroad stations to the hotels that would accept them and back. She applied to the regulatory agency for a chauffeur’s license but her application stalled indefinitely.
It was hurtful and frustrating but rather than get upset, Anita would dress up nicely, smile and would warmly call on the people holding up her application. After persisting for several months, she got the license and with her friend and cousin Cleo Pierce, built a successful business they operated until the early 1960’s.
But being black, there was often a new challenge. In the early days of the business, after working long hours, one night Anita and Cleo went into a very popular Chinese restaurant for dinner.
“The Maitre D met us at the door,” said Cleo. “And he walked us to the kitchen.” This was typical of the time. Restaurants that would accept African-Americans would usually hide them from view. Anita said, ‘Oh no. I pay my money. I can sit in the dining room.’
“He went and got the owner. When the owner saw it was Anita, he said ‘No, No, No! She will sit in the dining room,’ and we did.” This was how life was for African-Americans before the Civil Rights movement. And very likely some of the other diners were offended by their presence.
By the early 1960’s, airplanes had largely replaced trains in transporting passengers and the Civil Rights movement was taking hold, pressuring taxi-cabs to pickup African-Americans. This would bring Anita’s transportation business to an end.
This was fine for over the years Anita had built another successful business. Flowers in all of their colors and scents had captured her heart and she wanted to share their beauty with others. In the early years as her transportation business thrived she studied floral design at Los Angeles City College and graduated from a floral design school.
Then to surround herself with beautiful flowers as well as to make money, Anita opened a flower shop in South Central Los Angeles and she operated a wedding chapel from the lavish gardens of her home.
For many years, Anita catered to the black Hollywood celebrities such a Nat King Cole and Lena Horne, Mayor Tom Bradley, Count Basie, Roy Campanella and others, but she also catered to large numbers of people from inner-city Los Angeles, where her warmth and charm made them feel respected and welcome.
“She was very intelligent and polished,” said Cleo, who worked with her in the floral business as well. “She would never raise her voice.”
“One day a lady called the flower shop and said in a loud voice, ‘Is this a nigger shop?’ This lady said that three times! Each time Anita smiled and calmly said, ‘May I help you, this is Anita. I’ll be glad to help you, just tell me what you want.’
“After three times, this white woman got embarrassed because of the courtesy and grace Anita conducted herself with. Anita never lost her cool and kept a smile in her voice and on her face.”
It turned out… “This was a black family that had ordered these flowers from a white florist. That florist called the nearest shop to the function, and that function was a funeral service. The family later wrote us the most beautiful letter to say how fresh and lovely the flowers were and we were deeply touched by their letter.
“But after that, among ourselves we sometimes joked, ‘Is this a nigger shop?’ “
In other words, from all the tough breaks life had dealt them for being black, they found humor in what was otherwise a painful, degrading comment. And all these years later, Cleo laughed aloud warmly as she cordially told this story.
Unlike Anita, how many of us would have lost our temper from that insult and slammed the phone down. Yet Anita remained calm and courteous. She smiled, took the order and an appreciative black family got the benefit of her gorgeous flowers at a delicate time in their lives, never knowing that insult occurred.
And in responding so respectfully, Anita caused that bigoted woman to think about what she had said and about her perspective of black people.
Beyond that, Anita didn’t fret over what had happened. She let it go. And throughout her life this was crucial to her happiness and it is in our lives as well. And that is one of life’s greatest lessons.
If we want to be happy, we won’t find joy in reliving unpleasant circumstances for it will only cause us stress. Anita didn’t harbor grudges. She kept a positive state of mind, smiled and made her life what she wanted it to be. So can each of us.