Feature story: A romance in black and white

Palo Alto couple speaks 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 spoke about their interracial marriage and their life. The talk took place at Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield Road, and was 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.

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Like this comment
Posted by Cathy Latterell
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 2, 2012 at 11:36 am

What a wonderful story of two remarkable and wonderful friends. Henry and Rochelle many
more years together and you should write a book!

Cathy L

Like this comment
Posted by AMRWR
a resident of another community
on Mar 2, 2012 at 1:25 pm

I commend this couple on 52 years together and their capacity for forgiveness of others mistakes.

Like this comment
Posted by pa resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 2, 2012 at 1:54 pm

What a gorgeous couple they are. Interesting that people's prejudices about race are that much stronger than their prejudices about looks.

Things have gotten better but they aren't uniformly better everywhere. I hope Palo Alto remains one of the better places.

When I was growing up, my parents were the only interracial couple we knew. I wonder how much they shielded us from; what we knew about was enough. Henry's sense of humor reminds me of my dad's.

Thanks for sharing your story!

Like this comment
Posted by congratulations!
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 3, 2012 at 12:05 am

Happily married for 52 years is a great accomplishment.

I'm glad that they persevered despite all the obstacles that society threw in their way.

Like this comment
Posted by Congratulations on 52 years!
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 4, 2012 at 8:28 pm

I am truly astounded by what the Mr. and Mrs. Ford went through. If I saw them walking down the street, the fact that they are an interracial couple would not have crossed my mind. How far we've come!

Wishing Mr. and Mrs. Ford continued happiness!

Like this comment
Posted by anciana
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 5, 2012 at 10:48 am

Yes, what a fascinating story! I knew about part of it because I bought a sculpture from Rochelle many years ago, and she and Henry came on the day of installation to be sure it was correctly placed, and afterwards, we enjoyed a glass of wine together on my patio. They are truly wonderful people.

Like this comment
Posted by Debbie Ford-Scriba
a resident of another community
on Mar 5, 2012 at 11:06 am

Love this story!

Like this comment
Posted by Another neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 5, 2012 at 11:20 am

Let's never lose sight of the fact that there is still a lot of racism in this world, including all the "liberal" cities as well. Too many times people are discounted because of their race, creed, sex or age. I applaud the Fords for their wonderful, generous nature and the way they've lived their lives. What an excellent example for all children to know about. Rochelle, please write a children's book and sketch some images. It is needed!

Like this comment
Posted by Sue
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 5, 2012 at 11:30 am

We are so lucky to have such gracious and talented people share their life story!

Like this comment
Posted by Elizabeth
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 5, 2012 at 11:34 am

Thank you for sharing your story and thank you for having the courage of your convictions. Love trumps all and Palo Alto is a better place for your residency.

All the best to your very last breaths!

Like this comment
Posted by Sally
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 5, 2012 at 12:55 pm

You two are an inspirational example of the rewards of choosing one's own life based on one's own values and overcoming societal impediments with fortitude and grace. Thanks for sharing your story.

Like this comment
Posted by Paul Parker
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 11, 2012 at 3:17 am

I had the pleasure of meeting the Fords back in 1998 while installing cable at their home in Palo Alto. I got to talking football with Henry and we really hit it off. Soon, I met Rochelle as well and I have to say that they were always so very pleasant,warm, and welcoming to me. Henry even helped me to acquire tickets to a Green Bay Packers vs. 49ers in Wisconson when I was unable to track down tickets myself. I never knew that they went thru so many trials and tribulations. Over the years I lost touch with the Fords but next time I am in the Bay Area I think that I just might find myself taking a drive down their street and stop by to say hello to them.

Like this comment
Posted by Dale
a resident of another community
on Sep 20, 2015 at 5:29 pm

God bless this wise and special couple.

Like this comment
Posted by Schmedly
a resident of another community
on May 29, 2016 at 7:04 pm

The Fords are amazing people. Full of Love, humor, wisdom, tenacity and zeal for life. I was a good friend of their youngest son when I was in college, and spent much time with the family. The Palo Alto community is fortunate to have them!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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