Columnist: Sibling rivalry can also be a matter of color

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 14, 2015

By Glenn Dowell

Contributing columnist

Several years ago I wrote a column about sibling rivalry between two sisters.

One sister was fair-complexion, the other sister was very dark-skinned. These two sisters were born nearly 90 years ago.

Their parents during this country’s period of segregation owned Atlanta’s only hospital that catered exclusively to black patients. By today’s definition they would have been considered one of the wealthiest black families of that period.

They both attended a famous woman’s college also located in Atlanta. I entered their lives by accident — and maybe even fate. I was working in the first administration of the late Maynard Holbrook Jackson, the city’s precedent-making mayor of color.

I had to visit the sisters’ family home to coordinate arrangements for two Chinese diplomats to travel to Plains, Georgia, home of then-president Jimmy Carter. The two diplomats were a part of an international visitors’ program and were assigned to stay temporarily with the sisters to learn firsthand about American culture. I had never been in the area where the sisters live, but when I arrived at their address I was surprised by what I discovered.

A long winding driveway opened up to twin homes that would have been the pride of any luxurious community. Only one of the homes was occupied.

In that I knew the mayor’s aunt quite well, I quickly solicited her assistance in persuading the sisters to lease me the vacant home. They agreed. Both homes were fully furnished. The home that was leased to me was appointed in an eclectic mix of traditional and Chinese decor. These sisters were world travelers and had purchased items from trips to various countries.

I learned a lot about these two sisters. Even though they lived in an era where skin color defined social relations between the races, their families chose to have minimal contact with whites and to essentially pretend that they did not exist.

Their family did not suffer an inferiority complex vis-à-vis whites. In this family women taught them to believe that they were as good or even better than some folk, and this included whites.

These two sisters would grow up to become spinsters, believing also, that no man was good enough for them to marry. In their household, visitors such as Alex Haley, author of Roots; Mayor Jackson; wife of the city’s African-American baseball legend and many more prominent figures had the opportunity to party and to attend social functions in their home.

These sisters, however, concealed a deep resentment and dislike for each other that, from my perspective, they carried to their graves. You see, the fair-complexion sister was perceived by the dark-skin sister as receiving special treatment during their youth from the other relatives.

After college, the fair-complexion sister had to go through a radical mastectomy. Because of this medical procedure she decided to stay in Atlanta and help run the family business. The other sister left and continued to travel around the country and in the process secured a degree from Harvard University and even a doctoral degree from another prestigious school. The dark-skin sister eventually settled in New York and went home to visit only during the holidays.

As integration occurred, the family closed their hospital because blacks now had the opportunity to go to any medical facility of their choice. This resulted in the family selling off quite a lot of their property holdings.

Trouble, however, was right around the corner. The fair-complexion sister, as a result of living in Atlanta, conducted most of the business transactions involving the sale of the properties.

I met the sisters when they were in their middle 60s. Most of the properties had already been sold. Because of the considerable fortune they amassed, sibling rivalry between the two took on a new and darker turn.

The dark-skin sister began to harangue her sister implying that she was inept and unable to manage the family’s money. This caused the fair-complexion sister to drink heavily after such confrontations. The final straw was when the dark-skin sister took her to court after manufacturing information and giving the impression to the court that she was an alcoholic and was mismanaging the family’s fortune.

The fair skin sister called me quite a lot during this period leading up to defending herself in court. You know what? God became the almighty arbiter and solved the problem. As the fair-skin sister prepared for bed one evening, she apparently fell dead right on the kitchen floor.

I was a pall bearer at the funeral.

As I looked out into the church during the funeral I focused my attention on the dark-skin sister and silently thought, these two sisters spent their entire lives despising each other.

The surviving sister now had the remaining property that had not been sold and all the family’s money. I pondered, what would she do now that the sister she hated was dead? She discovered immediately that money truly does not buy happiness or good health. You see, the feud she had with her sister kept her alive. Her health immediately began to deteriorate and just a few years after the fair-skin sister died, she too, passed with a lot of money for someone else to enjoy.

This was the end of their story. Are you at odds with a family member? Would it truly hurt you to extend a hand of reconciliation? Do it today.

Glenn Dowell is an author and LaGrange native who currently lives in Jonesboro. He may be reached at