When you meet a mentally sharp person closer to 100 than to 90, you’re apt to ask a lot of questions, especially if that nonagenarian is a black American woman who lived through “segregation, Jim Crow, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Civil Rights movement and the second wave of feminism,” and every significant piece of history since. Author and editor Linda Wisniewski recognized a living treasure when she met Laura Mitchell Keene at a women’s writing group in Warrington, PA. Wisniewski suggested recording Keene’s story, and her interviews are contained in the 40-page booklet titled A Woman of Worth, A Memoir.
More autobiography than memoir, Keene’s story covers an entire life from early childhood through marriage, secular work, and motherhood to the time of writing in 2015. The tone of Keene’s story reads like a conversation—sometimes connected, sometimes disjointed, as is often the case when speaking extemporaneously. One can visualize Wisniewski sitting across the kitchen table listening to Keene travel down memory lane, back door ajar, as they sip hot tea and munch on homemade lemon cookies.
Keene, born in 1923 in West Philadelphia, moved with her parents and four older siblings to the scenic shores of Wildwood, NJ. Religion played a major role in Keene’s family. She says, “Now my mother came from a long line of Episcopalians, members for generations in Philadelphia.… She found St. Simon’s by the Sea and there we were every Sunday.”
Keene’s elementary school was segregated, with separate classrooms for blacks and whites. At that time, she “had a best friend who was a white girl, and the friendship changed forever on the day that friend told Laura, “You should be opening this door for me.” If that was the first time Keene experienced racism, neither Keene nor Wisniewski elaborated, which was disappointing. What were the thoughts of a little black girl dealing with the complex issue of racism for the first time?
Wisniewski surmised that racism clearly had affected Keene’s life: “Skin color was an issue early on, even among blacks. Those of lighter hue looked down on those who were dark. Laura says she understood this. ‘They were trying to get ahead any way they knew how.'” Keene also discussed how her husband Paul experienced racism when applying for a prestigious teaching position at Penn State. It’s notable that Keene remains unjudgmental about these occurrences, quietly accepting them as a fact in life. She says, “It was a time that was difficult for everybody. All we wanted was the law to change, so people could be themselves.”
Still a child, Keene was reading to her ill mother one day when her mother suddenly died. Keene relates this experience matter-of-factly, with no emotion. She was then sent to live with two loving aunts in West Philadelphia. She grew up and eventually studied nursing at Howard University in Washington, DC.
Keene’s reflection deals extensively with the loving relationship with her husband of 66 years, Paul Keene, an artist famous for depictions of American black urban life. The couple lived in Haiti and France for several years, where Paul painted and studied art. Paul’s work was so highly regarded that he showed with Pablo Picasso, and the Keenes paid $10 for a signed Picasso poster.
Keene accomplished many things in her long life: she became a librarian, a nurse, and a school teacher, and traveled extensively with her husband. She passed away on January 6, 2022 at 98. While her memoir is small in size, her story itself is large on the changing landscape of American history. It is this reviewer’s wish that Wisniewski had discovered Keene sooner and pressed her for more stories; it would have been an even more significant legacy.