In the New York Times magazine’s annual “The Lives They Lived” feature, 2011 Anisfield-Wolf winner Isabel Wilkerson explores the lives of men and women who were named “the first” in her essay, A First Time For Everything:
Eugene King was the first African-American milk-delivery man in the Gary, Ind., area. Eddie Koger was the first black bus driver in the state of South Carolina. Camillus Wilson was the first African-American meter reader for the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company. Nancy Hodge-Snyder was said to have “had the distinction of being the first black registered nurse in Kalamazoo.”
I scan the list, a spreadsheet of names and obituary excerpts, and cannot stop reading. How mundane the positions were, how modest the dreams had been. Added together, they somehow bear witness to how far the country has come and how it got to where it is. They speak to how many individual decisions had to be made, how many chances taken, the anxiety and second-guessing at the precise instant that each of these people was hired for whatever humble or lofty position they sought.