A bullet through the kitchen window.
The parents of my good friend, Jan Perry, had purchased a plot of land in Woodmere, just outside of Cleveland. Well, they didn’t purchase it. They couldn’t because they were Black. Instead, they got a Black man who looked white to buy it. An uncle and cousins dug the foundation, laid the bricks, built the house.
Jan’s grandmother cleaned houses. Her uncle was lynched for “reckless eyeballing.” A great-aunt married a former slave; as he was already an elderly man, the family always spoke in hushed tones in his presence. Jan’s grandmother told her that they would never take her to the South because she wouldn’t know “how to act.” Then one day there was a bullet through the kitchen window.
Jan’s mother, a member of the segregated musicians union, played the organ at a roller rink; her father unloaded freight cars. Both emphasized the importance of education—pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps as we used to say. Jan’s father fought in the European theater during World War II, then went to college through the benefits provided by the G.I. Bill. He became a lawyer and practiced law with Louis and Carl Stokes. He and Jan’s mother became community activists.
Jan remembers going to meeting after meeting as a young girl, listening to adults talk about fair housing, voter registration, civil rights and every sort of community matter. Times changed: Her father was elected mayor of Woodmere, and her mother was later elected mayor as well. Louis Stokes served in Congress for thirty years. Carl Stokes became the first African-American mayor of a major American City, Cleveland. Jan proudly recalls that her mother wrote the grant application to provide covers for the open sewers in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Woodmere. Her parents, says Jan, “were the greatest influence on me because of their tenacity and their willingness to ferociously pursue the goals of achieving an education for themselves and their children and for the children of other families.”
Jan’s life took a new turn when she enrolled in a theology course in college that introduced her to Judaism. Saying that she was “always a spiritual person,” she found the principles and ethics of Judaism to be “fundamental to how we need to live, how to treat others, how to lead meaningful lives.” It was, she says, “consistent with everything my parents had taught me.” She says she did a lot of reading and thinking and it became clear that becoming a Jew-by-Choice was “the proper path” for her. She still studies Torah once a week with a women’s group. Summing up her Jewish identity, “It’s who I am,” she says.
She still studies Torah once a week with a women’s group. Summing up her Jewish identity, “It’s who I am,” she says.
It’s hardly surprising with this background that Jan eventually entered politics, serving on the Los Angeles City Council for twelve years representing Downtown, Skid Row, South Los Angeles, and Little Tokyo, and followed this with a five-year stint as General Manager of the Los Angeles Economic and Workforce Development Department. Like her parents, she says, “building better lives” was on her agenda. She worked with nonprofit housing developers to create thousands of units of affordable housing; was an early advocate and board member for the Exposition Line; created green spaces and jobs in challenged neighborhoods; worked to improve health outcomes by limiting fast food restaurants in her district; and even created two wetlands—including one that the City Council later named the Jan Perry Wetlands—to cool the community in the summer and to be an inviting space year-around. For each project she made sure that there was a community-benefits requirement to train and hire people from zip codes with lower median incomes.
But “most importantly,” Jan says, she learned “to work constructively” with people with whom she disagreed, “to listen to them, and to fashion solutions with them whenever possible.” “But,” she adds, “you can’t be stupid.” Drawing an analogy between the neighborhood she once lived in and the neighborhood in which Israel lives, she says people can learn to live together, but it’s the actions of those who have been hostile, not words, that are important.
Jan is my friend and is running for Congress in California’s 37th Congressional District. I hope she wins.
Greg Smith is president of Westwood Kehilla Synagogue, with which Jan Perry is affiliated.