A romance in black and white
Palo Alto couple to speak about their 52-year interracial marriage
Eighty-year-old Henry Ford sat in the dining room of his Palo Alto home and recalled the day he met Rochelle, his wife of 52 years. He was on a bus traveling to a high school football camp for the first time, leaving his home on gritty Orbin Street in Pittsburgh, Penn., for the white enclave of Ligonier, 35 miles north.
"I saw this cute colored girl, and I told the bus driver to stop," he said. Ford, the team's African-American co-captain, went to speak to the beautiful girl.
"I said, 'Oops, sorry,'" he recalled.
"Sorry for what?" Rochelle responded.
"I thought you were colored," he said.
On Sunday, March 4, at 2 p.m. the Fords will speak about their interracial marriage and their life. The talk will take place at Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield Road, and is hosted by the Palo Alto Historical Association.
Theirs is a story of triumph amid some of the most searing racism of the past half-century. In the first decade of their courtship, they kept their romance a secret. It was a time when black men could be lynched in some parts of the country for looking at a white girl, and white women could be ostracized for dating or marrying a black man.
Throughout their marriage, they've experienced being fired from work, alienation and burning crosses as a result of their relationship.
Even in Palo Alto, 34 years after they moved in, racism has intruded into their lives, they said.
But there is a strong measure of satisfaction in knowing they have thrived. The Fords became prosperous and successful business people; and they remain a close couple. They have learned to take the painful and thoughtless comments of others with measured humor.
"At times we were so busy fighting the world we didn't have time to fight each other," Rochelle said at the couple's festively decorated home Tuesday.
The Fords' romance started out tentatively. After that initial meeting, they saw each other when Henry came to town for other football camps or games. But it would be 4 1/2 years before they would date, Rochelle said.
Their lives couldn't have started out more differently.
Henry grew up poor and abandoned by his father. He lived on a dirt road with his mother and three sisters, sharing a home with another family of 15. The house was rat-infested and had a dirt cellar. But Henry refused to allow circumstances to interfere with his self-esteem and his plans.
"When I looked in the mirror when I was 19 years old, I told myself that I was going to be black the rest of my life and I was going to enjoy being me — and I do," he said.
Football became his ticket out of the ghetto, he said. At the University of Pittsburgh, "Model T," as Henry was known, became the first black quarterback at a white university. He also became the first black male to enter the School of Business, he said.
Rochelle grew up in a small, upper-middle-class white town. Ligonier had a pedigree dating to the 1760s.
"I was Miss Everything you were supposed to be — May queen ... and head majorette — everything but myself," she said.
She eventually transferred from Allegheny College to the University of Pittsburgh. The couple began to see each other secretly in 1950.
Henry had graduated by this time, but he could not find a job in business. He signed a contract with the Cleveland Browns and eventually went to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1956.
But in 1958 Steeler officials ordered him to stop dating a white girl, he said. Henry said he had two lives: one professional and one personal, and the two were separate. The Steelers soon fired him.
"I thought his world was coming to an end. No one called me," he recalled.
He moved to Arizona and played quarterback in a sandlot league with other ex-professional ball players. He stayed for two years, but Rochelle said, "If you don't come home, I'll marry someone else."
The Fords married in 1960, more than 10 years after they began dating. Interracial marriage wasn't legal in many parts of the United States. The Supreme Court made it legal in 1967, Rochelle said.
When they married, the white school principal where Rochelle worked as a teacher asked Rochelle's mother: "How are you going to feel about having little black children?" she recalled.
Henry got a job in business working for Acme Markets grocery chain.
"I was the Jackie Robinson of the grocery business," he said, referring to baseball's first black Major League player.
Rochelle was teaching in schools in Pittsburgh ghettos. The district wanted her to teach wealthy white kids, she said.
"But I wanted to teach where I could make a difference," she said.
Housing issues dogged the couple in the decades that followed.
The Fords were shown and in some cases unknowingly purchased "black homes," which were designated by Realtors. In Levittown, Penn., where they purchased a home, there were riots and burning crosses in front yards and bloodshed when black families moved in, Henry said.
The Fords came to Palo Alto in 1977, eventually buying Coca Cola's vending operations from Sonoma to Santa Cruz. More business purchases and sales were to follow.
By this time they were financially comfortable and could afford a better home.
Rochelle had seen the Professorville house in real estate listings, but a Realtor took the couple to East Palo Alto and other cities, where once again they were shown "black houses," she said. When they purchased the Professorville home with the aid of another agent, two big vans brought their furnishings. A neighbor was soon designated to investigate the couple, knocking on their door.
"How many people are going to live here?" she asked, according to Rochelle.
Henry, who was tired and a little exasperated, said there would be 11.
"I knew it!" the woman said.
The Fords' two sons entered Palo Alto schools when integration with East Palo Alto had just begun. The boys were immediately placed in the lowest reading group along with other black children, Rochelle said. Her sons had to find the appropriate moment to show their teachers they could really read, she said.
But the Fords are not bitter. In their 34 years in Palo Alto, they have had many wonderful experiences, they said. Since the couple married, American acceptance of interracial marriage has improved. According to a Feb. 16 study by the Pew Research Center, 8.4 percent of all marriages in 2010 are interracial, up from 3.2 percent in 1980. And 15 percent of all marriages that took place in 2010 were interracial.
In recent years Rochelle has turned to metal sculpting, fulfilling a longtime dream to be an artist. The Fords' home is filled with her whimsical sculptures — Rochelle has made about 2,000 from found objects and sheet metal. A majestic oak canopies their front yard amid the sculptures and immaculately manicured plantings.
Henry does the yard work. But even in their front yard, the old stereotypes still seep in.
Assuming he is the family's hired gardener, a woman asked Henry how much he charges for his work.
"I don't charge anything. I just sleep with the lady of the house," he said.
WATCH THE VIDEO
A video excerpt from Sue Dremann's interview with Henry and Rochelle Ford is posted on Palo Alto Online.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at email@example.com.